Talking with Thornton Burgess


Some years ago I had an assignment with Cape Cod Life to write an article on Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth, Massachusetts. I spent more than three hours watching and listening to first-person interpreters in the Pilgrim and Native American villages chat among themselves and with visitors from all over the world as they swept out dwellings, chopped wood, waited for delicious-smelling bread to bake, and completed other daily tasks. The longer I stayed, the more the line between appearance and reality eroded. I knew perfectly well it was the twentieth century, but the seventeenth century was so real. It was an unsettling sensation.

Last week I had a similar experience with the eerie spell that trained first- person interpreters weave. David Hobbs has spent more than thirty years portraying Pilgrim-era characters, including five years at Plimoth Plantation, and for fourteen years, he has enacted children’s author and naturalist Thornton W. Burgess, the subject of my recent biography,Nature’s Ambassador. Hobbs gives walking tours in Sandwich Village where Burgess was born, as well as school programs and other presentations. (Since I live in Burgess’ birthplace, I’m on the tour; on more than one occasion, I’ve had to speed out to the front porch in advance of his group’s arrival to grab wine bottles and glasses from the previous night’s gathering.)

As a Pilgrim or as Thornton Burgess, David Hobbs is at ease. “When I’m in costume, I’m somebody else, so I’m not particularly self-conscious,” he says. “I’ve learned how to ‘hide’ David within the costume and make sure the character is more prevalent.” However, he does recall feeling notably awkward traveling on the Vineyard ferry in full Pilgrim gear to do a private performance for Princess Diana and Chelsea Clinton. His 6’4” height helps carry off the Burgess persona - the popular author was six feet tall - and David is as naturally modest and self-effacing as his character.

For Sandwich’s 375th “Talk of the Town” lecture series, he had been invited to give a talk in character and I was asked to introduce him. When we got together to discuss the event, we hit on an intriguing idea: why not go beyond the introduction and actually interact while he was on stage, he as Burgess and I as Burgess’ biographer.

The thought took hold immediately. What biographer hasn’t dreamed of being able to ask their subject about puzzling, complex or unexplained aspects of their life? What would I ask Thornton Burgess? I must admit, the first thing that immediately came to mind was if he was offended by my reading his journals. I have kept journals for decades and the thought of someone pawing through them is beyond repugnant.

So David and I decided to prepare a few topics I would introduce in the form of questions following his formal introduction, including the following:

  • Although you’re best known as a children’s author, you didn’t start out in that field. Will you talk about your career as a journalist? Was it hard to make the transition from journalist to children’s writer?

  • You are known for your productivity—for example, you wrote nine books in 1915. Was it difficult to find things to write about?

  • You and your mother lived in ten different houses in Sandwich village. What was moving around like? What do you remember of the town, of Shawme Pond, of the glass factory?

As I sat in the front row of the Sandwich Glass Museum auditorium waiting for David to call on me, I listened to his the effortless impersonation of Thornton Burgess, and realized that I was actually eager and excited to hear him answer my questions. It was going to be as close as I would get to actually talking with Thornton Burgess.

We planned an exchange around Burgess’ father, Thornton W. Burgess, Sr. a locally admired young man who died of tuberculosis at the age of twenty-four. His baby was ten months old and his widow Caroline was twenty-two. In Now I Remember, Thornton Burgess’s biography, the author mentioned that a woman wrote him saying she had often seen his mother Caroline walking in the cemetery with a little boy, and asked if it was him.

I recalled this letter as my last question and was surprised by his grave, almost sad, response: “Yes, I was that little boy.” When we talked later about the presentation, he offered an explanation. “The fact was, around the time I started my Burgess portrayal, my own father passed,” he said. “Thinking of him helped me apply to the fact that I as Burgess never met my father, and was indeed that innocent young boy who held his mother’s hand so tightly as they walked through the cemetery. I actually teared up tonight when I was talking about it.”

Apparently appearance and reality blur for first-person interpreters as well as for their audiences.

Watch for this “Talk of the Town” program on Sandwich Community Television – and who knows, David and I may go on the road with “Conversations with Thornton Burgess!”

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