Last week, I met Nathaniel Hawthorne.
OK, so he’s been dead since 1864, but still, last week I met him.
My students and fellow teachers all laugh at me. While others want to meet celebrities like Mark Walberg or athletes like Tom Brady, I want to meet a man whose been dead for over 150 years. But my connections with Mr. Hawthorne is more tangible than any with a living celebrity.
Hawthorne is the reason I became a teacher. Back in 11th grade, my class read The Scarlet Letter and I was captivated by the rich story of unrequited love. Yes, that’s all my 16 year old hormone driven mind could get out of the text – well, that and a few bits of symbolism (A = adultery, I get it….) – but the story of Hester and her ill fated lover was intriguing to me. Add to it the background of Salem and stories of witchcraft, some family guilt, and the fact that this town was right down the road a bit from us, and I was hooked.
Of course, we took a field trip to Salem, and my love affair with Hawthorne and the city he loved to hate and hated to love had begun. Even though the witch trials really didn’t take place in that town, I felt it was magical all the same. A city full of myth, of history, and of literature. Historical houses. Maritime history. The bizarre. Witch stores. Psychic readings. Lantern light walking tours. All this, and Hawthorne had walked these streets.
Our school bus drove by the high school, and I proudly said to my partner on the torn green bus bench, “I’m going to work there some day.”
13 years later, I did.
During that time, my love for Hawthorne grew. I reread The Scarlet Letter multiple times, as well as his other words, analyzing it, dissecting it, and teaching it to another generation even more detached from its archaic language than I was. The themes, the symbolism, the imagery, the language became rich and tangible to me. I aimed to make it the same for my students. I ignored other teachers who complained that I was teaching “dead white males” with themes too detached from our students’ present day experiences. Here was a story about a woman shunned from her peers because she got pregnant. Her baby daddy won’t take responsibility, causes her to be a single parent, raise the child herself, and deal with those who would brand her. How is this not relevent to teenagers today? Add to it rich beautiful language, the theme of redemption, and a timeless love story and its a masterpiece equivalent to a painting by Renoir or a symphony by Beethoven.
Every so often, I visit Hawthorne’s grave, which is in Sleepy Hollow Cementary in Concord MA about 40 minutes from me. I get so emotional standing by the headstone of the man whose words have traveled across time and touched me so much. “Young Goodman Brown,” “Minister’s Black Viel,” The House of the Seven Gables – all stories which I read and reread and find deeper meaning in them each time. I touch the ground to feel closer to the man. Beneath all that earth is him. It is the closest I can get to him beyond reading the words he put on paper.
But last week, I had the opportunity to get even closer when his descendent, his great great granddaughter, also a writer, made an appearance in my area to speak about her latest book.
Alison Hawthorne-Deming is the granddaughter of Julian Hawthorne, the son of Nathaniel and the only one of his children to produce heirs. She is a professor at the University of Arizona but grew up in New England. Her latest book, Zoologies, is a collection of essays and memoirs about animals and their importance in the circle of life. She traveled to Salem, the birthplace of her ancestor, as part of a book tour. When a fellow teacher brought me a local article on her appearance, there was no doubt that I must attend.
I must admit, I fangirled. I was so excited over the prospect of meeting her, that you’d think I was going to see Norman Reedus of The Walking Dead fame. In many ways, this event was even more special to me. Here is a connection to a legend, someone I have studied and taught for more than half my life. It’s not him, but it’s a living monument to him.
I walking into the small lecture room so excited I could hardly breath. When an employee pointed her out to me, I felt I would faint. I could see Deming only from the back, long greying blond hair, and a black jacket with oriental designs, but I could feel her energy. I teared up watching her talk with the sponsors of the event. I sat down and tried to take stock of my emotions. I knew meeting her would be a physical connection to Hawthorne, but I never expected I’d feel a spiritual one as well.
She spoke, reading from her book. She had a style completely different from her famous ancestor, but the talent for painting pictures with words was there. Like her great great grandfather, she was able to capture the soul on the page, but these souls were of animals – elephants, dogs, wolves, even clams. She was able to do the one thing Nathaniel struggled to do, connect the human soul to nature and express the beauty of all souls, animal, plant or man. Nathaniel studied the darkness of souls, while she captured its light.
After her reading, I followed her and spoke briefly to her, expressing how much of an influence her ancestor had been in my life, a tale she probably has heard many times before. She sincerely thanked me for the kind words, and exalted the work I do with kids. She spoke some more but that all got lost in my overwhelming feeling in her presences. I felt him in her. Her energy was his energy. It transcended time and generations as I stood there. He was with us.
We adjoined to the other room for a book signing. Of course, I purchased a book and waited in line with her other followers, most of whom knew her for her work with animals and conservation. I handed her the book and told her my name so she could address it to me. But, suddenly, she stopped, pen in hand, looking at the blank page. We spoke no words as she remained frozen, her eyes and ben hovering over the book for what seemed like several hours, and then she began scribbling feverishly. I read the words as she wrote them and it took all my strength not to cry. I saw this on the page:
The message was from Hawthrone.
I felt certain it was Hawthrone’s hand that wrote it. A message to me, that what I’m doing is purposeful and that he, the brother in law to Horace Mann, father of public education, and Elizabeth Peabody, founder of the first public kindergarten in Boston, approved. He was thanking me for keeping his literature alive and fighting the good fight in the face of state exams, data collection, and the belief that teaching is more about “how-to’s” than heart. It was my message. My approval. My reaffirmation that what I do is good.
A message from the beyond, transcending time, to his “biggest fan.”
Not a bad way to spend a weeknight. Meeting my mentor, my inspiration, a legend, and receiving his message from beyond the grave.