The H7G Blog

House of the Seven Gables: History and Memory and Forgetting

The Printed Houses of the Seven Gables. Part Two: The First Edition

Photo credit:  AndGeorgeMakes4 Studios

I mentioned to you in a previous post that House of the Seven Gables has never been out of print in the United States. I know that this is impressive. However, this does not make it anything like the best selling novel of all time. To Nathaniel Hawthorne’s chagrin, House of the Seven Gables was not even the best selling novel of its decade. That prize most likely goes to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or possibly, depending on how one counts, Susan Warner’s The Wide Wide World.

But being in print since the mid-nineteenth century does put it in rare company. Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe has been in print since 1719. Jane Austen’s Emma has been in print since 1815. Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women has been in print since 1869. Only novels acclaimed as these can count The House of the Seven Gables as their peer.

Hawthorne’s follow up to The Scarlet Letter was published by the prominent Boston publishing company Ticknor, Reed & Fields. Between March 6 through March 24, 1851, the publisher printed 1691 copies from stereotyped plates.1 Stereotype had been invented much earlier in the century, but became common by mid-century when a publisher anticipated multiple printings of a text. Publishers permanently cast typeset in such stereotyped plates, rather than movable type that would be disassembled after a single printing. This allowed them to save on the labor of paying a typesetter to reassemble the type with each printing.

In order to meet overwhelming anticipated demand for the second of Hawthorne’s novels, Ticknor and Fields followed up with a second printing of the novel only days after the first, issuing 1969 more copies. These two printings were published together on April 9th, 1851. After the initial publication of the first two printings in April 1851, three more totaling 4,051 copies followed before the end of the year.

Ticknor, Reed & Fields’ first five printings in 1851 appear to have satisfied the novel’s initial surge in demand, for the publisher did not print The House of the Seven Gables again for more than two years, in October of 1853, when they printed 1,000 copies. More conservative runs of 500 copies followed in August and September 1855, which appeared to satisfy public demand until another 500 copies in March 1860.

I know what you are thinking. I did the math for you. That’s 9,711 copies in the first decade of publication. With the addition of the three more printings up to May of 1864, this pushed the total to just above 10,500 before Hawthorne’s death in 1864.

I know this seems like a lot. And it was pretty good. Together with reprints of The Scarlet Letter, and a second, expanded edition of his short story collection Twice-Told Tales, The House of the Seven Gables made Hawthorne the second most-printed author of Ticknor, Reed & Fields during this period, behind only the acclaimed poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Hawthorne supported his family pretty handsomely for a time in the 1850s. But to put things in perspective, the top-selling novel of the decade, Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, sold 350,000 in its first two years of publication in 1852 and 1853.

Hawthorne was kind of resentful about this, and the success of writers of popular literature of his time, many of whom were women. He said something he shouldn’t have said. Something that some people are still mad at him for. But I fear I’m digressing. I’ll get into that in a later post.

Contemporaries recognized the novel as more than a gothic romance, but a work of high literary value. One reviewer wrote that The House of the Seven Gables had elevated Hawthorne to the “front rank of that class of writers of fiction with whom fiction is the only medium for the exhibition and analysis of human thought and passion.”2 This same reviewer called the novel “the most striking original romance of American authorship, viewed as a work of imaginative power that has yet appeared.”

The novel cemented Hawthorne’s reputation as America’s preeminent novelist. He was considered a literary man, a romantic genius. At the same time that he was jealous of the sales numbers achieved by more popular writers who, in his opinion, catered to the mass market, he considered himself superior to them. Hawthorne and the segment of society that fostered the myth of original romantic American genius asserted that Hawthorne and writers like him were more pure and exalted, in a literary sense, than supposedly inferior writers whose success depended on their catering to popular tastes. But Hawthorne’s publisher Ticknor, Reed, and Fields went to great expense to manufacture books that appealed to their own market of readers that considered themselves connoisseurs of great American literature.

In the style typical for their authors considered to embody American literary genius such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Ralph Waldo Emerson, Ticknor, Reed, and Fields bound their editions of House of the Seven Gables in a case of brown, ruled, woven cloth imported from England. This “ribbed T-cloth” was sized, dyed, and grained in textures and patterns that were resistant to stains and adhesives, and specifically designed by the publisher to “bind” the publisher and its readership.3

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span.s1 {font-kerning: none}   Cover of first edition owned by the family of Emily Dickinson in the Emily Dickinson collection at Harvard Houghton Library.

Cover of first edition owned by the family of Emily Dickinson in the Emily Dickinson collection at Harvard Houghton Library.

Through its proprietary bindings, then, the publisher hoped to foster a relationship between not simply reader and author, but publisher as well. This was a somewhat new strategy for American publishers, who before mid-century typically bound their volumes in plain leather. Ticknor, Reed, and Fields went the additional length of stamping their covers with an arabesque floral design and lettering the binding in gold gilt.

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span.s1 {font-kerning: none}  Picture of the cover and spine

Picture of the cover and spine

Upon opening the first edition of House of the Seven Gables and turning its cream-colored, cotton-based pages—coarser and thicker than our modern wood-pulp pages—the reader encountered four pages of advertisements, followed by three blank pages before arriving at Hawthorne’s “Preface.” After reading the author’s seven-page preface, the reader arrived at a Table of Contents listing the novel’s chapters, then a single blank page before the opportunity to read the 343-page printed text. Afterward were four blank pages, then a back cover that duplicated the front’s brown T-ribbed cloth.

These details may seem unimportant right now. But you’ll understand why I’m including them as we study even more editions of House of the Seven Gables together in the future. Publishers will not only manufacture future editions of the book with different bindings, covers, and paper. They will also append Hawthorne’s text of the novel with a constellation of ever-changing advertisements, editor’s introductions, editor’s notes, illustrations, and similar additions.

Gerard Genette reasoned that this type of information, or “paratext” as he called it, operates as a “threshold” that a reader must pass through before arriving at the text of the novel. According to Genette, these thresholds configure the experience of the text, and this interaction helped shape the reader’s idea of themselves.

The advertisements in this first printing of House of the Seven Gables, for example, notify the reader of the availability of titles by authors like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Oliver Wendell Holmes, and of other titles by Nathaniel Hawthorne. In doing so, they associate House of the Seven Gables in the minds of already-accepted works by authors acknowledged as characteristic of American literary genius, and of Nathaniel Hawthorne himself.

Advertisement in First edition owned by the family of Emily Dickinson in the Emily Dickinson collection at Harvard Houghton Library.

Advertisement in First edition owned by the family of Emily Dickinson in the Emily Dickinson collection at Harvard Houghton Library.

As a consumer of such works, such advertisements further located the reader within the readership of taste that purchased and read great American literature. Thus, the paratextual apparatus that each publisher chose to include when publishing House of the Seven Gables will act as a vital part of the reader’s experience of the book.

In short, the binding, cover, illustrations, introductions, and advertisements matter. They “matter” in a dual sense. As physical elements of the book, they act as thresholds that the reader must pass through to read the text. And these thresholds matter in the sense that they alter the reader’s experience of the book, and thereby the reader’s sense of themselves within a wider audience, community, and nation.

1. All my information on printing and editions of The House of the Seven Gables is from Clark, C.E. Frazer Jr., Hawthorne: A Descriptive Bibliography, Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh Press, 1978.

2. Daily National Intelligencer (Washington, D.C.), April 22, 1851.

3. Michael Winship, “Manufacturing and Book Production,” in Casper, S., & Nissenbaum, Stephen W. (2007). History of the Book in America, Volume 3 : Volume 3: The Industrial Book, 1840-1880. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 59-60.

Dan Bradley