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Letter from William A. Roebuck to Willis H. Ropes, 1938

Date: 1938

Type: Letter

Categories: , ,


Salem’s popularity as a tourist destination predates the city’s present rise as the Halloween capital of the world. In this letter, a friend suggests Salem sites to visit, with the focus being on Nathaniel Hawthorne. The writer specifically mentions Hawthorne’s birthplace, and wishes that the house be preserved by a historical society.


“Letter sent from William A. Roebuck to Willis H. Ropes”
Transcription by Shelby Spaulding

Carpinteria, California, July 18, 1938

Mr. Willis H. Ropes:

If a stranger wished to see Salem’s old historical sights,
on his own hook, without a guide, I suppose the best way to do
would be to take along a “Visitors Guide,” start from Washington
St. and follow the red line shown on the plat, either east on
Charter St., or west on Norman, coming back to the same start,
either way – an interesting trip. If the neighborhood on Union
and Herbert Streets, between Charter and Essex, is clean and safe
I would deflect to take in that part. I don’t see why it was
left out on the route marked. Many thousands visit Salem
to see Hawthorne relics. The birthplace, and the Herbert Street
house surely come under that heading. I hope that both shall
soon be numbered among Essex Institute properties. Neighborhood
is not particularly what visitors go to see. Many a relic of a great
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man may be found in a poor neighborhood – sometimes the poorer
the better. For what Hawthorne did for Salem the price of the two
properties would be small. The Essex Institute, aided by the
town of Salem, County of Essex, District Congressman, W.P.A.,
and a few rich patrons could swing the deal. Both properties
could be restored, just as they were in Hawthorne’s youth; some
of the old Richard manning busses recovered and replaced in the old
shed, where they formerly stood, and the two old places made to
look just like they did, including the attic room in the Herbert St.
house “where Fame was won.”
Incidentally, if you happen to have read “Memoirs of Julian
Hawthorne,” lately published by Macmillan, doubtless you noted
his tribute, p. 30, 31 – (quoting): “From these sad and vibrant happen-
ings in the Mall Street house, let us consider the unpretentious
home of Grandmother Hawthorne, in which Nathaniel himself was born.
In Union Street, down by the Salem wharves, stood the original
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house, built generations before by a Hawthorne ancestor;* like many
of his predecessors, he owned and commanded ships trading with
the Indies, West and East; and Hawthorne wives from windows
of their bedrooms could see the vessels as they set forth for the other
side of the planet, and, after months, happily returned again.
“This little frame house, solidly constructed, still stands, though
the Hawthorne ships have vanished, and other people, I believe
Polish, occupy the premises. Twenty years ago, when I knocked
on the door, the woman who opened it did not invite me in; she
had no Hawthorne legends to unfold, and had, no doubt, been in-
commoded by previous inquirers. The enlightened plutocrats
who are prone to buy such relics and make museums of them
had not yet got around to Union Street.
“I viewed, from without, the corner windows that look westward,
behind which the young Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote the stories
afterward collected under the title, “Twice Told Tales.” Nearly ninety
*[author notes:] Built 1685 by Benjamin Pietman and came into possession of the
grandfather of Hawthorne in 1772 (Judge John Hathorne) – Visitor’s Guide
[Page Four]
years had passed since he sat at his desk up yonder, hoping for
some information from the world outside that what he wrote had
been read by somebody besides the proof-reader. The intimation
came at last; so that he was able to jot down in his journal, half
ironically: “In this dismal chamber fame was won!” A very faint
intimation, but after a few years more it was to swell to a chorus
greeting “The Scarlet Letter.” The “obscurest man of letters in America”
as he dubbed himself in the preface to “Twice Told Tales,” could now
be seen and recognized, not in his own country only, but round the
world. But by that time he had a wife and children, and fame
looked less important than of yore.” And quoting further
“As I said, I was not permitted to view that dismal chamber
in which fame was won, so I turned away from that ancestral
home; but, lest time or fire should destroy it, its portrait has
been painted by an artist of genius, who is also my wife, known
to the art world as Edith H. Garrigues. The portrait is faithful in
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every detail, and yet over the whole rests a beauty derived from
the sympathy of the painter’s soul, which, without belying the
commonplace, has a magic to lift it into the ideal.” (end quote).
The author refers to the Union Street house, in writing the above –
no mention of the Herbert Street house, where “fame was won.” (see
Visitor’s Guide – p. 57). A memory slip. Hawthorne never lived
in the Union Street house after he was four years old, although born
there – 1804. His widowed mother and family moved to her father’s
house on Hebert Street, in 1808, on learning the death of her husband,
(V. G. p. 56). I do not think Hawthorne “won fame” in the Herbert St.
house, but in the Mall Street house, after publication of “The Scarlet
Letter,” about 1850. As for the painting referred to in the above
quotation from “Memoirs,” I often wonder if it may be the same
illustrated on p. 57 in the Visitor’s Guide. The picture does not seem
to have been from a photograph, – rather from a painting. I thought
it might be the painting by Edith Garrigues Hawthorne, who edited
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the “Memoirs.” It is a fine picture, showing the upper windows
in N.W. corner, where Nathaniel Hawthorne was born, and some of the
Herbert St. house, east, as though the painter had set his (or her) easel
out in the middle of Union Street, a little distance north, to take in
the high picket fence, old gas lamppost, and the old clapboard roof.
A little more of Union Street, south, would have shown the wharf. The
picture evidently was before the age of photography, I take it.
I do not know who wrote the text of the Visitor’s Guide, but it is a
work of art itself. Perusal is almost equivalent to spending a day
in Salem. I feel myself to be quite a citizen, though I can’t vote there.
Hawthorne’s, Peabody’s, Story’s are the only unsecured houses
in Essex County of the eight left standing of the birthplaces of
eighteen from N.E. Mass, commemorated in the Hall of Fame. This
number represents two thirds of Massachusetts’ total contribution of
twenty seven of the Hall’s total sixty four American born. It seems
unimportant that, of the five unsecured and unprotected birthplaces in
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the State, (including Dr. William T.G. Morton’s at Charlton – a big red farm-
house, just off the main road – and Educator Mark Hopkins, at Stockbridge
in the west end of the State) – that, of these five unsecured properties,
three of them should have to be in Essex County, which has done such
good work in saving old houses and other belongings of her famous men and women of
past generations. I believe no county in the United States has excelled
Essex County in providing permanent care for such priceless herit-
ages of our forefathers and mothers, who pioneered our country. It
has, in all, been a glorious achievement on the part of Essex County
citizens – something to stand for all time as remembrance of what
we owe those great pioneers for our comforts and blessings today.

Very truly yours,
William A. Roebuck
Enclose Sunday’s program of our Community Church, and some Carpinteria