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


  1. My sister and I enjoyed your talk this evening at the Hawthorne House in Raymond, Maine. I was particularly interested to learn that Nathaniel Hawthorne was instumental in having dueling outlawed after his Bowdoin friend, Jonathan Cilley, bled to death after being shot in a duel. I'm glad you are now a member of the Hawthorne Association.