Sunday, January 31, 2010

A Less Ambitious Guest

This week’s topic will also be the focus of a paper I will be presenting this June at the biennial meeting of the Nathaniel Hawthorne Society, in Concord, Massachusetts - "A Mysterious Brilliancy: Nathaniel Hawthorne in White Mountains."

In the summer of 1863, Nathaniel Hawthorne was preparing to publish Our New Home, a collection of sketches and essays arising from the nearly seven years he and his family spent in England between 1853 and 1860. He began writing them in 1862 while residing at The Wayside, his home outside of Concord, Massachusetts, as his health began to fail. This was a period during which he suffered from melancholy because of the state of the American republic during the Civil War. Immediately prior to its publication, as the Union and Confederate forces were meeting on the killing fields outside of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Hawthorne dedicated Our Old Home to former President Franklin Pierce, an old classmate at Bowdoin College who had made it possible for Hawthorne and his family to live in England by appointing him American Consul in Liverpool. To add to Hawthorne’s general melancholy during the war, his good friend was generally despised in the north for his pro-slavery views and for the way he kowtowed to Southern interests prior to and during the war (Pierce is the only president who failed to be nominated by his party for a second term). But Hawthorne would never abandon his old friend, and he came to Concord, New Hampshire in December 1863 to attend the funeral of Pierce’s wife and to comfort him in his time of sorrow. The following spring, while Hawthorne was ill back home in Massachusetts and mourning the premature death of his publisher, it was Pierce who came to the aid of his friend and offered to take him back to New Hampshire where a change of scenery might do him good.

Nathaniel Hawthorne was already quite familiar with the White Mountains, having traveled there for the first time in 1832 on a trip that also included excursions into Vermont and upstate New York. He traveled by stage, staying in small rustic inns and conversing with fellow travelers and the local inhabitants. It was on these trips that he heard stories and tales and developed character sketches he would later employ in his own stories and vignettes, especially those set in the White Mountains of New Hampshire and found in Mosses from an Old Manse and The Dolliver Romance and Other Pieces: Tales and Sketches. These autobiographical vignettes - "Sketches from Memory" - include "The Notch of the White Mountains" and "Our Evening Party Among the Mountains," the latter which describes a September trip up the Saco River valley from western Maine in to the White Mountains of central New Hampshire - "those old crystal hills, whose mysterious brilliancy had gleamed upon our distant wanderings before we thought of visiting them." Entering the mountainous pass known today as Crawford Notch, the narrator notices evidence of rock slides on the surrounding slopes. Traveling by stage with others, he and his companions spend a congenial night together in a farmhouse owned by an Ethan Crawford and situated in the notch below Mount Washington. That evening they sat around the hearth and shared tales inspired by the surrounding landscapes. It was during such an excursion to Crawford Notch that Hawthorne visited the nearby site of the 1826 rockslide which killed seven members of a local family named Willey. They had fled their farmhouse in order to escape the slide only to be swept away, three of them without a trace. Ironically, the house remained untouched.

The autobiographical vignette "Sketches from Memory" inspired Hawthorne’s tale, "The Ambitious Guest," first published in New England Magazine in June 1835, and which appeared in the second volume of Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales, later that year. Here a lone traveler venturing through the Saco River valley in September on his way from Maine to Vermont arrives at a farmhouse situated in a windy and desolate White Mountain pass, "in the bleakest spot of all New England." He had intended to visit Ethan Crawford’s place but instead spent the night with the family inhabiting the farmhouse and sharing their time together before a warming hearth. The modest traveler admits that he has yet to accomplish anything noteworthy in his life yet he was convinced that he would achieve his destiny before he died - "Then, let Death come! I shall have built my monument." That evening the mountain slope above the house gave way "in a cataract of ruin" and the family and their guest were buried. "Their bodies were never found." The victims in this tale, much like the Willey family, became part of the legends of the White Mountains. "Poets have sung their fate." Sadly, the stranger was never to able realize his ambitions, to build his monument.

As planned, Hawthorne and Pierce met in Boston on May 11, 1864 and traveled together by train to Andover, Massachusetts, and eventually to Concord, NH. From there they set out by carriage on a trip up through Laconia and the Permigewasset River valley in the direction of Franconia Notch. On the evening of May 18, they reached Plymouth and took adjoining rooms at the Permigewasset House, a "neat, capacious, finely appointed, and splendidly kept" hostelry situated above the river and the adjacent railroad depot. It was an impressive structure, measuring almost 300 feet in length, four stories high, and able to accommodate over 300 guests. Hawthorne ate a light meal and retired for the evening. Pierce recalled him sleeping soundly, but early the next morning, before sunrise, he checked on Hawthorne only to discover that he had died quietly in his sleep. He was 59 year old.

I frequently drive up and down Interstate 93 through the intervales of the Permigewasset River valley on trips between Manchester and downstate New Hampshire and the White Mountains and the Great North Woods "above the notches." Plymouth, situated along the river at the southern end of the valley, has always been a place to pull off the highway to gas up or grab a cup of coffee. A couple of weeks ago I passed this way again during a snowstorm, and now knowing of Hawthorne’s brief although lamentable association with the area, I ventured farther into town to get a better sense of what is there. I was able to locate the site of the Permigewasset House, but no historical marker telling of Hawthorne’s passing. I did manage to cobble together some information that allowed me to get a better sense of the town’s history (Daniel Webster pleaded his first case at the local Grafton County courthouse and Robert Frost taught at the New Hampshire Normal School - now Plymouth State University - in 1911-1912), as well as the size and scale of the old hotel.

The Permigewasset House was built on the site of an old log structure known as the Webster Tavern back in the late 18th century, around the time the town was chartered in 1763. The tavern was improved and enlarged at the turn of the century to accommodate early travelers into the nearby White Mountains, and it passed from the Webster family to Denison Burnham in 1841. He built new additions and renamed it the Permigewasset House after the nearby river. The Boston & Concord Rail Road came to Plymouth in 1854 and eventually took over the ownership of the hotel. The train depot was constructed below with direct access to the hotel. The railroad brought visitors who dined and overnighted at the Permigewasset House before continuing into the mountains by carriage and stage (the railroad was extended in the direction of Franconia Notch by the 1880s). The hotel flourished for several years until it burned to the ground in 1862. The railroad rebuilt it immediately into the much larger and well appointed hotel that Hawthorne and Pierce visited in the spring of 1864. The second hotel burned to the ground in 1909 and was never rebuilt. Gone too is the large elm tree in front of the hotel known as the Hawthorne Elm. The railroad depot is still there, as is a small adjacent section of the old hotel which has been enlarged to serve as a senior citizen center.

Nathaniel Hawthorne had built his monument by the time he visited the White Mountains for the last time. Unlike his tale’s traveler who died in the rockslide before he as able to realize his destiny, Hawthorne had sealed his earthly immortality when he died in 1864. The "ambitious guest" perished, even his final resting place known only to God. Not so, Hawthorne. His body was returned to Concord, Massachusetts and interred among the white pines on Authors Ridge, in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, not far from old friends and neighbors like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Louisa May Alcott and Henry David Thoreau, who are once again his neighbors in eternity.

NEXT: The Deutschland Comes to Baltimore - Part 1

Sunday, January 24, 2010

It's Time to Bone the Duck

It was just a year ago I posted thoughts on my travels in the "saner precincts of New England" having escaped the inaugural festivities and general craziness back home in Washington, DC. I felt I needed a different landscape where I might sort out and come to terms with events in my life. These reflections produced not only some specific reactions to my travels across western Maine and northern New Hampshire, during which I was caught up in a short-lived yet rather intense snow storm, but also recollections of another inauguration, that of John F. Kennedy, in January 1961, and the participation of the great New England bard, Robert Frost. I discovered that northern New England is definitely a good place to clear one’s head and get a clearer perspective on things. Now I have just returned from several days back up in these very same saner precincts having gone there once again to bring my life into focus.

So where does "boning the duck" figure into all of this? Stick with me here. Last year I read the intensely popular book, Julie & Julia, by Julie Powell (later made into an equally entertaining motion picture staring Meryl Streep and Amy Adams), in which she describes how she came to cook all 524 recipes found in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking over the course of one year. The book and film document the trials and tribulations, victories and failures both small and large, encountered during the endeavor. Some days Ms. Powell cooked more than one recipe, getting the easy stuff out of the way and leaving the more demanding recipes until the end. Throughout her quest, Ms. Powell dreaded the thought that one day she would have to bone a duck if she were to successfully prepare the final recipe, pâte de canard en croûte [boned stuffed duck in a pastry crust]. Without giving away the denouement of either the book or the film, I will tell you that she does eventually bone the duck and all was well with the world. Perhaps if she had sought out the snowy woods of northern New England like I did, she would have been able to accomplish her goal without all this unnecessary dread.

With me so far? So last year I headed into the Great North Woods to get away from the politics and rhetoric that had overtaken my and other lives during those long months leading up to the elections and the inauguration of a new president. We were entering a new era and it was time to rethink who we are and what we hope to accomplish in the coming days, months, and years. A good road trip, especially one up north, helps me clear my head. So when the end game of the 2008 elections arrived in Washington, DC last January, old Steve literally headed for the hills . . . in this case, the White Mountains of New Hampshire. It was not that I necessarily dreaded what the future might bring; I simply wanted to think about my options.

This year, however, I returned to the Great White North for another reason. I needed the solitude and quiet of a snowy woods, the wind blowing across an ice-locked lake, to ponder a different kind of future, and an essentially new way of life. To come face-to-face with this decision, and it was a decision I faced with a certain degree of dread simply because of the unknown factors coming into play, I had to put aside all distractions and misgivings . . . to step up to the table once and for all, to grab the knife firmly in hand, and bone the damn duck.

The dreaded duck, in this instance, was the decision whether or not to retire. Without going into all the specific details, I will tell you that I have been at the same job for almost 32 years, since I left graduate school and stepped out into the real world in search of a career. It was not the career I originally planned for, but it has been one of the most enriching experiences of my life. How could it not be seeing that I have spent over half of my life at it? I have had only one real job in my life, only one employer, and most of the people with whom I have worked with have been my colleagues for many, many years. Beyond the important work we do, we have been there together for weddings, the birth of children, christenings and Bris Milahs, and, sadly, far too many funerals. We have shared victories and defeats, we have popped bottles of champagne and cried on each others' shoulders. I knew it would be a difficult umbilical to sever once the time came. And then there are the uncertainties of an unknown future. So I had to get away and walk the snowy trails and let the silence and the solitude bolster my courage to make the right decision.

Once home, I came to realize that the decision was not all that difficult. I had done what I had set out to do with my career, and there is still so much out there to see and do. I returned to my office, drank a strong cup of coffee, and then met with my bosses and told them that, after much soul searching, I had decided the time had come to move on and to entertain and explore a new and different destiny. It turns out it was really not that hard to bone the duck, as it were. The first cut is the most important, the hardest. Once completed, however, everything falls away from the bones as it should.

NEXT: A Less Ambitious Guest