Roy Moore, Al Franken, and the House of the Seven Gables
This is what I have been trying to tell you.
We try not to talk about it. We pretend not to feel its long dark pervasive presence. But no matter how we deny it, we live in the shadow of the House of the Seven Gables.
Our country lies in the same shadow of which Nathaniel Hawthorne, in writing his famous 1851 novel House of the Seven Gables, sought to make his own society aware.
Hawthorne feared that unless the sins of our nation’s founders were atoned for, this shadow would stain the lives of his ancestors. Building a house (read family, nation) on a foundation of immorality can only bear wicked fruit. We, the twenty-first century citizens of the United States of America, are Hawthorne’s ancestors.
Hawthorne’s unheeded warnings come to mind as I struggle to come to terms with the immoral sexual exploitations of powerful men such as Roy S. Moore, Al Franken, and yes, the President of these United States, over comparatively vulnerable women.
In the metaphor that Hawthorne crafted, and I am extending, the shadow of the House of Seven Gables extends not only through space, but through time, from the colonial era to our own. And in an unsettling series of correspondences, the wave of revelations of sexual misconduct among some of our most powerful leaders lights up disturbingly well with the characters and the plot of Hawthorne’s novel. Allow me to outline these correspondences before proceeding.
Hawthorne set his fictional tale in the 1820s, but did so against a backdrop of very real human sins. In the novel, the wealthy and powerful Colonel Pyncheon built the House in 1692 on land that he acquired by accusing the original owner, Matthew Maule, of witchcraft during the Salem Witch Trials. During the infamous trials of 1692-3, 200 people were accused of practicing witchcraft. Twenty of them, mostly women, were condemned by male judges to death for the crime of witchcraft.
Hawthorne counted the Salem Witch Trials as one of our nation’s original sins. He was quite cognizant of this because his great-grandfather John Hathorne presided over them. Perhaps he tried to exorcise his own family curse by writing The House of the Seven Gables.
For the convicted Maule of Hawthorne’s novel cursed the Pyncheon family as he stood upon the execution scaffold with the rope around his neck. And then, after Colonel Pyncheon demolished Maule’s humble home, and erected an enormous gothic family mansion over its foundations, Pyncheon was mysteriously found dead in his study. In true gothic fashion Hawthorne depicts Pyncheon with blood running from his mouth, down his neck, and soaking his shirt. His death and the blood are believed to be the manifestation of Maule’s curse.
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, wreaks madness in the heirs, and creates instabilities, jealousies, and successive crimes across the family line.
Among the Pyncheon ancestors of Hawthorne’s novel is Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon, the head of the remaining Pyncheons, who serves as the primary antagonist. Like his ancestors, Jaffrey Pyncheon has achieved some measure of wealth and prominence. He currently acts as the county judge, but had once held seats in both houses of the state legislature. Near the beginning of the novel, Jaffrey’s brother, Clifford, returns to the house after serving most of his adult life in prison for the murder of his and Jaffrey’s uncle. Clifford returns “a wasted, grey, melancholy figure.” He remains physically weak and mentally feeble for the remainder of his life.
Throughout the novel Jaffrey plumbs the addled corridors of Clifford’s mind for the source of a legendary family treasure, to no avail. At the novel’s end, the Judge dies of a stroke in the same chair as his ancestor Colonel Pyncheon, and, like the Colonel, with blood seeping down his chin.
Hawthorne here reveals that in their youth, Jaffrey Pyncheon framed his brother Clifford for the murder Jaffrey himself had committed. Upon finding that their uncle has chosen his younger brother as the heir to the family’s property, Jaffrey killed him, arranged the scene to implicate Clifford, and destroyed the will naming Clifford as heir. As a result, Jaffrey inherited the family wealth and used it to build a political career. But he also inherited the family curse, and died in his ancestor’s chair. After taking rightful possession of the house, Clifford and the remaining Pyncheons flee to the country. By giving up the house, they implicitly evade the curse of their ancestors.
But unlike the gothic mansion of Edgar Allen Poe’s paradigmatic Fall of the House of Usher, which collapses into oblivion, Hawthorne’s Seven-Gabled House remains standing as a reminder of the inevitable fate that awaits us, should we build our own wealth and power, our own house, or own nation on the foundations that our forefathers laid through crimes against the weak and marginalized. This also leaves open the potential for it to be reoccupied, and to extend the legacy of power founded on sin.
The career of Jaffrey Pyncheon, a Judge who has formerly been a senator, runs in an opposite trajectory with that of current Alabama politician Roy S. Moore, a county judge who seeks to become an Alabama senator. This coincidence initially made me think about the relevance of Hawthorne’s novel today. And then, Al Franken’s admission to forcibly kissing and groping a woman in turn reminded me of the accusations and recorded confessions of our current president.
All of this made me think further about what the novel has to say about our present-day nation, built on foundations laid by white men who have committed harmful and in some cases particularly heinous acts against women, as did the Judges of the Salem Witch Trials.
We cannot equate Moore’s pedophilia with Trump’s braggadocious sexual assaults on at least 19 adult women, nor neglect to mention that Franken has acknowledged and apologized for his forcible sexual advances against Leeann Tweedon. All three men, it is true, exploited their positions of fame, power, and wealth in order to sexually exploit women. Judge Moore’s crimes, like those of Hawthorne’s Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon, are less debatable than those of Franken and Trump. Moore’s sexual assaults on minors constitute the most heinous among these men’s sins because of his particular abuse of minors, and the inequalities of power between Moore as a district attorney and his victims.
When a lone woman related that then-District Attorney Moore had sexually assaulted her when she was 14 years old, members of Moore’s own Republican party rallied around him, his denials, and his attacks on his victims. After three more women came forward to state that Moore sexually assaulted them between the ages of 16 and 18, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he believed Moore’s accusers and that Moore should withdraw from the race. A day later the Republican National Committee broke ties with Moore as a senatorial candidate1. But as of this writing, Mitch McConnell has reversed his position and said that the people of Alabama should decide whether or not Moore is fit to lead.
We would expect Moore to be completely ostracized, especially in a Bible Belt state like Alabama. But on a local level Moore still holds strong support among Republicans and Evangelicals in a bid for Senator that would give him far more political power. Among others, the GOP Chairmen for Alabama’s Marion, Bibb, and Covington Counties have said they would continue to support Moore even if the allegations of sexual assault are true. Alabama Governor Kay Ivy has gone so far as to acknowledge that she believes Moore’s victims, yet will still vote for Moore.
“I believe in the Republican Party and what we stand for, and most important, we need to have a Republican in the United States Senate to vote on things like Supreme Court justices, other appointments the Senate has to confirm and make major decisions,” Ivey said. “And so that’s what I plan to do, is vote for the Republican nominee, Roy S. Moore.” Ivy and other Alabama Republican officials argue that having a Democrat would be worse than having a sexual predator as their representative.
In an inverse correlation between what we would expect of religious morality and support for Moore, there appears to be a close connection between support for Moore and evangelism. In a poll conducted by JMC analytics between Nov 9 and 11, 37% of Alabama evangelicals said they were more likely to vote for Moore than before his alleged sexual assaults of minors came to light.
Alabama State Auditor Jim Ziegler went so far as to invoke the Bible to justify his continued support for Moore. “Take the Bible: Zachariah and Elizabeth for instance,” Zeigler said. “Zachariah was extremely old to marry Elizabeth and they became the parents of John the Baptist. Also take Joseph and Mary. Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter. They became parents of Jesus. There’s just nothing immoral or illegal here. Maybe just a little bit unusual2.”
In the minds of the Republican leaders and evangelicals who still support Roy S. Moore’s candidacy for Senator, power has trumped morality. In the minds of Moore’s supporters, the perpetration of sin, attacks on the victims, and continual denial have become acceptable actions for those who make and execute our laws and lead our society. These republican leaders have unequivocally chosen power and party over morality.
I have concentrated on Judge Moore because of his correspondence with Hawthorne’s Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon. But the lessons of The House of the Seven Gables hold true in relation to all of these powerful men who have recently been revealed to be serial sexual abusers. If we elect people such as Moore to lead us, if we ignore the actions of Al Franken and Donald Trump, we will not simply continue to live in the House of Seven Gable’s shadow. We will re-enter together that accursed, haunted, decaying mansion and sleep beside them.
And where will this lead us? According to the lesson’s of Hawthorne’s novel, only to a road to ruin paved by more leaders who abuse their positions of power. A House, a nation built on the sins of the past generations can only bear as fruit more sin and destruction. And the cycle continues for as long as succeeding generations ignore the shadow, and forget the crimes of founding ancestors.
Nathaniel Hawthorne sums up the propensity to ignore our own sins, and the sins of the politically powerful, with these words: “Jaffrey Pyncheon’s inward criminality, as regarded Clifford, was, indeed, black and damnable, while its outward show and positive commission was the smallest that could possibly consist with so great a sin. This is just the sort of guilt that a man of eminent respectability finds easiest to dispose of. It was suffered to fade out of sight, and be reckoned as a venial matter, in the Honorable Judge Pyncheon’s long subsequent survey of his own life. He shuffled it aside, among the forgotten and forgiven frailties of his youth, and seldom thought of it again.”
Judge Roy S. Moore and his remaining supporters hope that, as it did for Jaffrey Pyncheon, their sins and misdeeds will “fade out of sight, and be reckoned as a venial matter” in the context of their ascent to worldly power. It is up to us to choose if we will allow this to happen, and as a society ignore the sins, the corruption, the sexual violence of the leaders of our House3.
Hawthorne’s writing and subject matter can seem antiquated, a relic of a past no longer relevant to us. But one of the reasons that The House of the Seven Gables has never been out of print is that its theme and message continue to resonate. The Pyncheons’ quest for political and economic power at the sacrifice of morality has remained an emblem of our society.
Even in the age of globalism, digitization, and drone warfare, The House of the Seven Gables looms on our horizon, casting its shadow across the plain. We would do well to heed its warning.
As another brilliant American writer once wrote: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Will America ever make reparations for the crimes of our ancestors? Or will we only repeat them, boats against the current, as we languish in the shadow of the House of the Seven Gables?
2. In entertaining this claim it is worth noting that according to our social norms, sexual relationships between adults and minors are considered both immoral and illegal. And that sexual assault is also immoral and illegal. It may be also worth noting that in the biblical story of Mary and Joseph, Jesus was conceived through immaculate conception, rather than non-consensual sexual relations between and adult and a minor. ↩
3. This is not to mention the patterns of legalized and illegal corruption among our leaders, who are currently enacting tax laws that immorally harm the poorer and more vulnerable in our society while increasing the inequalities of wealth in our nation. ↩