What Hawthorne ReadFrom the Collections of the Salem Athenaeum
A look at “Scarlet Letter” author Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1840 library card reveals that just before he wrote the American classic he checked out “Annals of Salem,” which cites the 1694 law that punished adulterers by forcing them to wear a cloth with a capital letter “A.”
“What Hawthorne Read, from the Collections of the Salem Athenaeum” opens Friday, March 16, with a reception from 5 to 7 p.m. at the Portsmouth Athenaeum, 9 Market Square.
“Elaine von Bruns has performed a masterful piece of historical detective work in combing the Salem Athenaeum’s circulation records to identify the hundreds of books checked out of the library by Hawthorne and then to reveal how these specific titles influenced Hawthorne’s own writings,” Portsmouth Athenaeum Keeper Tom Hardiman said. “It is an astounding bit of literary archeology.”
Von Bruns is the curator of the exhibit, which the Salem Athenaeum hosted in 2017.
The Portsmouth Athenaeum is augmenting the exhibit with titles from its own collection that Hawthorne used in his work. Hawthorne was among the many prominent writers and artists who were summer guests at the Appledore House, the Isles of Shoals hotel presided over by poet Celia Thaxter.
Between 1828 and 1855, Hawthorne took out hundreds of volumes from the Athenaeum in Salem, Mass., his hometown. They included books of history, poetry, fiction, philosophy, religion, science and travel, written in French, German and Spanish as well as in English.
“Some of what he gleaned from his reading appears, transformed, in his writing,” Von Bruns writes in the exhibit catalog. “Like the soap bubbles he describes in ‘The House of The Seven Gables,’ his work portrays life in ‘hues as bright as imagination.'”
The free exhibit in the Randall Gallery includes these titles:
— A volume on snakes in George Shaw’s “General Zoology of Systematic Natural History” (1802) is the book Hawthorne describes in his story, “Egotism, or the Bosom Serpent.” Hawthorne also wrote in “Septimius Felton,” of a bird-catching spider, which is illustrated in another volume on display.
— In 1831, Hawthorne read the beautifully illustrated “English Botany” (1790) by James Sowerby. Hawthorne wrote extensively about flowers, with particular admiration for the water lily.
— John Caspar Lavatar’s “Essays on Physiognomy” (1792) were read by Hawthorne in 1828. He explicitly refers to physiognomy in “The Gentle Boy,” first published in 1832.
— Benjamin Franklin’s “Experiments and Observation on Electricity” (1774) is displayed with Hawthorne’s anecdotes about Franklin.
The Randall Gallery is open Tuesdays through Saturdays, 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.