Four friends gather to drink from the fountain of youth only to learn that there is no escaping the foolishness and mistakes they made as younger men and women. That was the plot of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment. The story was fiction but the four old friends were not.
Nathaniel Hawthorne is best remembered for his novels, The Scarlett Letter and the House of the Seven Gables, but the prolific author toyed with many topics in his short stories, including a preference for progress over nostalgia and man’s inability to escape his evil tendencies.
He put those ideas front and center Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment – the story of four friends who reunite and sip from glass of water that comes from a fountain of youth.
His characters were Dr. Heidegger, a physician and host of the group who encourages his friends to drink the magic water; Colonel Killigrew, a self-indulgent and sinful man; Mr. Medbourne, a former wealthy merchant who lost his fortune in speculation; a politician, Mr. Gascone, who was destroyed by corruption and Widow Wycherley, who at one time was courted by all the men.
In real life, these friends were actually figures in English theater and their stories were similar to those of Hawthorne’s story, and all came to grief for their support of Roman Catholicism.
Dr. Heidegger himself was modeled on John Heidegger, a theater and opera manager in the 1700s in England who promoted masquerade parties, which he imported from his native Switzerland where they were regular features of Carnival. These events, which ran the gamut from tame dances to virtual orgies, earned Heidegger a handsome income as well as rebuke in Parliament and a grand jury charge of being a “promoter of vice and immorality.”
Colonel Killigrew was quite likely an allusion to Thomas Killigrew, a playwright and theater manager of the 1600s who followed King Charles II, the Catholic sympathizer, into exile following the English Civil War. When Charles was returned to the throne, Killigrew was rewarded with a royal posting – until he wasn’t. A falling out with the king sent him to prison for seven years.
Mr. Medbourne is an allusion to Matthew Medbourne, a prominent playwright and actor in the 1600s who was best known as a rabble rouser. A supporter of Catholic causes, he was accused of high treason and imprisoned in 1673. He died in jail.
The character of Mr. Gascoigne owes his name to poet George Gascoigne. Born a Catholic, he helped create the cult of Queen Elizabeth in the 1500s and found her favor in part out of fear that if he was expelled from the court he would use his talents to promote the Catholic cause.
And the Widow Wycherley gains her name from William Wycherley who’s up and down career as a playwright saw him convert to Catholicism then repudiate it. At the height of his fame, he managed to marry a wealthy noblewoman and spend down some of her fortune before she died. Her family successfully challenged his right to her estate and in his 70s he married a 25-year-old in 1715 for the express purpose of ensuring other members of his family did not inherit the estate he had received from his father.
In Hawthorne’s story, these characters, Heidegger excluded, acknowledge the sins of their lives, declare that they are reformed, drink from the fountain of youth and immediately return to behaving as badly as before.
Hawthorne himself never declared a particular religious affiliation, but he did enjoy stirring the pot with his stories, which were layered and designed to be provocative.