IN September of the year during the February of which Hawthorne had
completed "The Scarlet Letter," he began "The House of the Seven Gables."
Meanwhile, he had removed from Salem to Lenox, in Berkshire County,
Massachusetts, where he occupied with his family a small red wooden house,
still standing at the date of this edition, near the Stockbridge Bowl.
"I sha'n't have the new story ready by November," he explained
to his publisher, on the 1st of October, "for I am never good for
anything in the literary way till after the first autumnal frost,
which has somewhat such an effect on my imagination that it does
on the foliage here about me-multiplying and brightening its hues."
But by vigorous application he was able to complete the new work
about the middle of the January following.
Since research has disclosed the manner in which the romance is
interwoven with incidents from the history of the Hawthorne family,
"The House of the Seven Gables" has acquired an interest apart
from that by which it first appealed to the public. John Hathorne
(as the name was then spelled), the great-grandfather of Nathaniel
Hawthorne, was a magistrate at Salem in the latter part of the
seventeenth century, and officiated at the famous trials for
witchcraft held there. It is of record that he used peculiar
severity towards a certain woman who was among the accused;
and the husband of this woman prophesied that God would take
revenge upon his wife's persecutors. This circumstance doubtless
furnished a hint for that piece of tradition in the book which
represents a Pyncheon of a former generation as having persecuted
one Maule, who declared that God would give his enemy "blood to drink."
It became a conviction with The Hawthorne family that a curse had been
pronounced upon its members, which continued in force in the time of
The romancer; a conviction perhaps derived from the recorded prophecy
of The injured woman's husband, just mentioned; and, here again,
we have a correspondence with Maule's malediction in The story.
Furthermore, there occurs in The "American Note-Books" (August 27,
1837), a reminiscence of The author's family, to the following effect.
Philip English, a character well-known in early Salem annals, was among
those who suffered from John Hathorne's magisterial harshness, and he
maintained in consequence a lasting feud with the old Puritan official.
But at his death English left daughters, one of whom is said to have
married the son of Justice John Hathorne, whom English had declared
he would never forgive. It is scarcely necessary to point out how
clearly this foreshadows the final union of those hereditary foes,
the Pyncheons and Maules, through the marriage of Phoebe and Holgrave.
The romance, however, describes the Maules as possessing some of the
traits known to have been characteristic of the Hawthornes: for example,
"so long as any of the race were to be found, they had been marked out
from other men--not strikingly, nor as with a sharp line, but with an
effect that was felt rather than spoken of--by an hereditary
characteristic of reserve." Thus, while the general suggestion
of the Hawthorne line and its fortunes was followed in the romance,
the Pyncheons taking the place of The author's family,
certain distinguishing marks of the Hawthornes were assigned
to the imaginary Maule posterity.
There are one or two other points which indicate Hawthorne's
method of basing his compositions, the result in the main
of pure invention, on the solid ground of particular facts.
Allusion is made, in the first chapter of the "Seven Gables,"
to a grant of lands in Waldo County, Maine, owned by the
Pyncheon family. In the "American Note-Books" there is an entry,
dated August 12, 1837, which speaks of the Revolutionary general,
Knox, and his land-grant in Waldo County, by virtue of which the
owner had hoped to establish an estate on the English plan,
with a tenantry to make it profitable for him. An incident of
much greater importance in the story is the supposed murder of
one of the Pyncheons by his nephew, to whom we are introduced as
Clifford Pyncheon. In all probability Hawthorne connected with
this, in his mind, the murder of Mr. White, a wealthy gentleman
of Salem, killed by a man whom his nephew had hired. This took
place a few years after Hawthorne's gradation from college,
and was one of the celebrated cases of the day, Daniel Webster
taking part prominently in the trial. But it should be observed
here that such resemblances as these between sundry elements in
the work of Hawthorne's fancy and details of reality are only
fragmentary, and are rearranged to suit the author's purposes.
In the same way he has made his description of Hepzibah Pyncheon's
seven-gabled mansion conform so nearly to several old dwellings
formerly or still extant in Salem, that strenuous efforts have
been made to fix upon some one of them as the veritable edifice
of the romance. A paragraph in The opening chapter has perhaps
assisted this delusion that there must have been a single original
House of the Seven Gables, framed by flesh-and-blood carpenters;
for it runs thus:-
"Familiar as it stands in the writer's recollection--for it has
been an object of curiosity with him from boyhood, both as a
specimen of the best and stateliest architecture of a long-past
epoch, and as the scene of events more full of interest perhaps
than those of a gray feudal castle--familiar as it stands, in its
rusty old age, it is therefore only the more difficult to imagine
the bright novelty with which it first caught the sunshine."
Hundreds of pilgrims annually visit a house in Salem, belonging
to one branch of the Ingersoll family of that place, which is
stoutly maintained to have been The model for Hawthorne's
visionary dwelling. Others have supposed that the now vanished
house of The identical Philip English, whose blood, as we have
already noticed, became mingled with that of the Hawthornes,
supplied the pattern; and still a third building, known as the
Curwen mansion, has been declared the only genuine establishment.
Notwithstanding persistent popular belief, The authenticity of
all these must positively be denied; although it is possible that
isolated reminiscences of all three may have blended with the
ideal image in the mind of Hawthorne. He, it will be seen,
remarks in the Preface, alluding to himself in the third person,
that he trusts not to be condemned for "laying out a street that
infringes upon nobody's private rights... and building a house
of materials long in use for constructing castles in the air."
More than this, he stated to persons still living that the house of
the romance was not copied from any actual edifice, but was simply a
general reproduction of a style of architecture belonging to colonial days,
examples of which survived into the period of his youth, but have since
been radically modified or destroyed. Here, as elsewhere, he exercised
the liberty of a creative mind to heighten the probability of his pictures
without confining himself to a literal description of something he had seen.
While Hawthorne remained at Lenox, and during the composition
of this romance, various other literary personages settled or
stayed for a time in the vicinity; among them, Herman Melville,
whose intercourse Hawthorne greatly enjoyed, Henry James, Sr.,
Doctor Holmes, J. T. Headley, James Russell Lowell, Edwin P.
Whipple, Frederika Bremer, and J. T. Fields; so that there was
no lack of intellectual society in the midst of the beautiful
and inspiring mountain scenery of the place. "In the afternoons,
nowadays," he records, shortly before beginning the work, "this
valley in which I dwell seems like a vast basin filled with golden
Sunshine as with wine;" and, happy in the companionship of his
wife and their three children, he led a simple, refined, idyllic
life, despite the restrictions of a scanty and uncertain income.
A letter written by Mrs. Hawthorne, at this time, to a member of
her family, gives incidentally a glimpse of the scene, which may
properly find a place here. She says: "I delight to think that
you also can look forth, as I do now, upon a broad valley and a
fine amphitheater of hills, and are about to watch the stately
ceremony of the sunset from your piazza. But you have not this
lovely lake, nor, I suppose, the delicate purple mist which folds
these slumbering mountains in airy veils. Mr. Hawthorne has
been lying down in the sun shine, slightly fleckered with the
shadows of a tree, and Una and Julian have been making him look
like the mighty Pan, by covering his chin and breast with long
grass-blades, that looked like a verdant and venerable beard."
The pleasantness and peace of his surroundings and of his modest
home, in Lenox, may be taken into account as harmonizing with the
mellow serenity of the romance then produced. Of the work, when
it appeared in the early spring of 1851, he wrote to Horatio Bridge
these words, now published for the first time:-
"`The House of the Seven Gables' in my opinion, is better than
`The Scarlet Letter:' but I should not wonder if I had refined
upon the principal character a little too much for popular
appreciation, nor if the romance of the book should be somewhat
at odds with the humble and familiar scenery in which I invest it.
But I feel that portions of it are as good as anything I can hope
to write, and the publisher speaks encouragingly of its success."
From England, especially, came many warm expressions of praise,
--a fact which Mrs. Hawthorne, in a private letter, commented on as
the fulfillment of a possibility which Hawthorne, writing in boyhood
to his mother, had looked forward to. He had asked her if she would
not like him to become an author and have his books read in England.
G. P. L.
WHEN a writer calls his work a Romance, it need hardly be observed
that he wishes to claim a certain latitude, both as to its fashion
and material, which he would not have felt himself entitled to
assume had he professed to be writing a Novel. The latter form
of composition is presumed to aim at a very minute fidelity,
not merely to the possible, but to the probable and ordinary course
of man's experience. The former--while, as a work of art, it must
rigidly subject itself to laws, and while it sins unpardonably so
far as it may swerve aside from the truth of the human heart--has
fairly a right to present that truth under circumstances, to a
great extent, of the writer's own choosing or creation. If he think
fit, also, he may so manage his atmospherical medium as to bring
out or mellow the lights and deepen and enrich the shadows of the
picture. He will be wise, no doubt, to make a very moderate use of
the privileges here stated, and, especially, to mingle the Marvelous
rather as a slight, delicate, and evanescent flavor, than as any
portion of the actual substance of the dish offered to the public.
He can hardly be said, however, to commit a literary crime even if
he disregard this caution.
In the present work, the author has proposed to himself--but with
what success, fortunately, it is not for him to judge--to keep
undeviatingly within his immunities. 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. The narrative, it may be, is woven of so
humble a texture as to require this advantage, and, at the same
time, to render it the more difficult of attainment.
Many writers lay very great stress upon some definite moral
purpose, at which they profess to aim their works. Not to be
deficient in this particular, the author has provided himself
with a moral,--the truth, namely, that the wrong-doing of one
generation lives into the successive ones, and, divesting itself
of every temporary advantage, becomes a pure and uncontrollable
mischief; and he would feel it a singular gratification if this
romance might effectually convince mankind--or, indeed, any one
man--of the folly of tumbling down an avalanche of ill-gotten gold,
or real estate, on the heads of an unfortunate posterity, thereby
to maim and crush them, until the accumulated mass shall be
scattered abroad in its original atoms. In good faith, however,
he is not sufficiently imaginative to flatter himself with the
slightest hope of this kind. When romances do really teach
anything, or produce any effective operation, it is usually
through a far more subtile process than the ostensible one.
The author has considered it hardly worth his while, therefore,
relentlessly to impale the story with its moral as with an iron
rod,--or, rather, as by sticking a pin through a butterfly,
--thus at once depriving it of life, and causing it to stiffen
in an ungainly and unnatural attitude. A high truth, indeed,
fairly, finely, and skilfully wrought out, brightening at every
step, and crowning the final development of a work of fiction,
may add an artistic glory, but is never any truer, and seldom
any more evident, at the last page than at the first.
The reader may perhaps choose to assign an actual locality to the
imaginary events of this narrative. If permitted by the historical
connection,--which, though slight, was essential to his plan,--the
author would very willingly have avoided anything of this nature.
Not to speak of other objections, it exposes the romance to an
inflexible and exceedingly dangerous species of criticism, by
bringing his fancy-pictures almost into positive contact with
the realities of the moment. It has been no part of his object,
however, to describe local manners, nor in any way to meddle
with the characteristics of a community for whom he cherishes
a proper respect and a natural regard. He 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. The personages
of the tale--though they give themselves out to be of ancient
stability and considerable prominence--are really of the author's
own making, or at all events, of his own mixing; their virtues can
shed no lustre, nor their defects redound, in the remotest degree,
to the discredit of the venerable town of which they profess to be
inhabitants. He would be glad, therefore, if-especially in the
quarter to which he alludes-the book may be read strictly as a
Romance, having a great deal more to do with the clouds overhead
than with any portion of the actual soil of the County of Essex.
LENOX, January 27, 1851.