Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The House of the Seven Gables” (1851)

“Shall we never, never rid of this Past! It lies upon the Present like a giant’s dead body! In fact, the case is just as if a young giant were compelled to waste all his strength in carrying about the corpse of the old giant, his grandfather, who died a long while ago, and only needs to be decently buried. Just think a moment; and it will startle you to see what slaves we are to by-gone times–to Death, if we give the matter the right word!” (509)

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Through my exploration of Nathaniel’s Hawthorne’s works over the past few weeks, I kept coming back to the question stated in the above quote from his The House of the Seven Gables. It is not only that the young tend to me more creative (at least until they are educated), more energetic, and seem to have a better conception of freedom than adults. More troubling is that our elders have created a world that is hard to free ourselves from. Perhaps it is inevitable that the elders attempt to pass on their values to their children through education, but they also more unknowingly create systems and institutions that bind us to their values, whether we agree or not. How could it be otherwise? Without being too hard on my parents and grandparents, it is hard not to accuse them of exasperating the ecological crisis to the point where repair and sustainability is unlikely and of codifying a system of exploitation that is now global in its reach. And it is unlikely that it will be that generation that either dismantles those systems or is left to pick up the pieces after it falls. That is the job of the youth. So why do so many of us feel that we owe our parents so much loyalty?

Hawthorne at the time he was writing his novels.

Hawthorne at the time he was writing his novels.

That quote is spoken by Holgrave, the photographer, who is actually the scion of the Maule family, who had their home (The House of the Seven Gables) taken in the aftermath of the murder of witches in Salem by the Pyncheons. The Pyncheons hold onto the home with their dying grasp, while the surviving Maule cannot let go of the past, hiding out in the house under a false name. Here is some of the rest of what he had to say. “A Dead Man, if he happen to have made a will, disposes of wealth no longer his own; or, if he died intestate, it is distributed in accordance with the notions of men much longer dead than he. A Dean Man sits on all our judgement-seats; and living judges do but search out and repeat his decisions. We read in Dead Men’s books! We laugh at Dead Men’s jokes, and cry at Dead Men’s pathos! We are sick of Dead Men’s diseases, physical and moral, and die of the same remedies with which dead doctors killed their patients! We worship the living Deity, according to Dead Men’s forms and creeds! Whatever we seek to do, of our own free motion, a Dead Man’s icy hand obstructs us!” (509)  Yes, what more do we owe these zombies.

Hawthorne’s main argument running through The House of the Seven Gables is the almost unbearable decrepitude of life for all the characters. Most of the characters are old and cannot help but live in the past. Hepzibah Pyncheon and Judge Pyncheon and Clifford Pyncheon are all of the same old and barren generation. The Judge, the man responsible for putting Clifford in prison for thirty years, is searching for ancient land titles to provide wealth for the family, which is soon to die out anyway. Clifford, just out of jail, is so frozen that the loss of the one youthful element in the home, Phoebe, sends him into a catatonic state. You must read the novel to get a full feeling of the paralysis and banality of aging. However, it is not easy to recover from. For the Maule’s the past is so alive, they seem to truly maintain the witchcraft that their ancestor was killed for practicing. Whether it was real then or not, it became real in the resentful heirs to the Maule line. In one of the more horrifying episodes, we learn how witchcraft was used to literally enslave the body and mind of Alice Pyncheon, an act of an Maule eager for revenge.

The House of the Seven Gables, the tourist site. It looked different in Hawthorne's day.

The House of the Seven Gables, the tourist site. It looked different in Hawthorne’s day.

This was written and published one year after The Scarlet Letter and is thematically similar. Both deal with dead sins and their burden on the living. The House of the Seven Gables is vastly more disturbing to me. At least in The Scarlet Letter, there were signs of the youthful potential in Pearl’s disobedience and impertinence. In Phoebe we find someone who can and does escape the home but is still of the Pyncheon clan. In both novels, the solution to the burden of the past was simply letting go. For Hester Prynne it was the symbolic removal of the red “A” for the Pyncheon’s it only took moving out of the House of the Seven Gables and leaving the past dead.

Another important message of The House of the Seven Gables (and perhaps its only hopeful message) is that our individual clinging to the past may not necessarily result in social stagnation. The Pyncheon wealth was in land and social prestige, but was largely used up by the opening of the story. When we meet Hepzibah, she is opening a small shop near the home in order to make ends meet. This may symbolize the shift to a democratic, commercial economy. Judge Pyncheon’s obsessive over the old land deeds and his position is really of the old colonial ways. Interestingly, the Pyncheons escape from the judge on a modern train. Holgrave–full of resentments to be sure–was the most modern character in profession and social mobility. (Was this a legacy of his witch heritage?) “Thought now bu twenty-two years old . . . he had already been, first, a county-schoolmaster; next, a salesman in a country-store; and, either at the same time or afterwards, the political-editor of a country-newspapers. He has subsequently travelled New England and the middle states as a peddler, in the employment of a Connecticut manufactory of Cologne water and other essences. In an episodical way, he had studies and practiced dentistry.” (503-504) It actually goes on, with his adventures in a utopian community, his participation in mesmeism, and his travels to Europe. It is hard not to see him as a symbol for democratic America.

 

 

Nathaniel Hawthorne, Stories (1830-1832)

I am going to take a leisurely approach to reading the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, using as many entries as necessary in order to come to an understanding of him and his place in the American tradition. Over the course of a couple of extended delays, I have come to terms with impossibility of the schedule I set for myself. And as this project of reading the entire Library of America from an anarchist perspective is a wonderful experience, I see no reason to rush things too much.

Hawthorne’s work is divided into two volumes: the stories and the novels. The volume of tales collects Hawthorne’s stories from Twice-told Tales, Mosses from an Old Manse, The Snow-Image, A Wonder Book for Girls and Boys, and Tanglewood Tales for Girls and Boys. I suppose there are about 100 stories collected within. My rough plan is to take on around 10 of these a day and see what comes of it. The editors arrange the stories in order of publication so we will be beginning along with Hawthorne’s literary career, in 1830. (Fanshawe was self-published a couple years earlier and we will get to that in due time).

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Hawthorne was 28 when his first sketches and tales were published and he had not yet left New England, but he had seen the whole of it, from rural Maine to Boston. Something we notice straightaway from Hawthorne is that New England provides one of the central tensions in his work. New England was home to both an American literary tradition as well as an authoritarian tradition (seen in colonial-era British aristocracy and in the Puritan autocrats) and it was never very clear which tradition was dominant.  In any case, breaking free from the influence of tradition was a near impossibility.

I read the following stories: “The Hollow of the Three Hills,” “Sir William Phips,” “Mrs. Hutchinson,” “Dr. Bullivant,” “Signs from a Steeple,” “The Haunted Quack,” “The Wives of the Dead,” My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” and “Roger Malvin’s Burial.” Some of these are short stories, but others are biographical sketches. “Mrs. Hutchinson” (1830) is one of these, retelling the story of the life of Anne Hutchinson, the Puritan heretic. Hutchinson’s life essentially maps out the conflict between the authoritarian and the libertarian. Her crime was a rejection of the spiritual authority of the Puritan clergy and her argument for the spiritual equality of believers. Of course, brought before the court made up of these established clergymen, the outcome was not in doubt. Her punishment was exile and she was transformed into a vagabond, traveling first to Rhode Island and then to New York, where she was later killed by Indians. This, as we see in other early Hawthorne tales is one of the central conflicts in New England. The conflict between vagabondage and belonging parallels the conflict between authority and freedom.

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Take for example, the description of a changing society in “Dr. Bullivant,” another biographical sketch. They sketch is set in the context of a changing New England, under siege from an English state eager to reign in the colonies, which they attempt under the leadership of the much maligned Sir Edmund Andros. A passage from this sketch is worth quoting at length: “The early settlers were able to keep within the narrowest limits of their rigid principles, because they had adopted them in mature life, and from their own deep conviction, and were strengthened in them by that species of enthusiasm which is as sober and as enduring as reason itself. . . . When therefore the old original stock, the men who looked heavenward without a wandering glance to earth, had lost a part of their domestic and public influence, yielding to infirmity or death, a relaxation naturally ensued in their theory and practice of morals and religion, and became more evident with the daily decay of its most strenuous opponents. This gradual but sure operation was assisted by the increasing commercial importance of the colonies, whither a new set of emigrants followed unworthily in the track of the pure-hearted Pilgrims. . . . Freebooters from the West Indies and the Spanish Main, — state criminals, implicated in the numerous plots and conspiracies of the periods, — felons, loaded with private guilt, — numbers of these took refuge in the provinces, where the authority of the English king was obstructed by the a zealous spirit of independence.” (36–37) The point here, is similar to the one Melville made in some of his Pacific writings. Mobility is a key to freedom, stagnation is its enemy.

A changing New England

A changing New England

Another theme in these early Hawthorne tales is burden we carry from history. It is in “The Hollow of the Three Hills” about a young beautiful woman who visits an old crone in an attempt to wash away her dubious past sins. However, washing away these sins is not as easy as walking away or moving to a distant land. This is the lesson of the rather humorous tales “The Haunted Quack” (1831). It is about an apprentice quack doctor who learned to brew and sell false potions to gullible people. After venturing on his own, the doctor (Hippocrates Jenkins), poisons an old woman and flees, only to be haunted every night. He flees and spends the last of his money running from the police. Eventually, he turns up at the place he started and learns that the old woman did not die and that he was sought after for his incredible healing skills, not for prosecution. He returns to his old craft of peddling fake medicines. The ghostly appearances are not explained but were likely a psychic projection of his guilt, a guilt that could not stop him from his immoral career.

It is most striking in the longer tale “My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” (1832) which combines the legacy of British aristocratic traditions with the burden of the past and the necessity of independence from it. The story follows a young man who is seeking Major Molineux, a British military officer for a job. He is in the old mindset of patronage, duty, and family duties. He is an outsider in Boston and therefore is taken to be a tramp. Indeed he has all the appearances of a tramp since he has little money, no local connections he can call on except for the “Major Molineux,” and no job. Furthermore, with the American Revolution brewing in the background, most Bostonians are not eager to help this sniveling youth find his aristocratic patron. All the youth can do is wander around the town asking for leads on Molineux. He is finally discovered as old, frail, and in the process of being publicly humiliated by the Bostonian crowd (tar and feathered). The narrator is advised to seek his own way in the world. In a real sense, they are asking him to take his place as one of the American revolutionaries, overthrowing the old system, represented by the aging and weak Major Molineux. With this, Hawthorne seems to place himself on the side of rough, contentious liberty. This does not mean that the past will always be easily overcome.