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A Gift Never Opened

November 2, 2020 Published By Archives

By Will Demick

If history museums are a window to the past, then their archives create the landscapes through the glass. Books, manuscripts and letters can lead one down a winding road tinged with the ages, peaked and nadired by the reckless hand. They contain the primary sources that give us insight into the people and places that we celebrate. This insight is illuminating, and can instill a sense of wonder in the careful archivist, long before they are used in exhibits.

Photo by Paige Besse/H7G.

On October 15th, The House of the Seven Gables completed an archive inventory. This project – funded by an NEH CARES grant – has enabled us to both better preserve our archives and understand their depth. It has prepared us for a professional archivist to create finding aids and formalize our methodology. The project has also given us an in-depth look into our collection. In nearly box of records we found surprises, ranging from footage of Turner Hall’s demolition, to copies of Henry Upton’s House of the Seven Gables sheet music – once thought lost.

Of all the chance discoveries, however, a small brown book most gripped my attention. It was a first edition copy of Hawthorne’s work. Having already cataloged numerous first editions I thought this particular volume, The Snow Image and Other Twice Told Tales, must just be another. Opening to the flyleaf, the book held an inscription in now-familiar handwriting: “Maria. L. Hawthorne, From the Author.”

Photo by Will Demick/H7G.

What I had in my hands was a first edition inscribed by Hawthorne himself. That makes the book stand out, but only a little. We have multiple first editions with Hawthorne’s mark on them, and at first, I didn’t think much of it. It was only after digging that the book became something far more potent.

This copy of The Snow Image had actually been reprinted. It was created a few months after the original publishing date, in the early months of 1852. Hawthorne asked his publishers to create this copy as a presentation piece to the aforementioned “Maria L. Hawthorne”: his younger sister. This certainly makes it a unique piece, but the story doesn’t end there.

Maria (or Louisa, as she commonly went by) has, sadly, been sidelined in many biographies. This is due more to our lack of information on her than any intent. What we know survives mostly in letters. Louisa seems to be the most sociable of the reclusive Hawthorne family, and is often described as mild-mannered. Hawthorne’s wife, Sophia Amelia Peabody, turned to Louisa as the only in-law she could genuinely connect with (Hawthorne’s mother and older sister were notoriously protective of Nathaniel). She also played a supporting role in Hawthorne’s life by keeping his laundry in check, offering advice, and knitting him a blue shawl when he left for his stint at Brook Farm.

In February of 1852 Hawthorne wrote to Louisa, asking her to visit. He mentioned the book- he’d rather give it to her in person than send it by post. That same month his Sophia reached out as well. Both wanted to see her, and for good reason. Over the past two years the Hawthorne family had moved twice: first from Salem to Lenox, and then from Lenox to West Newton. In that time, they had another daughter, and while Hawthorne was enjoying his most creative period in his career, he was far from financially independent. As they had in times past, the Hawthorne’s turned to Louisa for some stability.

Photo by Will Demick/H7G.

At the time Louisa was staying with relatives in upstate New York. She and her uncle John Dike decided to take the steamship Henry Clay down the Hudson from Albany to New York City, then onward to Boston. On July 28th, the ship began a race with another steamship. Races were a common enough occurrence in a time when a ship’s speed sold tickets. During the race, however, the Henry Clay erupted into flame. In the Hudson River’s worst boating disaster, Louisa, was killed. According to the papers, a broach was the only means of identifying her body.

The news reached Hawthorne shortly after, carried to him by another member of the Dike family. According to his son Julian, a grief-stricken Hawthorne left on a walk after receiving the news, and did not come back until late in the evening.

One can almost imagine him quietly putting The Snow Image in a desk drawer later that night. There it waited until carried by various hands into my own, as part of The House of the Seven Gables archives. It is a gift that never reached its intended.

On top of its value, the story behind this book refocuses Hawthorne’s narrative to the supporting roles around him. Nathaniel made an indelible imprint on history and the literary canon. Yet with such restlessness as was his, this work would not have been possible without the support of those around him, some of whom have been largely forgotten. This is a recurring theme throughout the histories of famous people: we forget that genius does not exist in a bubble.

Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.

As it is November, it’s a good time to consider the roles that our families play in our own lives. We are often misled into believing that we are the sole protagonist in our lives. I for one am guilty of this. But our works, however great they may be, do not stem from a single source, and we do not achieve them alone. Our families, friends, and loved ones who provide us support – whether that be in the form of a listening ear or a blue shawl – deserve a world of credit. The Louisa’s of the world need not be remembered by the impact of their deaths alone.

If you are interested in seeing the book along with its inscription, it is now available to view on our website at https://7gables.org/archive-category/work/. While you’re there, check out the rest of the new Archives page, and let us know what stirs you.

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