Friday, January 6, 2012

The Ambitious Guest

Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864)
From Nathaniel Hawthorne: Tales and Sketches

A View of the Mountain Pass Called the Notch of the White Mountains (Crawford Notch), 1839, oil on canvas by American artist Thomas Cole (1801–1848). Image courtesy of National Gallery of Art, Andrew W. Mellon Fund.
We recently listed on Reader’s Almanac (the blog of The Library of America) the top ten Story of the Week selections of last year and we’ll admit to surprise (not to mention satisfaction) that the most popular story of the year is “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment,” by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Both creepy and amusing, Hawthorne’s story about the longing for eternal youth went viral (to use modern parlance), receiving an extraordinary amount of attention on social media and blogs and even in the press. As Carolyn Kellogg commented on her blog for The Los Angeles Times, it is “an unsettling story of magic and manipulation, just the kind of thing that might put a smile on Edgar Allan Poe’s grim face.”

So, would we surrender to the demands of trendiness and offer to our readers another Hawthorne tale? Of course!

“The Ambitious Guest” portrays a young man traveling in the White Mountains on his way to Burlington; he stops at a cozy family-run inn in the awe-inspiring shadows of Crawford Notch. Just starting out in life, the man seeks “a high and abstracted ambition” and a fame that will last long after he is gone; he wishes “not to be forgotten in the grave.” Although the characters in the story are all unnamed, Hawthorne based his story on the Willey Family incident of 1826, which dominated the headlines of the day and turned Crawford Notch into a destination for tourists. The episode also provided the initial inspiration for a group of painters who came to be known as the White Mountain artists. We’ve included a link to information on the historical event and its cultural aftermath at the top left, but we offer fair warning: you should not read anything about it if you want to avoid finding out how the tale ends. Let’s just say that the moral of the story is that you should be careful what you wish for.

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One September night, a family had gathered round their hearth, and piled it high with the drift-wood of mountain-streams, the dry cones of the pine, and the splintered ruins of great trees, that had come crashing down the precipice. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.