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The Duston Family

From Margaret B. Moore’s The Salem World of Nathaniel Hawthorne. University of Missouri Press, pp. 20-22.

One of the more pertinent storytellers for our purposes is that one in "Main-Street." Here is oral tradition in action, albeit aided by cardboard cutouts and changing light. The teller is going to relate what he knows about the history of Salem by using the main street of the town as a unifying theme. As with all such transmission of stories, the hearer must accept what the teller gives him, and must then use his own imagination. In oral history there are always two participants: the teller and the listener. Each has his role to play. If either fails, the storytelling does not work. And there is the further part that luck or machinery or light or shadow can play, which is often not under anyone's control, except, of course, the writer's. Even if the other two presences do their work well, the event of oral interpretation can fail. In the case of "Main-Street," the wire breaks and the whole story cannot be told.

Yet the tale incorporates elements of oral tradition. The showman keeps using the word "specter," a highly charged word for Salemites. The Indian woman is represented by a "spectral image" (CE 11:51). When the main body of Puritans come to Massachusetts, the teller says, "You shall behold their life-like images,--their spectres, if you choose so to call them" (CE 11:60). Governor Winthrop is shown as "our spectral representative" (CE 11:61). The showman wants to display "the ghosts of his forefathers" (CE 11:49). He hides the show behind a "mysterious curtain" (CE 11:49). The past and present curiously intermingle. Wappacowet would have been surprised to see the East India Marine Society building on the very spot where the white man would be surprised to see the Indians dancing and shrieking in the woods (CE 11:51). In "The Village Uncle," Hawthorne has his narrator say, "How strangely the past is peeping over the shoulders of the present" (CE 9:311). And so it is here. To him that can see, time is many-layered too. There was someone here before. Unless we see them and see what they did, we shall be like the Puritan children who have become Americans (unlike their parents who were English), whose limitation is that "nothing impresses them except their own experience" (CE 11:72).

This is chimney-corner history told by someone who is very aware of the impact of the advent of the Quakers; or of the witchcraft summer; or of the severity of the Puritan faith, which did not travel well in time; or of the pathos of the Indian whom" Anglo-'Saxon energy" had displaced to the periphery of the settlers' lives. The narrator is not only knowledgeable but also may have a vested interest in these stories. Any Salemite, perhaps, would. Certainly someone like Hawthorne would. His original ancestor had fought the Indian; he had persecuted the Quaker; his son John had judged the witches. John Hathorne had actually died in 1717, the year of the great snow. In his sketch "Sir William Phips," Hawthorne had lamented that "mew of the personages of past times (except such as have gained renown in fire-side legends as well as in written history) are anything more than mere names to their successors. They seldom stand up in our imaginations like men" (CE 23:59). Hawthorne does indeed have what Caleb Foote acknowledged in his review of The Scarlet Letter: "a peculiar power of calling up from the past not only the personages and incidents" of history but of evoking "their spirit" as well. 22 That is the task of the storyteller. The task of the audience is not to sit too close, or the spell is broken.

22. [C. Foote], review of “Maine Street,” Salem Gazette, May 18, 1849.

Source: Moore, Margaret B. The Salem World of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1998.

Page citation: http://www.hawthorneinsalem.org/page/11891/

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