The Printed Houses of the Seven Gables. Part One: Objects Matter
House of the Seven Gables has never been out of print in the United States.
This is unusual, even for the books we patriotic Americans consider our literary classics.
By comparison, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick was published with an edition of 500 copies on November 14, 1851, the same year that The House of the Seven Gables was published. Melville dedicated the novel to Hawthorne.
But Moby Dick was a comparative failure. Copies of the novel sat unsold on the shelves of booksellers. No immediate second edition was considered necessary. The novel was out of print at the time of Melville’s death in 1891. House of the Seven Gables, by comparison, received fifteen printings before Hawthorne’s death in 1864, and forty-six printings before Melville’s death
In my first blogpost in this series, I recounted a brief history of the House of the Seven Gables as a real thing. As a mansion built in 1692, with a succession of owners who called it their home, who remodelled it, sold it, or passed it to succeeding generations until purchased by Caroline Emmerton for the purpose of creating a museum in 1910. In my third blogpost, I told you about the history of the House of the Seven Gables as a Settlement House.
As you can see from these posts, even though the House of the Seven Gables has occupied the same plot of land, and existed as a house since its inception, it hasn’t been static; it has been dynamic, taking multiple forms according to the changing needs of its users. The same can be said for Hawthorne’s novel The House of the Seven Gables. It has changed since inception, taking on different shapes, sizes, forms, and even different types of media.
As we commonly speak of novels, we think of The House of the Seven Gables as a book. But what is a book? To sophisticated readers of this blog, such a question may sound banal. But the very assertion with which I opened this post brings the simplicity of our conception of the book into question. How can a single book be in print continuously? We know, after all, it isn’t the same book the whole time, right? So, just as the book The House of the Seven Gables is actually many different books, the actual House of the Seven Gables is many objects. The House of the Seven Gables thus manifests itself in many different ways. This post explores what we mean by “book,” how our interactions with the book matter to us, and how the earliest editions of the House of the Seven Gables mattered to their readers.
On an abstract level, we might think of book as an object, or a thing. We instinctively know that it is not a singular object, like a house. After all, you and your bestie might both have the same book. But if we hold a first edition (I almost said copy, which would have taken us down another path of inquiry) of the House of the Seven Gables in one hand, and a copy of a current edition in the other, we will be confronted with the book’s very discontinuity as a continuous series of objects
There are some obvious pitfalls to using a digital platform like this blog to illustrate the differences, in physical terms, between two books. From the two images you can see that the 1851 edition is a hardback volume bound in brown material, with the name of the book, author, and publisher displayed in all caps on the binding. I can tell you that it is covered in brown cloth in thinly ruled vertical rows, imprinted on the cover with a raised floral design, with gilt lettering on the spine.
I can further tell you that the cotton-based paper will be heavier, yellower, and coarser than the bleached wood pulp paper of a modern Penguin edition. And you will most likely be very familiar with the way a Penguin paperback edition of a book feels in your hands, and smells, and know that it will be smaller and lighter than the 1851 hardcover, which is both larger and made of heavier materials. You can get a good idea of the differences in size and weight, and how they affect your perception of the book, from holding a modern hardcover in one hand, and a Penguin paperback in another.
Another difference you may have noted is that the Penguin edition has a very pretty cover illustration. Images matter, too. But they matter in different ways than objects. We’ll get to that in another post down the line
But to properly understand what it feels like to hold the 1851 edition in your hands, to turn the pages, to read its typeface, you would need to examine a copy. You don’t need to be a private collector, or know one, to do this. You can study the book in an archive like the American Antiquarian Society, or the Library of Congress.
If you do not live close to an archive such as these, you could still get a feel for this kind of book by examining copies of similar nineteenth-century books at your local historical society. If you haven’t yet worked with nineteenth-century books, I hope I’ve at least given you an impression of the different physical experiences that these two editions of House of the Seven Gables would evoke for a reader
As you might expect for a novel that has not been out of print since before the Civil War, these two editions are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to thinking about how readers interacted with The House of the Seven Gables as a book. For a detailed history of the many, many more editions of the The House of the Seven Gables, you will just have to wait for future posts! But I can promise you that soon, very soon, I will write a post that explores the first edition of House of the Seven Gables, and the terms of its manufacture, in further detail.
The statement with which I began this post, that House of the Seven Gables has been in print continuously, implies a certain continuity. But what is this a continuity of? Our concept of House of the Seven Gables as a continually printed book brings to question what we mean by continuity, and then by book. Even though we think of it as continuous as a book, if a book is an object, it isn’t continuous in its objectness and bookness. It is an illusion created by the open-endedness of our conception of a book or novel. The difference between these two conceptions of the House of the Seven Gables - between a continuous thing “in print,” and the discontinuous things that we use when we read - are encompassed within our very definition of a “book.”
Within the The Oxford English Dictionary’s enumerative definitions of “book” are two that highlight the problem we have been discussing:
1.a. A portable volume consisting of a series of written, printed, or illustrated pages bound together for ease of reading. In modern use the pages are typically printed and made of paper, and are usually trimmed to a uniform rectangular or square shape, sewn or glued together along one side to form a flat or rounded back, and encased in a protective cover, but other materials and construction methods may be used. In early and historical use, and with reference to non-Western cultures, book may refer to a literary work in portable form written on a wide variety of other materials (as vellum, parchment, papyrus, cotton, silk, palm leaves, bark, tablets of wood, ivory, slate, metal, etc.), and put together in any of a number of forms (as a scroll, or as separate leaves which may be hinged, strung, stitched, or glued together)
This first definition encapsulates what we think of when we hold a book in our hands, and when we think of a book as an object. It also encompasses the discontinuity between different books that we can call The House of the Seven Gables, for example the first edition and the Penguin edition. Because a book, unlike a house, is printed and reprinted over time by different publishers, who typeset the author’s manuscript between different covers, using different bindings, on different kinds of paper, and during the nineteenth century often even included different illustrations, all depending on the publisher and their conception of what would make their edition most marketable at any given time.
3. A specific text, elliptically or contextually understood. (“Book,” OED, 3rd, 2014
I do not know exactly what this means. And I have a Ph.D. in English. But to my understanding, this definition fits what I mean when I say that House of the Seven Gables has never been out of print. Or if you asked your Bestie Juanita when was the last time she read House of the Seven Gables. Because in this instance you would not be referencing a specific object, or even a specific edition of the book. Instead, you would be thinking of it as a text that might be printed in any number of forms, sizes, and media types (digital, analog, or audio).
Moreover, you’d be thinking of this text elliptically. It would not matter to you, for example, if Juanita had read a copy of House of the Seven Gables that replicates the text of the 1851 first edition of the novel, or if it contains the text of the 1964 Centenary edition commonly accepted by literary scholars. In this instance, you and Juanita would both understand House of the Seven Gables to mean the story written by Nathaniel Hawthorne, as generally understood in the context of our culture
Examining a printed history of the House of the Seven Gables requires that we think elliptically in considering the novel as a category of objects that tell Hawthorne’s story as we generally understand it, but also that we think of these printed objects as distinct from one another. Even though the 1851 first printing of the novel and the 1981 Penguin edition of the novel are the same elliptically, they are very different, as we established above, on a material level.
To borrow a catchphrase popular in current academic circles, objects matter. Objects matter not only in the sense that they can have a significance in our lives. They also matter in the sense that their materiality plays a role in how they affect our lives. To put this another way, the material experience of objects affects us in ways we often only dimly recognize
As a book, House of the Seven Gables does not simply textually reproduce Nathaniel Hawthorne’s original handwritten manuscript. The book itself is a collaborative production involving the work of printers, binders, typesetters, illustrators, engravers, paper-makers, etc. All of the interdependent decisions made by these collaborators determine the characteristics of the book as object. As an object, these characteristics of the book mediate the reader’s experience of the text. Mediation is combination of sensory experiences of the book that accompany the experience of reading. The way the book feels against our fingers, its weight and size in our hands. The sight of the pages and their typeface. The smell of the book - be it the fresh smell of a new printing, or the musty smell of decaying paper and glue. The sound of crisp pages turning, a crumbly spine opening.
Usually our experience of the book does not include taste. But once, in a moment of vexation during a final examination, I ate a page out of a Norton Edition of Laurence Stern’s 1767 novel Tristram Shandy. I probably shouldn’t have done that.
We commonly conceive of ourselves as constructing objects. But the reverse is also true. The objects that we have constructed in turn construct us. Objects shape us. This is unavoidable. We associate our own identity with a sleek black Jaguar automobile. If we drive a beat up junker, we correspondingly may think less of ourselves. Unless it is something cool. Like a Pinto. Then we are a cool retro beatnik. Jack Kerouac re-embodied. The same associations hold true for most other objects, including books. To repeat our earlier phrase, objects matter.
Perhaps I appear to be overstating things. And much of the evidence to support this thesis is either subjective or anecdotal. Still. You must know it is true. And we make decisions based on it. We are aphoristically told not to judge a book by its cover. But even when we don’t, our experience of the books is still shaped by what we might consider to be superficial, physical interactions. The feel of a book in our hands. The smell of the pages. The heft of a 890-page hardcover version of Anna Karenina, especially in contrast to experience of reading the same book on the highly pixelated HD screen of your Samsung tablet. You can still hold the tablet in your hands. But all books feel the same when transmediated through your digital device.
We can move the text, reproduce it from one object to another. But our experience of the text will be distinct as mediated by each object. The text and its physical medium can never truly be separated.
The elliptical, open-ended, ethereal House of the Seven Gables that we think of as circulating in our cultural consciousness in relatively stable form since 1851, and of maintaining its integrity across time and media, can only be apprehended through the hundred or so printed editions, numerous films, and audiobooks that mediate it in the physical world. And even though we think of it as continuous across these media, the text’s manifestation through all of these different physical objects in reality fragments it into myriad different reading experiences.
Which brings us to the question around which I have been circulating: how, for its initial readers in 1851, did House of the Seven Gables matter as a printed object? How did it appeal to its reader’s senses? In doing so, how could the book influence the reader’s conception of the text, and in turn, through their engagement, the reader’s identity? And what about all of those other editions of the book out there? Since the book’s never been out of print, that must be a lot of different objects, right?
You’re not going to believe this. You’re going to be angry. Please don’t be too angry. But you’re going to have to wait, dear reader. Until next time.