IN THE MID-1830s, the young Nathaniel Hawthorne sat reading "what once were newspapers"—a bound volume of New England gazettes ninety-odd years old. Comparing the daily life that they portrayed with his own, Hawthorne was struck by how different and how much more severe the weather appeared to have been in the past. "The cold was more piercing then, and lingered farther into the spring," he decided; "our fathers bore the brunt of more raging and pitiless elements than we"; "winter rushed upon them with fiercer storms than now—blocking up the narrow forest-paths, and overwhelming the roads. 1 He was not alone in thinking so. Another resident of Salem, Dr. Edward Holyoke, had been of the same opinion. In his later years, the doctor spoke as the classic authority on the weather, the Oldest Inhabitant. Born in 1728, he lived until 1829, the full span of the century that Hawthorne judged mostly at secondhand, and he had kept a daily temperature log for the better part of it. A newspaper in 1824 reported a general belief that the seasons were "more lamb-like" than in earlier times. An English visitor a few years later was frequently told that the climate was moderating. Cold and snowstorms had grown less intense and less frequent: such had been, wrote John Chipman Gray in the 1850s, "and is perhaps still a prevailing impression among the inhabitants of New-England." All the same, that impression of the century gone by was wrong. Gray, who maintained that the winters had not changed, also tried to explain why intelligent observers could have supposed that they had. On one point, he granted, they were correct. Certainly the effects of the weather were not what they had once been. But there was no evidence that a shift in the weather was responsible. Holyoke's own records, analyzed after his death, did not bear out his belief that winter cold and storms had weakened in his lifetime. As Gray pointed out, if the impact of weather on New Englanders had changed, it was because New England society had changed.
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