Hometown Ties: Fidelia Bridges, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Salem, Massachusetts - by Katherine Manthorne

In this blogpost Katherine Manthorne, author of the newly published monograph on Fidelia Bridges, discusses the links between Bridges, Hawthorne and their American hometown of Salem... 

Fig. 1 – John Adams Whipple, Portrait of Nathaniel Hawthorne
Fig. 2 – Oliver Ingraham Lay, Portrait of Fidelia Bridges

“Whence did you come?" novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne (fig. 1) has the old Doctor ask in his tale 'Doctor Grimshawe’s Secret.' Born in Salem on July 4, 1804, into a family that had lived there since the seventeenth century, the author knew very well from whence he came, but always harbored mixed feelings about it. Born thirty years later in the same port city, the visual artist Fidelia Bridges (fig. 2) also felt both a strong attachment and a distinct aversion to the place: what Henry James called 'the mingled tenderness and rancour.' Hawthorne often portrayed it as a sleepy town known for its past glories rather than its dull present. After being fired from his position as surveyor of custom in March 1849, he let loose with even more biting commentaryHe never resided there again after his 'decapitation,' as he referred to his dismissal.

Fig. 3 – Factories at Canton, c.1840

In December 1849 Fidelia Bridges’ father – ship’s captain Henry Bridges – died in Canton, China (fig. 3), but it took three months for the notification to arrive in Salem. Only three hours before the communication of his fate reached their home, his wife Eliza Chadwick Bridges passed away, leaving the future artist and her three surviving siblings as orphans. Sixteen years old at the time, Fidelia initially lived in the vicinity with relatives. Haunted by this unthinkable tragedy, she moved away from her hometown as soon as she could, and – like Hawthorne – never lived there again. Both writer and artist, however, continued to feel the pull of Salem and its history that marked their lives and creative endeavors ever after.

Fig. 4 – Custom-House, Salem, Massachusetts, ca.1850s

Hometown ties were maintained through Fidelia’s family and former neighbors and friends with whom she continued to associate long after moving away. She was also caught up in the literary web Hawthorne had created. Copies of his books including The House of the Seven Gables, Mosses from an Old Manse, Passages from the American Note-Books of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Passages from the English Note-Books of Nathaniel Hawthorne, and The Snow Image and Other Twice-Told Tales were always on her library shelves. Fidelia might have gained insights into the challenges of female artists traveling in Europe when she read of Hilda and Miriam’s experiences in his The Marble Faun. But it was perhaps the volume that he completed in 1850 – the year she lost her parents – that meant the most to her. For The Scarlet Letter opened with its introduction entitled 'The Custom House', (fig. 4) where the author had worked on the Salem waterfront from 1846 to 1849 and surely crossed paths with Fidelia’s father, Captain Bridges, who had to report there to pay import duties on his cargo upon returning from Asia.


In my just-released book Fidelia Bridges: Nature into Art (London: Lund Humphries, fig. 5) space did not permit me to delve deeply into the contents of Fidelia's library, but it is fascinating to ponder her motivations for keeping Hawthorne’s writings close at hand throughout her life. Today it is possible to spend the night in the Fidelia Bridges Guest House, now part of the Hawthorne Hotel in Salem, Massachusetts, where you can immerse yourself in the atmosphere of her hometown and – in the words of the novelist – 'attempt to connect a by-gone time with the very Present that is flitting away from us.'[1]

 – Katherine Manthorne, 2023


Fig. 1. John Adams Whipple, Portrait of Nathaniel Hawthorne, ca. 1853. Salt paper print, National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.

Fig. 2. Oliver Ingraham Lay,  Portrait of Fidelia Bridges, c.1877, oil on canvas mounted on wood, 98.7 x 71.4 cm (38 7/8 x 28 1/8 in), oval, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC.

Fig. 3. Auguste Borget, Factories at Canton, c.1840, lithograph by Eugene Ciceri from Sketches of China and the Chinese: From Drawings by Auguste Borget, London: Tilt and Bogue, 1842, plate 23, n.p., image size 25.4 x 40.6 cm (10 x 16 in)

Fig. 4. Artist unidentified, Custom-House, Salem, Massachusetts, ca.1850s, wood engraving, New York Public Library, New York. 

Fig. 5. Book Cover: Katherine Manthorne, Fidelia Bridges: Nature into Art. London: Lund Humphries, 2023.


[1] Margaret B. Moore, The Salem World of Nathaniel Hawthorne (Columbia and London: U. of Missouri Press, 1998) provided background on the writer.