Wednesday, February 5, 2014
February 5, 2014: House Histories: Hawthorne’s Houses
[Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables (1851) is one of the 19th century’s most interesting historical novels—but the real House is full of significant American histories in its own right. This week I’ll blog about five such histories, leading up to a special weekend Guest Post from one of Salem’s foremost AmericanStudiers!]
On three ways to think about the inspirations for Hawthorne’s House.
After Samuel Ingersoll, the Salem captain who purchased the House from John Turner III in 1782, died at sea in 1804, the House passed to his daughter Susanna. A successful businesswoman and cultural figure in the city, Susanna lived in the House with her husband and nine children until her death in 1830. She was also an older cousin of one Nathaniel Hawthorne (he was born in Salem in the same year Samuel died, 1804), and for much of his childhood Nathaniel visited Susanna and the House, learning of its histories, stories, and legends from her and her family. When the novel’s narrator writes, in the book’s opening paragraphs, about his familiarity with the House and its effects on him upon each visit, it’s fair to say he’s speaking directly from young Nathaniel’s experiences.
The narrator also uses a particularly interesting phrase to describe himself in that opening: a “town-born child.” Hawthorne’s birth home was on Union Street, less than half a mile from Susanna’s house; in the mid-20th century it was moved to the grounds of the House of the Seven Gables. But I would make more of the description than just its literal accuracy. After all, many of the histories to which Hawthorne connects his fictional house—most prominently the Salem Witch Trials, but also the different stages of Salem and American history that his novel traces—are not explicitly linked to the actual house, and thus were likely not part of what he learned from Susanna. Yet they are all very much part of Salem’s history more generally, and so—despite Hawthorne’s argument in the Preface that his book has “more to do with the clouds overhead than with any portion of the actual soil of the County of Essex”—it’s very possible to read the book as a historical novel of Salem.
I would connect Hawthorne’s House to one more New England house, however: the Old Manse, the prominent historic and cultural home in Concord where Hawthorne and his new wife Sophia Peabody lived from 1842 to 1845. This is a very debatable idea, but I would argue that House of the Seven Gables is Hawthorne’s most American novel—to my mind, both The Scarlet Letter (1850) and The Blithedale Romance (1852), while set in recognizable American communities and moments, focus a great deal on human nature and relationships in more universal ways; while House deals centrally with the issues, stages, and meanings of Salem, New England, and American history. And if so (or in any case), it’s worth noting that Hawthorne lived, during some of the most productive years of his burgeoning literary career, in one of the most symbolically historic American homes, a site full of the kinds of communal and national stories with which he would likewise imbue his fictional House. Literary inspiration is always multi-faceted, and Hawthorne’s House had nearly as many possible origins as it did gables.
Next House history tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?