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From Gordon Tapper’s Introduction to The House of the Seven Gables
Secrecy, history, crime, and retribution: These subjects fascinated Nathaniel Hawthorne from the very beginning of his career, and they merged with particular force in his third novel, The House of the Seven Gables, which Hawthorne wrote during 1850 and 1851 while enjoying his first flush of celebrity as the acclaimed author of the recently published The Scarlet Letter (1850). Hawthorne was at this time forty-six years old, with more than two decades of writing behind him, having produced close to one hundred meticulously crafted works of short fiction, many of which grapple with the nature of evil, the reverberations of the past, and the psychological ramifications of sin. And yet, despite this impressive output, Hawthorne was exasperated with how long it had taken him to achieve literary fame. “How slowly I have made my way in life!” (quoted in Mellow, Nathaniel Hawthorne in His Times, p. 367; see “For Further Reading”) he complained shortly before Seven Gables appeared in April 1851. In part, however, this delay in public recognition was self-imposed, a result of Hawthorne’s congenital reserve. He had in fact begun his career at the auspicious age of twenty-four, when in 1828 he published Fanshawe, though he was so dissatisfied with this derivative novel that he did his best to suppress it. More significant, however, were the stories he began placing in periodicals in 1830, yet all of these early works were published anonymously, and it was not until the 1837 appearance of Twice-Told Tales, his first collection of stories, that Hawthorne was identified as author of any of his texts. Although unsigned publication was fairly common during this period, Hawthorne was more reluctant than most writers to bring this anonymity to an end. Moreover, just as he concealed his name from the public, his fiction is pervaded with secrets and unresolved ambiguities. In his disturbing tale “The Minister’s Black Veil,” for instance, the mysterious veil worn so stubbornly by the protagonist is, on one level, a fictional echo of the psychological barrier that Hawthorne himself was loathe to remove. After his death in 1864, even his wife Sophia declared that “to the last he was in a measure to me a divine Mystery, for he was so to himself” (quoted in Wineapple, Hawthorne: A Life, p. 380).
Born into a family that traced its lineage to the Puritan settlements of New England during the 1630s, Hawthorne was imbued from a very early age with what he termed “a home-feeling with the past” (“The Custom House,” p. 7). This pronounced historical consciousness merged in Hawthorne’s writing with an attraction toward the shadowy recesses of human nature. Herman Melville—with whom Hawthorne developed a remarkable friendship during the 1850s—identified this strain in his fellow writer’s work as a “great power of blackness” (Pierre, Israel Potter, The Piazza Tales, The Confidence-Man, Uncollected Prose, Billy Budd, p. 1159), a faculty that Melville attributed to Hawthorne’s preoccupation with the Calvinistic theology of his Puritan ancestors, with its unforgiving emphasis on the doctrines of innate depravity and original sin. Hawthorne was, however, deeply ambivalent about the legacy of Puritanism. On the one hand, his fiction reproduces the rigorous inspection of conscience so central to Puritan theology, yet it also often satirizes the ideological intolerance and class inequities that Puritanism helped spawn in the United States. This divided view of Puritanism and its foundational role in shaping the national culture are precisely what lend Hawthorne’s fiction much of its depth and complexity.
Hawthorne’s obsession with the nation’s colonial origins was inextricable from his equally intense absorption with his family heritage. As he puts it in his journal, “the spirit of my Puritan ancestors was mighty in me” (quoted in Wineapple, 231). The first of these ancestors to emigrate from England to the Massachusetts Bay Colony was William Hathorne, who arrived in Salem in 1636 and played a prominent role in colonial politics, serving as selectman and speaker of the House of Delegates. This forefather was especially admired by his descendants for his indomitable will, which was epitomized by his defiance of King Charles II’s command to return to England in order to answer for colonial disobedience. As Hawthorne confides in his autobiographical essay “The Custom House,” written just one year before he composed The House of the Seven Gables, this ancestral figure was “invested by family tradition with a dim and dusky grandeur . . . present to my boyish imagination, as far back as I can remember” (p. 6). Yet if this patriarch stirred the imagination of the young writer-to-be, he also filled Hawthorne with shame for the less noble acts recorded in colonial annals, such as his persecution of the Quakers, which included commanding that a woman be publicly whipped as punishment for her religious nonconformism. Hawthorne was both intrigued and troubled by the fact that this “persecuting spirit” (“The Custom House,” p. 7) re-emerged in the next generation through the actions of Colonel John Hathorne, who earned notoriety as one of the judges presiding over the Salem witchcraft trials of 1692, which involved the prosecution of hundreds and the execution of twenty individuals. For Hawthorne, this recurring impulse to victimize others was disturbing, not only because it compounded his sense of inherited guilt, but also because it suggested that the propensity to sin is transmitted across generations just as surely as physical traits. In Seven Gables, he explores more thoroughly than anywhere else in his fiction the chilling possibility that evil is historically determined, the consequence of an inescapable family legacy.
Not surprisingly, Hawthorne responded to his family’s role in national history with a contradictory mixture of reverence and revulsion, and this deeply felt engagement with the past led him to become what Michael Colacurcio has called a “moral historian” (The Province of Piety, p. 13) of American culture.