Years ago I taught Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables to high school seniors and read it again only weeks ago on my Kindle during the very familiar and very long cross-continental flight from San Diego to Boston. Reading as a writer is different than reading as a teacher, and by the time we were over New York State I was shocked to realize that (a) the first third of the book is so painfully boring I don’t know how I ever got a bunch of teenagers to read it (if, indeed, they did read it…), (b) it’s cloyingly sexist, (c) there are gaps in the plot through which a herd of rhinos could comfortably graze and (d) Hawthorne’s elegant, repetitive description of a dead body at the end is masterfull! If asked now, I would have to commend this classic of American literature for its exemplary and totally horrifying image upon image of one dead man. No blood, no spilling viscera, no maggots, just a dead body sitting in a chair, described in a curious journalistic style more bloodcurdling than Hannibal Lecter in his prime.
Nathaniel Hawthorne hated and was burdened by a past embodied in that corpse, accounting for the exquisite care he brought to describing it. Short version – Hawthorne’s great-great grandfather, John Hathorne, was a magistrate during the Salem witchcraft trials and is said to be the only one who never recanted or regretted his role in the slaughter. The House of the Seven Gables is about a “house” only in that ancestral sense – the “House” of Bourbon, for example. It’s about the few and troubled descendants of a man who condemned another to death as a witch in order to seize the man’s property. The property on which the fictional seven-gabled house sat.
But there is a House of Seven Gables in Salem, complete with seven gables, and this is where it all becomes intriguing. The original 1668 building had two rooms on two floors and was owned by a man named John Turner. Turner made several additions to the house, which at some point may have had seven gables, or may not, but for some reason the idea stuck in local lore. Sometime in the 1720’s Turner had the house redone in the Georgian style, removing some of the gables. And that way it stayed through John Turners II and III. Turner III, in the best profligate tradition, lost the family fortune including the house, which was purchased by a family named Ingersoll who were apparently related to Hawthorne, as Susanna Ingersoll is referenced widely as Hawthorne’s “cousin”.
As a boy Hawthorne is said to have visited this cousin, exploring the old house (which then had three gables) that later provided the famous title. However, with regard to The House of the Seven Gables, Hawthorne went to great lengths in the book’s preface to state that, “The reader may perhaps choose to assign an actual locality to the imaginary events of this narrative…He [the author] trusts not to be considered as unpardonably offending by laying out a street that infringes upon nobody’s private rights, and appropriating a lot of land which had no visible owner, and building a house of materials long in use for constructing castles in the air.” So… the author himself stated categorically that the house of the title was imaginary. There never was a particular, real, identifiable House of Seven Gables. The title was an allegory.
And yet every year thousands of tourists (including me) pay handsomely to be escorted through a seven-gabled Salem mansion that is held to be the setting for Hawthorne’s novel and in 2007 was assigned its place in the National Registry of Historic Places – the House of Seven Gables.
I followed the tour guide in that transcendent state created by the dizzying awareness that everything is Story. In the novel, the evil Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon (the spitting image of his witch-burning ancestor) comes to the House of Seven Gables to threaten his aged and infirm cousin Clifford (only recently released after doing thirty years in prison for a murder we later learn was committed by Jaffrey) with further imprisonment in an insane asylum. Clifford’s (aged, impoverished but nonetheless devoted) sister Hepzibah is told to bring Clifford to the parlor where Jaffrey sits, cruelly waiting. Hepzibah cannot find Clifford in his room or anywhere else in the old house. But suddenly he appears in the hall outside the parlor, giving rise to a wholly unsupportable theory on the part of readers that Clifford must have used a secret staircase. Of course! It hardly matters that there is no secret staircase in the book, merely a gaffe in story logic. But there is a secret staircase now! I know because I climbed its treacherous, musty and atmospheric steps, reversing Clifford’s doubly fictional passage to the hall from which he would see, ah! – the unnaturally still figure of Jaffrey Pyncheon. So this much is “true” -inside a house that existed only in the mind of Nathaniel Hawthorne is a staircase that exists only in the minds of readers of Nathaniel Hawthorne, and anyone can see this house and staircase for fifteen dollars.
I was inside a physical building that is itself a story, structured to reflect another story (Hawthorne’s novel), itself an allegory for a third story involving American history, ancestral guilt and redemption, complete with a fourth architectural plot remedy provided by readers. I suspect that I had the deranged look of a literary pilgrim, one of those who tremble to think, “Oh my God, Nathaniel Hawthorne actually looked out this window!” Only that wasn’t it. I was thinking, “This whole constructed mirage, recognized by the United States Government for crying out loud, isn’t ‘real,’ so what is it?”
And what it is, is another story. Women generally don’t identify with male ancestors and thus aren’t generally prone to guilt about whatever atrocities their male ancestors committed. Women tend to have current, quotidian concerns, like the aesthetic context of their lives and the survival of the next generation. Well-to-do women of the 19th century were renowned for social activism in these regards, and from this milieu came a woman named Caroline Emmerton, who was deeply influenced by Jane Addams, founder of Chicago’s Hull House. Emmerton created a similar settlement house in Salem to serve the needs of the many Eastern European immigrants who came to work in the area’s textile mills and tanneries. To fund this endeavor, in 1908 Emmerton bought the Turner-Ingersoll mansion where Hawthorne supposedly visited his cousin, and spent two years and fifteen thousand dollars turning it into The House of Seven Gables. http://www.boston.com/yourtown/news/salem/2011/03/history_time_they_changed_the.html
Emmerton had the missing gables reconstructed (or constructed), created poor fictional Hepzibah’s “cent shop” under a front gable and instructed the architect to build the secret staircase Clifford Pyncheon could not have descended in the novel, since there was no secret staircase in the novel. Proceeds from tours of the House of Seven Gables still support the social services agency, The House of the Seven Gables Settlement Association, founded by Caroline Emmerton, who died the year I was born.
And so, again, a “reality” has been built of layers of Story. Over 350 years of Story, half-forgotten, fictionalized, distorted, enhanced and commercialized in a Massachusetts geography renowned for a history in which the always-permeable boundaries of fact and fiction so famously dissolved completely. The House of Seven Gables actually exists, but really functions as a secret doorway to countless layers of Story available only to those who trouble to see. I didn’t see nearly enough; I’ll have to go back. I love this stuff!