The House That Built Hawthorne
People ask me all the time: how did Nathaniel Hawthorne build the House of the Seven Gables? How did he come up with the crazy idea for the House? Especially given that Hawthorne is known mostly as a writer of novels such as The Scarlet Letter, where did he obtain the expertise in architecture and construction necessary to accomplish such a feat? He must have been very strong to life all those beams right?
In the past, I’ve acknowledged that there has been some confusion on this topic. I tried to address this question, albeit obliquely, in one of last season’s posts. That article, called “Why Did Hawthorne Build the House of the Seven Gables?,” has been one of our most popular blogposts.
But I didn’t have space to delve into the question of how Hawthorne built the House of Seven Gables, and people still come up to me on the street and ask me this question. Today, dear reader, I’d like to take a few moments to clarify how, indeed, Hawthorne built the House of the Seven Gables.
To say that Hawthorne built the House of the Seven Gables is not entirely accurate. Hawthorne was not a carpenter. Records of his experiences with hammers and nails are scarce. His expertise was kind of more in the area of writing things.
We don’t know who performed the actual labor of building the House. We do not know if those people were enslaved, indentured, or free men. Which house inspired Hawthorne’s novel, or whether any single house spurred his imagination, has even been questioned. What we can say for certain is that Hawthorne built the House of the Seven Gables in the sense that he established or originated the House as a symbolic object in the American cultural consciousness.
But if we think of Hawthorne building the House in this sense, then we open ourselves to the possibility that the House built Hawthorne’s novel, after which the House would later be named. Or perhaps we could go so far as to say that the House built Hawthorne, and continues to sustain him today.
These things can get byzantine. Let’s go back to the beginning.
The House that we now call the House of the Seven Gables, the House at 115 Derby St. in Salem, Massachusetts, was not always called the House of the Seven Gables. When originally built for sea-captain John Turner as a five-room, two-and-a-half story, seven-gabled house in the Jacobean style in 1668, it was just “The Turner House.” And it remained so for three generations.
John Turner III sold the property at public auction in 1782 in order to cover debts. The home was bought by another another sea captain, Samuel Ingersoll, in 1782. Ingersoll remodeled the home in the Federal style. In the process, Ingersoll removed four of the house’s seven gables. (You might be thinking that this is a lot of Captains. But you have to remember that Salem Harbor was, way back then, one of the country’s largest seaports. At the time of the American Revolution, it was the 6th largest city in the country). When Samuel Ingersoll died, his daughter Susanna inherited the property.
This is where the story starts to get exciting. Susan Ingersoll happened to have a second-cousin named Nathaniel Hawthorne, and this Nathaniel Hawthorne was getting to be kind of a big deal because of his fiction writing. Hawthorne and his sister Maria Louisa visited his cousin Susanna and her adopted son Horace Conolly frequently in the 1830s and 1840s. Ingersoll and Hawthorne passed the time speaking of one of Hawthorne’s favorite subjects - the history of the people, the land, and the things - tea kettles, rugs, silverware, chairs (Hawthorne loved him some chairs), and houses - of Salem.
And one day, as the story goes, Nathaniel Hawthorne complained that he had nothing to write about. And Susanna Ingersoll kindly suggested Hawthorne write about the histories he saw before him write there - the house, its furniture, its memories. And Hawthorne kind of liked the idea. So it would be during an afternoon at this Ingersoll house, that had once been the Turner house, that Susan Ingersoll gave Hawthorne the inspiration for The House of Seven Gables, as well as the novel’s iconic title.
Although we now generally consider this Ingersoll-Turner house to have inspired Hawthorne’s follow-up to The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne was never as straightforward about this question. To the contrary, the author declined to identify one single house as the basis for his novel. Hawthorne appears to have preferred leaving these kinds of details to mystery. Hawthorne remained equivocal even about the setting of the novel. Even though today we take for granted that the novel takes place in Salem, in his introduction to the novel Hawthorne identifies the location only as “one of our New England towns.”
While scholars and antiquarians have established physical similarities between the Turner-Ingersoll House and the Pyncheon House of The House of the Seven Gables, strong textual evidence that Hawthorne had the Turner-Ingersoll house in mind when composing the novel also comes to us via Susanna Ingersoll’s adopted son, Horace Conolly. The two spent a great deal of time together, both at the Ingersoll house and abroad. For periods, Hawthorne chose Conolly as a constant companion. The two talked together, traveled together, and apparently consumed a lot of alcohol together. After college, the two Salemites visited each other almost daily. Conolly even accompanied Hawthorne to dinner with prominent Americans such as the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and his second wife, Frances Appleton.
Years after Hawthorne’s death in 1864, in a letter to a friend, Conolly recounted a letter that Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote him in 1840. According to Conolly, in that letter Hawthorne described “a more than ordinarily pleasant visit” with Susan Ingersoll at her house. During this visit, Susan Ingersoll familiarized Hawthorne with the architectural history of the house. By then, as a result of John Turner II’s remodel in the 1780s, the house had only three gables. Conolly writes that Hawthorne told him that when he heard that the house once had seven gables, “the expression was new and struck (him) very forcibly.
I expressed a wish to go all over the house; she assented and I repaired to the attic, and there was no corner or dark hole I did not peep into. I could readily make out five gables; and on returning to the parlor, I inquired where the two remaining gables were placed; the information I received was that the remaining gables were on the north side, and that when Colonel Turner became the owner of the house he removed the ‘lean-to’ on which were the missing gables, and made amends by placing three gables on the L or addition which he made on the south side of the house; the mark of the beams still remains in the studding to show precisely where they were.
I like to imagine Nathaniel Hawthorne clambering about an attic and inspecting every “corner” and “dark hole” of the house’s architectural details. And it intrigues me to think that it was really this one trip up to the attic, and looking at beams for minute evidence of missing gables, that would spark Hawthorne’s ideas for a novel of such vast moral scope. It was Hawthorne’s search for traces of the Turner-Ingersoll House’s secret past that inspired him to create the Pyncheon family, the family whose dark secrets would become a vehicle for the allegorical symbolism in Hawthorne’s House of the Seven Gables.
The Turner-Ingersoll House and Hawthorne’s novel were thereafter intimately connected. In 1900, nearly fifty years after Hawthorne’s death, a writer at the Essex Historical Society in Essex, MA. speculated that the house at Turner-Ingersoll House was “likely to be preserved . . . because it has been immortalized by Hawthorne.”
Here, in late 2018, I can’t help but wonder if the reverse is true. Our current culture reads the difficult, densely symbolic novels of the 1850s less often than we used to in 1900. We read Hawthorne less. When we do read Hawthorne, usually in our junior year of high school (if we still read literature in our high school classroom at all), we read The Scarlet Letter almost exclusively.
Now The Scarlet Letter is a very good book. It’s just that The House of the Seven Gables is also a very good book. One whose message and virtues are, I’ve tried to show you, uniquely suited to navigating our ethically challenged and morally hazardous time. And there is room for both The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables in our lives. There is nothing wrong with any of us reading more than one book by Nathaniel Hawthorne. It doesn’t take that long.
If few of us Americans read the House of the Seven Gables in the 21st century, is it now the Turner-Ingersoll House that preserves our memory of Hawthorne? In a culture that reads literature less, that venerates writing less in general, and seems to honor Hawthorne and writers like him less as part of our national heritage, will the House of the Seven Gables Museum one day memorialize Hawthorne’s novel The House of the Seven Gables?
One hundred years from now, will the House be our primary reminder of the author who was in his own day, and through much of the 20th century, held to be synonymous with American literary genius? Will we one day conclude that the House built Nathaniel Hawthorne?
I want to thank Daniel Marshall, Manager of Visitor Services at the House of the Seven Gables for our conversation that helped spark this blogpost, and for alerting me to the existence of Conolly’s letter. Thanks Daniel.