My Life in the House of the Seven Gables
At some point you’re going to wonder: why is he doing this? Why would anyone do this? Why would he keep writing things about this single book that I haven’t even read?
Perhaps you are that rare creature who already appreciates The House of the Seven Gables. Perhaps you are a frequent reader of this blog, which probably allows you to make an inference. But in case you don’t have these kinds of open-ended patience and fortitude, I want to give you a bio-bibligraphical version of the answer.
What follows is a book-by-book walk through the critical moments in my Ho7G literacy narrative.
First Read: 1963 Airmont Edition (1985)
I would have been around 15 years old. In the mid-1980s, in the small town where I grew up I don’t know where I would have gotten this 1960s edition. We didn’t have a used book store. Possibly it was given to me by my maternal grandmother, who had a taste for classics, who typed sections of Tennyson’s “In Memoriam” as she mourned the death of her 22-year old son, and whose 1960s’ edition of Shakespeare’s poetry still sits on my bookshelf.
It’s not that I wasn’t a reader at that age. I just wasn’t a literary reader. I spent much of my time engrossed in fantasy books like David Edding’s Belgeriad series, and I was even a member of The Science Fiction Book Club! I was too young - or not mature enough of a reader. Either way, it didn’t take.
I would have been attracted to this edition’s gothic cover. I liked ghost stories and haunted houses. The cover art, with its jagged house against a grey sky, its barren trees and candlelight, would have appealed to me. I knew House of the Seven Gables is a classic, and I knew it was for adults, so I probably thought it would be to be pretty hardcore. But it wasn’t what I expected. I didn’t yet understand how to comprehend and synthesize multi-layered narratives.
I think that I read the first couple of chapters. I think that the first chapter piqued my interest, but after that, as we get into the minutiae of Hepzibah’s cent-shop, the novel really slows down for a few chapters. My interest waned. I knew it was not the type of supernatural tale I was hoping for. I didn’t yet understand what it is.
The Scarlet Letter (1992)
I kept reading, but it was still a steady diet of Sci Fi and Fantasy. There is nothing wrong with this, of course. But as forms of genre fiction, Sci Fi and Fantasy often operate on their own particular terms, and their use of literary devices can be arbitrary.
In my junior year in high school I experienced a leap in my ability to comprehend how literature works, and appreciate narratives that are on the surface less exciting than spaceships and dragons. This is the year I became able to recognize and interpret metaphors, to enact close reading strategies that showed the weight of individual words, to recognize the way that rising action led to climax and resolution, and to identify theme.
My growth spurt coincided with a course that concentrated on American Literature.
It was here that I first read the great authors of the “American Renaissance” in literature, a period that ran roughly between 1830 and the U.S. Civil War. Here I encountered writers and ideas that I still find inspirational today - Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and yes, Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Since I went to school in a primarily white suburb in the 1980s’, it was lost on my young self how few of the authors we studied in this class were not white men. Students of my class and generation didn’t even know there were female authors writing in the Nineteenth Century besides Emily Dickinson, let alone such a thing as African- or Native-American literatures. This would all come much later for me. Yet in that one year I was exposed to concepts and literary forms that I continue to savor and build upon.
During my second-semester at the University of Illinois, I took a course on William Faulkner with the esteemed Professor Robert Dale Parker. We read fiction by Faulkner exclusively for four-and-a-half months, a novel or several short stories per week. This course, more than any other, helped me understand how to read literature as Literature: not just to understand literary devices individually, but to see a book as an interlocking web of allusions, metaphor, connotations, characterizations, symbols, etc. that somehow through the plot construct a textual statement on the work’s theme. As well as to just overall appreciate the past written words of another, printed on the page, bound as a book, read word after word and paused and pondered, as beauty (in the Keatsian sense).
I mention this course not only because of its importance in my growth as a reader, but because Faulkner’s body of work revolves around the same theme that is central to Hawthorne’s House of the Seven Gables. Faulkner’s stories and novels set in the Yoknapatawpha county of Mississippi give a fictional, idealized account of the post-bellum South’s struggles to grow after the loss of the U.S. Civil War, with its foundations built upon class and race warfare and human slavery. However noble their intentions, Faulkner’s protagonists, descendants of the slaver and enslaved, white and black, lead lives indelibly marred by these origins.
Hawthorne’s novel tells the story of the Pyncheon family, whose founder built a great fortune by falsely accusing a neighbor of witchcraft, seeing him executed, and taking his property. Successive generations, though individually innocent of this crime, become cursed by enjoying the bounty of this family sin. Through this plot the novel explores the theme that a House, a nation built on the sins of the past generations, can only bear as fruit more sin and destruction. Faulkner usually explored this theme implicitly, but he stated it explicitly in his novel Requiem for a Nun: “The past is never dead. It’s not even the past.”
And yes, Faulkner read Hawthorne. A lot. He considered Nathaniel Hawthorne to be the United States’ greatest author. Faulkner even named his first publication, a book of poetry, after Hawthorne’s final completed novel, The Marble Faun.
Map of Olde Austin.
After I finished my undergrad studies, I wanted books to continue to be a part of my intellectual and spiritual life. I wanted to keep studying literature. I thought about enrolling in graduate school, but I also felt burnt-out from being in school continuously since Kindergarten. And I thought I could keep learning on my own.
I decided to take a break. I kept reading for a time. I didn’t have the focus to keep growing as a reader in intellectual isolation, and I didn’t know how to find other serious readers outside of college. And I got sidetracked with life and an unexpected career far-removed from books.
Even though I didn’t think of it much, during this span The House of the Seven Gables would hover at the periphery of my consciousness. I might come upon a reference to the novel via a reference to the actual house in Salem. I would make the association between the house and Hawthorne’s novel whenever I came upon the subject of the Salem Witch Trials. Perhaps I saw a copy of the novel as I wandered the fiction or classics section of a bookstore, wondering if I was wasting my life, remembering my intention to keep reading and growing through literature.
Eventually, I realized that although the career-track I’d stumbled upon earned me more money than I’d ever thought I’d make with a major in English, it was ultimately unsatisfying, even damaging, to my psyche.
I knew it would be risky. It was a daunting prospect. I knew I’d have to give up my lifestyle and financial security. I didn’t know if I could do it. But I returned to the world of books.
Second and Third Reads: Library of American Collected Novels (2009-10)
During my first grad school degree, a Masters in English at the University of Houston, I took two courses that would be crucial to my development as a reader: “The Nineteenth-Century American Novel” and “Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville.” Both were with Professor Roberta Weldon, and both included a reading of The House of the Seven Gables.
This would be the first time I really loved it. The first time I appreciated it as a work of gothic literature and for its use of the themes that had fascinated me in Faulkner. The first time I recognized Nathaniel Hawthorne for the genius that he was.
At the time, The Marble Faun was my favorite Hawthorne novel. In the novel’s long, meandering, densely descriptive passage, I recognized how much Hawthorne had influenced William Faulkner’s style. Reading and rereading, I became obsessed with analyzing the novel’s discourse of civilization vs. savagery, and became convinced that the character Donatello functions as a cypher for the travails of Native peoples in the Nineteenth Century.
My research would become the basis for my very important article “Hawthorne’s Empire: Sculpture and the Indigenous in The Marble Faun,” which would be published in Studies in American Fiction.
Fourth Read: The Norton Critical Edition 2012
While pursuing my Ph.D. at the University of Delaware in 2012, I read the Norton Critical Edition of The House of the Seven Gables under the tutelage of Professor Marcy J. Dinius. She had been consulted by the edition’s editor in selecting a cover image because her first book, The Camera and the Press: American Visual and Print Culture in the Age of Daguerreotype, contains a chapter devoted to Hawthorne’s use of daguerreotype, an early type of photography, in the novel.
In this reading of The House of the Seven Gables I benefited from the course’s focus on object theory and materiality. The course encouraged me to look at the book as a material object, and consider how books as objects can mediate a reader’s perception of the narratives contained within. I was further prompted to consider the role that particular objects - the portrait of Colonel Pyncheon, the lost Indian Deed, Maule’s Well - played within the novel’s plot.
Now: Love in the House of the Seven Gables
A few years after reading The House of the Seven Gables with Marcy Dinius, I completed coursework for my doctorate degree. I could now devote some time to pleasure reading outside of my speciality field of early and antebellum American Literature.
Already fascinated by horror as a film genre, I explored horror in earnest as a literary genre. One of the first authors I focused on was Howard Philips Lovecraft, who pioneered a subgenre of horror called “weird fiction,” and one of his first works I read was “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.” As soon as I read it, I recognized that Lovecraft owed Hawthorne a debt for his influence on the story’s plot, theme, and symbolism. Later, when I read Lovecraft’s 1927 essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” I realized that Lovecraft himself was quite aware of Hawthorne’s influence, as he called The House of the Seven Gables “New England’s greatest contribution to weird literature.” Hawthorne’s influence on contemporary weird fiction prompted me to explore the intersection between one of the nineteenth-century’s greatest American gothic writers and weird fiction and one of our most experimental modern horror forms.
My insights led me to create this blog in order to explore various issues related to The House of the Seven Gables while I compose new fiction inspired by the writings of both Lovecraft and Hawthorne. You can look forward to the first installment in this project, “William Cullen’s Secret Journal,” in November.
Well, reader, I hope you have enjoyed your journey through the books - and the specific editions of the books - that have brought me to this point as a reader and a writer.
I wrote this in part to help you see my relationship with The House of the Seven Gables. To see where and when in my life I’ve read it, how many times I’ve read it, and the events, books, and intellectual steps in between them that kept prompting me to return to the novel. Now, I am entrenched. I am ensconced.
I also wondered. And wondered if you knew. Or if you would wonder. What books have your returned to again and again? Why? What prompted you to return each time, and how did each reading change you?
Is there a House of the Seven Gables in your life, reader? I don’t know, reader. I can’t tell you. Only you know. Only you can tell us! You’re our only hope, reader. Help us.