The House of the Seven Gables (Introductory Note)

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In September of the year during the February of which Hawthorne had

completed "The Scarlet Letter," he began "The House of the Seven
Gables." Meanwhile, he had removed from Salem to Lenox, in Berkshire
County, Massachusetts, where he occupied with his family a small red
wooden house, still standing at the date of this edition, near the
Stockbridge Bowl.

"I sha'n't have the new story ready by November," he explained to his
publisher, on the 1st of October, "for I am never good for anything in
the literary way till after the first autumnal frost, which has
somewhat such an effect on my imagination that it does on the foliage
here about me-multiplying and brightening its hues." But by vigorous
application he was able to complete the new work about the middle of
the January following.

Since research has disclosed the manner in which the romance is
interwoven with incidents from the history of the Hawthorne family,
"The House of the Seven Gables" has acquired an interest apart from
that by which it first appealed to the public. John Hathorne (as the
name was then spelled), the great-grandfather of Nathaniel Hawthorne,
was a magistrate at Salem in the latter part of the seventeenth
century, and officiated at the famous trials for witchcraft held there.
It is of record that he used peculiar severity towards a certain woman
who was among the accused; and the husband of this woman prophesied
that God would take revenge upon his wife's persecutors. This
circumstance doubtless furnished a hint for that piece of tradition in
the book which represents a Pyncheon of a former generation as having
persecuted one Maule, who declared that God would give his enemy "blood
to drink."

It became a conviction with the Hawthorne family that a
curse had been pronounced upon its members, which continued in force in
the time of the romancer; a conviction perhaps derived from the
recorded prophecy of the injured woman's husband, just mentioned; and,
here again, we have a correspondence with Maule's malediction in the
story. Furthermore, there occurs in the "American Note-Books" (August
27, 1837), a reminiscence of the author's family, to the following
effect. Philip English, a character well-known in early Salem annals,
was among those who suffered from John Hathorne's magisterial
harshness, and he maintained in consequence a lasting feud with the old
Puritan official. But at his death English left daughters, one of whom
is said to have married the son of Justice John Hathorne, whom English
had declared he would never forgive. It is scarcely necessary to point
out how clearly this foreshadows the final union of those hereditary
foes, the Pyncheons and Maules, through the marriage of Phoebe and

The romance, however, describes the Maules as possessing some
of the traits known to have been characteristic of the Hawthornes: for
example, "so long as any of the race were to be found, they had been
marked out from other men--not strikingly, nor as with a sharp line,
but with an effect that was felt rather than spoken of--by an
hereditary characteristic of reserve." Thus, while the general
suggestion of the Hawthorne line and its fortunes was followed in the
romance, the Pyncheons taking the place of the author's family, certain
distinguishing marks of the Hawthornes were assigned to the imaginary
Maule posterity.

There are one or two other points which indicate Hawthorne's method of
basing his compositions, the result in the main of pure invention, on
the solid ground of particular facts. Allusion is made, in the first
chapter of the "Seven Gables," to a grant of lands in Waldo County,
Maine, owned by the Pyncheon family. In the "American Note-Books"
there is an entry, dated August 12, 1837, which speaks of the
Revolutionary general, Knox, and his land-grant in Waldo County, by
virtue of which the owner had hoped to establish an estate on the
English plan, with a tenantry to make it profitable for him. An
incident of much greater importance in the story is the supposed murder
of one of the Pyncheons by his nephew, to whom we are introduced as
Clifford Pyncheon. In all probability Hawthorne connected with this,
in his mind, the murder of Mr. White, a wealthy gentleman of Salem,
killed by a man whom his nephew had hired. This took place a few years
after Hawthorne's graduation from college, and was one of the
celebrated cases of the day, Daniel Webster taking part prominently in
the trial. But it should be observed here that such resemblances as
these between sundry elements in the work of Hawthorne's fancy and
details of reality are only fragmentary, and are rearranged to suit the
author's purposes.

In the same way he has made his description of Hepzibah Pyncheon's
seven-gabled mansion conform so nearly to several old dwellings
formerly or still extant in Salem, that strenuous efforts have been
made to fix upon some one of them as the veritable edifice of the
romance. A paragraph in the opening chapter has perhaps assisted this
delusion that there must have been a single original House of the Seven
Gables, framed by flesh-and-blood carpenters; for it runs thus:-"Familiar as it stands in the writer's recollection--for it has been an
object of curiosity with him from boyhood, both as a specimen of the
best and stateliest architecture of a long-past epoch, and as the scene
of events more full of interest perhaps than those of a gray feudal
castle--familiar as it stands, in its rusty old age, it is therefore
only the more difficult to imagine the bright novelty with which it
first caught the sunshine."

Hundreds of pilgrims annually visit a house in Salem, belonging to one
branch of the Ingersoll family of that place, which is stoutly
maintained to have been the model for Hawthorne's visionary dwelling.
Others have supposed that the now vanished house of the identical
Philip English, whose blood, as we have already noticed, became mingled
with that of the Hawthornes, supplied the pattern; and still a third
building, known as the Curwen mansion, has been declared the only
genuine establishment. Notwithstanding persistent popular belief, the
authenticity of all these must positively be denied; although it is
possible that isolated reminiscences of all three may have blended with
the ideal image in the mind of Hawthorne. He, it will be seen, remarks
in the Preface, alluding to himself in the third person, that he trusts
not to be condemned for "laying out a street that infringes upon
nobody's private rights... and building a house of materials long in
use for constructing castles in the air." More than this, he stated to
persons still living that the house of the romance was not copied from
any actual edifice, but was simply a general reproduction of a style of
architecture belonging to colonial days, examples of which survived
into the period of his youth, but have since been radically modified or
destroyed. Here, as elsewhere, he exercised the liberty of a creative
mind to heighten the probability of his pictures without confining
himself to a literal description of something he had seen.

While Hawthorne remained at Lenox, and during the composition of this
romance, various other literary personages settled or stayed for a time
in the vicinity; among them, Herman Melville, whose intercourse
Hawthorne greatly enjoyed, Henry James, Sr., Doctor Holmes, J. T.
Headley, James Russell Lowell, Edwin P. Whipple, Frederika Bremer, and
J. T. Fields; so that there was no lack of intellectual society in
the midst of the beautiful and inspiring mountain scenery of the place.
"In the afternoons, nowadays," he records, shortly before beginning the
work, "this valley in which I dwell seems like a vast basin filled with
golden Sunshine as with wine;" and, happy in the companionship of his
wife and their three children, he led a simple, refined, idyllic life,
despite the restrictions of a scanty and uncertain income. A letter
written by Mrs. Hawthorne, at this time, to a member of her family,
gives incidentally a glimpse of the scene, which may properly find a
place here. She says: "I delight to think that you also can look
forth, as I do now, upon a broad valley and a fine amphitheater of
hills, and are about to watch the stately ceremony of the sunset from
your piazza.

But you have not this lovely lake, nor, I suppose, the
delicate purple mist which folds these slumbering mountains in airy
veils. Mr. Hawthorne has been lying down in the sun shine, slightly
fleckered with the shadows of a tree, and Una and Julian have been
making him look like the mighty Pan, by covering his chin and breast
with long grass-blades, that looked like a verdant and venerable
beard." The pleasantness and peace of his surroundings and of his
modest home, in Lenox, may be taken into account as harmonizing with
the mellow serenity of the romance then produced. Of the work, when it
appeared in the early spring of 1851, he wrote to Horatio Bridge these
words, now published for the first time:-"'The House of the Seven Gables' in my opinion, is better than 'The
Scarlet Letter:' but I should not wonder if I had refined upon the
principal character a little too much for popular appreciation, nor if
the romance of the book should be somewhat at odds with the humble and
familiar scenery in which I invest it. But I feel that portions of it
are as good as anything I can hope to write, and the publisher speaks
encouragingly of its success."

From England, especially, came many warm expressions of praise,--a fact
which Mrs. Hawthorne, in a private letter, commented on as the
fulfillment of a possibility which Hawthorne, writing in boyhood to his
mother, had looked forward to. He had asked her if she would not like
him to become an author and have his books read in England.

G. P. L.

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