At some point over the weekend, perhaps when we were driving to Ipswich on Saturdary morning, I realized how close we were to Maine. I had just kind of forgotten about it. I had read Sarah Orne Jewett’s Country of the Pointed Firs right before we went on our 07 College Tour, a key foundation point in my Literary Boston interests. On that trip we got up on Sunday morning and went to Salem, and then drove to Brunswick, where we went to my professor friend’s freshman seminar on Jane Austen on Monday morning at Bowdoin. The class was in a nice room with a fireplace in Massachusetts Hall, one of the original buildings, where Longfellow, Hawthorne, and Franklin Pierce took courses. My subsequent studies have shown that SO Jewett’s beloved father Theodore, the model for her heroine’s mentor and surrogate father Dr. Leslie in A Country Doctor, was part of this exceedingly famous Bowdoin crew. I remembered looking at the map as we drove from Salem to Brunswick and seeing that Jewett’s home and base, her father’s home in South Berwick, was not too far off the main track, but we had passed it by. So I found myself driving up there now, on a sunny Monday morning, feeling a little better drinking coffee and having a thin but ostensible purpose.
Everything was small and quaint, and South Berwick was little more than a tiny collection of buildings and cross streets. It was a beautiful day, a wonderful time of year, and if this wasn’t gracious living on the scale of the large houses out on Cape Ann, it seemed like a simple version of the good life, a cheat of course because the spring breeze, abundant greenery, and blue skies are so hard-earned. But what do I know, coming from California? The Jewett house stands at what seems to be the very center of the village, such as it is, filling the tine of a fork in the country road. The house opens to the public in the summer, starting in June, so I had missed it by a couple of days–now I would have to come back some other time, but I knew where it was. I got out and walked around. Hawthorne died on a May trip to New Hampshire with Franklin Pierce in 1864, a year before SO Jewett graduated from Berwick Academy. Theodore Jewett died in 1878 and James T. Fields died in 1881. So Jewett started living together with Annie Fields the next year, after they took a trip to Europe together that was very similar to the one that JT Fields had taken his young bride Annie on shortly after their marriage in 1854, and JTF and AAF moved into 142 Charles Street when they returned to Boston. SO Jewett moved into Charles Street after she and Annie returned from their 1882 European trip, and she and Annie would move out to the Manchester house for the summer. And every year, in the Fall I believe, Jewett would return to her home here in South Berwick, enjoying regular extended stays on her native ground. I felt like I had been neglecting the SO Jewett side of the story in recent months, and I made a note to get back into it. It was unfortunate the house was closed and turned the visit into a brief glance, but the trip is short from Boston, and now that I know the distance I’ll go back.
I went back through Essex and checked in with movie folks and then headed over to Salem. I guess I should analyze my reasons for not rushing back to the Historical Society and spending more time reading the Annie Fields diary. Somehow I felt as if I had accomplished my basic goal by getting into the building and getting access to the diary, sitting at the microfilm machine and briefly reading it. The microfilm factor was probably a bit of a turn off, but not having books or doing any extended prep were larger factors. I was a little dull and wondering why I was still hanging around. The success of the quick strike at the Historical Society on Friday morning had been a bit of a surprise, along with “covering” the diary so quickly, and I felt a bit guilty about carving out all of this extra time that I obviously didn’t need. But I wasn’t going to beat myself up too much, and it was only a day or two, and yet I was in a suitably dark mood as I wandered towards Salem, and the sun was gone and the clouds were coming in as well. I circled around and had a little trouble getting my bearings. I wasn’t sure how to approach Hawthorne’s stomping grounds. In my previous trip we had been to the wharf, which is the Maritime Center or whatever it’s called, and we had looked at the House of 7 Gables, but didn’t go in . If I had been in a more dynamic mood I might have gone over there and hoped for the best, but instead I set my sights on the Peabody-Essex Museum, which was reputed to be very solid. I made it to the National Park Visitor Center, took just a quick look inside, and then crossed the plaza to the museum, which is more central to Salem than I would have guessed–for some reason I thought it was on the outskirts of town, but in fact it serves as a nice centerpiece. It was closed, making me zero-for-two on the day so far. The building was quite impressive, however, and that made me want to return–and I still had another day to kill. Now I was loose on the streets of Salem for an hour or so. I wandered around, and headed into “the McIntire Historic District,” named after big time Federalist architect Samuel McIntire (1757-1811), but I wasn’t properly focused and just bumped around on the streets. At close to 5pm I returned to the NPS Visitor’s Center and looked at the books and pamphlets, one of them an architectural walking trail, developed by the NPS, of the area I had just been in, and I bought a small guide for $4.95 called “Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Salem.” This energized me, as I started looking for the Peabody Sisters house, then the site of Hawthorne’s first house (now at the 7 Gables), and I began to get a sense of the original small town. Thinking about it now I’m reminded of poor walking shoes and my heel hurts, but I covered a fair amount of ground. Again, I would have a better idea of how to manage things if I went back, and I picked up the basics.
One of my best friends, Stein, was on the road for a short business trip and we were trying to meet up in Boston. Stein had a Spanish place he liked to go to–he travels a lot for business–and wanted to meet out by Fenway. I made better time than I expected getting into Boston, and I was ahead of schedule and heading out on Beacon St. when I saw the Crossroads Pub, my Richard Yates destination. I parked and went inside, then came out and called Stein to tell him to meet me there.
I ordered an ale and went to sit at one of the raised tables and started to catch up in this book. I know that Yates had a regular spot, where he would sit and drink and eat a little bit and get hammered, and I could guess where it might have been. I wrote an outline of my activities on the trip, the one I’ve been using in putting together this narrative, and then did a brief journal entry. My mood was suitably dark. The day’s transition from Jewett to hawthorne to Yates was working on me, and now I was in the zone, writing, in the perfect venue for an extended evening’s consideration and analysis of mid-life crisis, fueled by alcohol consumption. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the dark spirit of Yates was clearly with me. It was as if one shade had passed me along to the next, starting with the pleasnt SO Jewett morning. The muddled, curious Coverdale-style afternoon ended with the drive up Beacon St., and as I crossed Mass Ave Hawthorne passed me over to Yates. And now Yates was watching from his spot as Stein walked in and we began our conversation, catching up on our desperate and empty lives, covering the latest news in Stein’s epic mid-life struggle. We started drinking.