The Farm Boy And The Angel


The big many-windowed houses enhanced by neat trim and neater fences looked as if they had stood for generations, as indeed some of them had. The lovely doors that opened on Essex Street, Washington Square, and Chestnut Street offered entrance to rooms filled with elegancies that had come from far—mahoganies from the West Indies, silvers from England, porcelains from China. The families who owned them, richly dressed and dignified, walked the cobbled streets as they knew of no world of sterile acres and mounting debts. Down by the harbor docks, where merchantwanderers of the sea rocked at anchor and the winds freed wild odors of Canton tea, Brazilian coffee, and spices from a hundred islands, dark-visaged sailors spat and swore and embroidered narratives of their adventures. Among the Salem boys who looked and smelled and listened, there was one dark and handsome and a year older than Joseph—Nathaniel Hawthorne. This boy’s father, a sea captain, had died in Surinam when his son was four. Since, at the time of Joseph’s visit, Nathaniel was very lame from an injury in a ball game, the boys may have found a bond in their common affliction. Nathaniel was one day to reveal in his books the influence of his Salem surroundings upon him. That they had a lasting and significant effect on sensitive, blond Joseph as well is not to be doubted, though few of his biographers have suggested it. The town had caught his fancy, and years later he would come back to Salem still believing that priceless treasures brought from across the ocean had been concealed in some of its old houses.

And so, for a ten-year-old, Joseph was something of a sophisticate as he journeyed toward Palmyra. He had had several homes in small Vermont towns; he had known disease and had withstood almost intolerable pain; he had visited in a seaport where talk was of the world rather than a county; he had observed many an inexplicable and wondrous act of nature. As later associates, both enemies and friends, discovered, he had a kind of blotter-mind that soaked up at once such facts and impressions as interested him.

There was much along the Great Western Turnpike that would fascinate a boy of this sort. After his mother had rid herself of Howard and taken command, the Smith party passed through busy Manlius, where four turnpikes, spreading like rays from a star, crossed each other. Beyond lay Green Pond (unblinking eye of shadowed water set two hundred feet below the precipitous bluffs that were its shores), and nearby a well-digger had come upon an echoing cavern so spread beneath its grotesquely shaped ceilings that no man could say how far it extended or what might be found within it.

These sights proved to be omens, forerunners to the Smiths of stranger phenomena that they would find when they neared their journey’s end. The long slopes of the York State hills began to flatten out as they approached Palmyra. The Great Western Turnpike led them neither up nor down, and the horses trotted easily on a spreading plain striped by narrow blue lakes and dotted with green pyramids. They had entered the land of the drumlins.

Few settlers thought of these greenery-covered piles of earth and rock as created in the ice age by glacial action. Their neat geometric design and their smallness suggested that they were man-made mounds, cones of earth erected by prehistoric tribes, and that they might contain precious relics of a long-forgotten era.

There is no detailed account of the Smith family’s reunion with father Joseph at Palmyra. Since they were a loyal, affectionate group it can be assumed that, though Lucy had only two pennies and a small portion of their belongings left, it was joyous. It signaled, moreover, a period of intense activity for them all. Twice as big as Norwich, Palmyra was a bustling town of over three thousand, and it anticipated a rapid and limitless expansion. Situated on the expected route of the Great Western Canal that Governor De Witt Clinton was determined to build, the town saw itself within a few years a widespread commercial port on a man-made river. Father Smith could well expect that the “cake and beer” shop that Lucy at once started would prosper. Gingerbread, boiled eggs, pies, and root beer found eager customers, particularly among children, and Lucy added for adults oilcloth table covers which she had a knack for decorating with colorful designs.

The drumlin country and its environs held wonders that fascinated its inhabitants, who had come, for the most part, from New England, a land of less startling natural phenomena. They felt now as if they had entered a ring of enchantment. At Bristol, south of Palmyra, springs brushed by a torch bubbled into blue and yellow flames. A few miles nearer, every detail of the variegated world of weeds and rocks had become part of one wide monochrome—yellowed by spattering dye from the sulphurous fountains of Clifton. Where their acres had not been cleared, the settlers gaped at towering exotics—tulip and cucumber trees—or at a hollow buttonwood in which a church elder had preached to a congregation of thirty-five. (He said reprovingly that it would have held fifteen more.) Plowmen uncovered, lying like logs in the earth, many a bulbous root—three or four feet long and six to eight inches in diameter—which looked for all the world like a nude male body. “Man-in-the-ground” they called it, and they speculated darkly on its powers. Colored stones of fantastic shapes jeweled the banks of meandering Mud Creek, and now and again among them flashed a prism of translucent selenite, which oldsters called moonstone because, they said, it waxed and waned with phases of the moon. This was a land for a boy to wander in. It stirred a sensitive mind to creative imaginings.