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Monday, February 3, 2014

February 3, 2014: House Histories: Salem and the East

[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 under-remembered transnational starting points for the house and its city.
The House of the Seven Gables was constructed in 1688 for John Turner, a newly prominent Salem sea captain and merchant. In Hawthorne’s novel, the House originates in a distinctly American conflict, a battle over land between two immigrant settlers (the working class Matthew Maule and the elite Colonel Pyncheon) that also involves a deed to “Indian land” and that culminates in conjunction with the Salem Witch Trials. But the historic House owes its existence far more to transatlantic and international connections, not only as the source of Captain Turner’s rise and wealth but even more so when it was sold to the family of Captain Samuel Ingersoll in the late 18th century, during the period of the city’s history known as “the Great Age of Sail.”
Ingersoll’s fortune developed concurrently with and in direct connection to the opening of the city’s (and world’s) newest trade ports: those in China. Salem captain Elias Hasket (E.H.) Derby is generally considered the first to sail his ship to ports in mainland China (among many other eastern destinations), and through his efforts and those of fellow Salem merchants the city (and its Derby Wharf) quickly became the center of those new trade routes. Those connections to the Far East meant significantly more than just new trade or economic possibilities for the city and nation; as scholar Caroline Frank argues in her innovative and impressive Objecting China, Imagining America: Chinese Commodities in Early America (2011), the presence of Chinese goods (as well as Chinese merchants and artisans) in the United States profoundly influenced any number of social, cultural, and artistic communities and conversations.
So does it matter that Hawthorne leaves out such international connections (other than the minor but very interesting character of the Italian organ-grinder), or that our collective memories of Salem focus almost entirely on the Witch Trials rather than these transnational links? I would argue that it does, and not just for reasons of completeness or accuracy. It’s far easier for Americans to emphasize and argue for isolationism, or xenophobic perspectives on other nations (such as, right now, China), or a homogeneous vision of our national past and identity, if we consistently leave out the ways in which every moment in and part of our history has developed through such transnational connections and influences. Given the centrality of Salem to our images of 17th century America, it would be particularly important to remember just how transnational that city was, from its origin points through its heyday and (as that organ-grinder demonstrates) into the 19th century and beyond.
Next House history tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?


  1. Interesting post, as always. I'm a frequent visitor to Salem and often lament its identity as "Witch City" -- though that one moment makes for interesting history, it's celebrated more as a fun oddity than as a lamentable error in judgment which continues to echo in more modern "witch hunts" of today. I, for one, applaud the Salem Maritime National Historical Park for trying to bring a broader story of the city's history. And, of course, I love the Hawthorne stuff and hope the city does more to celebrate him actively (rather than passively, as with a statue/plaque here or there). Looking forward to the rest of this series!

  2. Thanks Rob! Something like the amazing Witch Trials Memorial does a great job trying to present and engage with that side of the city, but I agree overall and was thinking about those questions in writing these posts for sure. I look forward to your continued thoughts!