We live in the Shadow of the House of the Seven Gables.
We try not to talk about it. We don’t like to look at it. With every facet of our being we try to ignore it.
We pretend not to feel its long, cold, dark, pervasive presence. But no matter how much we deny it, we live in the shadow of the House of the Seven Gables.
Permit me to elucidate my claim through the following example: On May 17th, 2017, Donald J. Trump began one of his infamous tweet-storms. In response to claims (which he has both affirmed and denied) that he is being investigated by the FBI for obstruction of justice for his removal of former FBI Director James Comey, Trump tweeted: “I am being investigated for firing the FBI Director by the man who told me to fire the FBI Director! Witch Hunt.”
A month later, he said it again: “You are witnessing the single greatest WITCH HUNT in American political history - led by some very bad and conflicted people!” And then again on July 24th. But his analogy has resonated beyond the twittersphere, undermining the veracity of his investigators and evolving into cold-hard truth among his followers.
A witch hunt is an actual thing that has happened. An actual thing that looks very different. As many of my early Americanist colleagues, miscellaneous denizens of the twitterverse, and even Senator Chris Coons have pointed out, the greatest witch hunt in American history was the Salem Witch Trials of May 1692 to February 1693.
Over a period of ten months, 200 people were accused during the Trials. Twenty of them (mostly women) were executed for the crime of practicing witchcraft. The Salem Witch Trials can be counted as one of our ancestors’ Original Sins, along with the practices of Indian genocide and human slavery. We would do well to remember the magnitude of the Salem Witch Trials before we invoke them to complain about our own circumstances.
My point here is not to belittle Donald J. Trump’s ignorance, insensitivity, or hyperbolicity. This is unnecessary. But statements such as his, which compare historical events with dissimilar modern day occurrences, are dangerous. They are dangerous because they trivialize some of our nation’s most heinous national crimes, such as the Salem Witch Trials, or African slavery, or Native American genocide. By overwriting them in our collective American psyche, we expunge them from our history even while we continue to enjoy the fruits that the dominant few have reaped by exploiting the less-privileged many.
And we languish in the shadow of the House of the Seven Gables.
The nineteenth-century American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne understood this. Regardless of whether we would have liked his politics (probably we wouldn’t), he almost certainly would have found irony in Trump’s invocation of the Salem Witch Trials. He would have recognized the disparity between the persecution of marginalized women and a U.S. President.
This is because Hawthorne was a descendant of Judge John Hathorne, a magistrate of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and a head of the Salem Witchcraft Trials. This may not surprise you, but many people past and present have thought that many of the people accused, tried, and executed were not in fact practicing witchcraft. Hawthorne was very sensitive to this. He went so far to distance himself from this great-, great-grandfather that he changed his family name from Hathorne to Hawthorne.
Yet he also publicly owned up to his ancestry, even going so far as to accept responsibility for his actions. In his introduction to The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne wrote that his ancestor “Made himself so conspicuous in the martyrdom of the witches, that their blood may fairly be said to have left a stain upon him. At all events,” he continued, “I, the present writer, hereby take shame upon myself for their sakes, and pray that any curse incurred by them--as I have heard, and as the dreary unprosperous condition of the race, for many a long year back, would argue to exist, may be henceforth removed.” Here Hawthorne portrays himself as linked to the crimes of his ancestors, and prays to God for forgiveness of their sins. How much easier it would have been to have simply disowned them, to pretend they never really existed, at all.
The connection I am making here between Trump’s tweets and the theme of Hawthorne’s novel would be clear were we more familiar with The House of the Seven Gables. I will not summarize Hawthorne’s 1851 novel here. That would be insulting. Let me just remind you, in case your memory of the plot details are fuzzy, that the novel’s eponymous House is built on land stolen from a family, the Maules, falsely executed for witchcraft by their wealthy and powerful accuser Thomas Pyncheon, Governor of the Colony, during the Salem Witch Trials.
As the story proceeds, this original family sin creates a curse upon successive generations of Pyncheons. Despite the wealth that the family reaps from their crime, their ancestor’s original sin stunts their growth, reeks madness in the heirs, and creates instabilities, jealousies, and successive crimes across the family line. In large part because the family refuses to either acknowledge their wrongdoing or make reparations, the House (read: family, nation) withers and rots until in the 1820's, a Pyncheon and a Maule fall in love and flee to the countryside.
Hawthorne articulates the moral of the novel several times in the text. In one colorful iteration from the book’s Preface, Hawthorne writes that he hopes he “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 unfortunate posterity, thereby to maim and crush them, until the original mass shall be scattered abroad in its original atoms.”
Hawthorne warns that the avaricious misdeeds of one generation, while resulting in immediate wealth, at the same time violently reverberate and wound the succeeding generations who benefit. For Hawthorne, the fact that he did not himself participate in the Salem Witch Trials did not remove his guilt as a shareholder in the family’s mixed legacy of power and exploitation.
In writing the novel, Hawthorne tried to come to terms with an ancestral crime both personal and national, and prompt his readers – predominantly educated white Americans—to reflect on the crimes of their ancestors. Perhaps, even, to consider reparations to the victims of their crimes.
I hope to accomplish a similar purpose with this blog series. For in many ways, we share in the crimes of Nathaniel Hawthorne, and of his ancestors and contemporaries. Hawthorne’s ancestors committed unjust acts of violence against women. Hawthorne’s contemporaries, our own ancestors, enslaved millions of Africans, committed genocide against hundreds of thousands of Native Americans, killed through unjustifiable warfare tens of thousands of Mexicans, and initiated the still accelerating destruction of the continent in order to conquer the territory that is now the United States. Without these actions, the United States could not enjoy its place of wealth and prominence in the world today.
Just as for Hawthorne, this is our own House of the Seven Gables. This is the House we have built. And as long as race, class, and gender-based injustice continue in the United States, until we have made reparations to those upon whose backs we built this nation, we live in the House of the Seven Gables’ long shadow.
Despite the fact that few of us read and reflect deeply on The House of the Seven Gables, the novel’s problems serve as a foundational structure of the American psyche. The House of the Seven Gables is, with the probable exception of The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne’s most well-known work. The House was even as popular in Hawthorne’s own time as The Scarlet Letter. But of these two masterworks, The House has over time received less attention in American culture. The House served as a staple of early twentieth century secondary education in the United States, but by the end of the century it was superseded by The Scarlet Letter in the literary canon (while literature in general is becoming a rarity in many secondary school curricula).
One might easily argue, though, that The House is among the works of early American literature to most influence our modern American culture. This is because of the novel’s influence on the genre of “the gothic.” Although we often attribute the development of the gothic to Poe, Hawthorne’s novel is full of sinister mirrors, spooky portraits, and the heavy weight of the dark burgeoning past. During the twentieth century, the novel would become the source of children’s literature, drama, and even a television series. Howard Phillips Lovecraft, himself a pioneer of gothic fiction and in particular the subgenre of “weird” fiction, cited The House as an originary moment in the development of modern dark fiction.
The house that was said to inspire Hawthorne’s novel, the historic Turner-Ingersoll Mansion in Salem Massachusetts, would become the source of legends of ghosts and witchcraft.Forever associated with Hawthorne’s novel, the Turner-Ingersoll mansion became synonymous for many Americans with the persistent and overshadowing presence of our past crimes, darkness, guilt, and literary genius.
But we might not think about The House of the Seven Gables as often in the twenty-first century, even as the gothic pervades more and more our television, film, and literature. Americans may not fully appreciate the novel’s influence on the present-day fabric of American culture. I’ve begun this blog to help, in some small part, to bring The House of the Seven Gables back into the American consciousness.
Because the novel’s themes and problems and questions are as important (perhaps even more so) as they used to be. Because whether we recognize it or not, We Live in the Shadow of the House of the Seven Gables.
Will anyone ever read The House of the Seven Gables again? Can Americans in the age of social media and HGTV still relate to a woman named Hepzibah, and a manor built in 1688? What is the House of the Seven Gables, as a historical object and an object of American memory and imagination? Why do The House, the original house that inspired Hawthorne's novel of the same name, and Hawthorne in general, still matter? As this blog unfolds, we will answer these questions, and many more, by examining the entangled histories of Hawthorne and The House of the Seven Gables, their legacies in the American imagination, and their relevance to our own worlds.
I’ll begin with a series of posts that explore Hawthorne and the House of Seven Gables in our present context, then circle back with a series of more historical posts. Check back each week! Become a subscriber!
And if you develop pressing questions on any of these urgent topics, leave me a question below! Although I derive great amusement from this blog, I’m ultimately here for you, dear reader.