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Friday, February 7, 2014

February 7, 2014: House Histories: Our Own Broad Daylight

[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 the literary and communal presences of the past.
In the famous Preface to his novel, Hawthorne argues that “The point of view in which this tale comes under the Romantic definition lies in the attempt to connect a bygone time with the very present that is flitting away from us. It is a legend prolonging itself, from an epoch now gray in the distance, down into our own broad daylight, and bringing along with it some of its legendary mist, which the reader, according to his pleasure, may either disregard, or allow it to float almost imperceptibly about the characters and events for the sake of a picturesque effect.” That is, Hawthorne’s novel was neither set entirely in a distant historical era (as is his Scarlet Letter) nor engaged with clearly contemporary stories and issues (as is his Blithedale Romance), but represented, as a historical romance, a complex combination of the two.
Whether the novel succeeds at creating that complex combination, at bringing the past’s legendary mist into our own broad daylight, depends, as Hawthorne admits, on each reader’s responses; I encourage you to do a Reading Rainbow and read the book (and when you do, or if you already have, I’d love to hear your thoughts in comments). But in any case, Hawthorne’s goal makes Caroline Osgood Emmerton’s creation of the House’s historic site in conjunction with her very present-minded settlement house efforts particularly apt. Moreover, for the more than 100 years since Emmerton created that combinatory endeavor the House has continued to serve those dual historical and contemporary, commemorative and civic purposes, as my Guest Poster will describe and analyze at greater length in her piece this weekend.
I’ll leave the additional specific thoughts to her, and end my week’s series with this final broader thought. Every American house, at least every one that goes back a ways, is full of interesting histories and stories, of connections to issues and communities that have a great deal to tell us about who we’ve been and who we are. As my colleague and friend Elif Armbruster has argued at length, authors’ and historic houses can capture those histories and stories particularly effectively. But such sites can often feel like museums in the most limiting or separate senses, as if they’re cut off from our present communities and histories. What makes the House of the Seven Gables so compelling and crucial is that it resists such separations, and in fact has done so from its first moments as a historic site—moments in which the past and present were intimately interconnected, as they remain to this day.
Special Guest Post this weekend,
Ben
PS. What do you think?

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