By Ray Greenblatt
In his Preface Nathaniel Hawthorne clearly lays out what he proposes to do in his novel: “The point of view in which this tale comes under the Romantic definition lies in the attempt to connect a bygone time with the very present that is flitting away from us. It is a legend prolonging itself, from an epoch now gray in the distance, down into our own broad daylight, and bringing along with it some of its legendary mist, which the reader, according to his pleasure, may either disregard, or allow it to float almost imperceptibly about the characters and events for the sake of a picturesque effect.”
Thus, Hawthorne had no intention of writing a Realistic novel. Within his rubric his characters could be ideal or totally debased; his plot could involve many coincidences and a pat conclusion; his writing style could be ornate, wandering—even bordering on the supernatural. But I observe that the floor supporting this dreamland has many realistic planks that reveal actual life in 1851 when this story was first published and into the possible future. He delves into diets, diversions, professions, inventions, and more.
Let us begin our discussion in the kitchen, for a person’s breakfast can reveal his heart, caloric or aerobic. The cooks are perusing an old recipe volume that features: “Venison, turkeys, capons, larded partridges, puddings, cakes, and Christmas pies.” (“The Guest”) However, their reality is a bit more humble. They fry an egg with a fresh broiled mackerel, mocha coffee, a golden Indian cake and fresh churned butter smelling of clover-blossoms. As moderns we say Bravo! to the fish broiled, and hope the butter is used sparingly.
We also know today that “presentation” contributes greatly toward a satisfying meal. So they selected from among their many antiques: “a small and ancient table, supported on its slender and graceful legs,” a damask jug, old china cups and saucers, crested spoons, a silver cream jug, and fresh roses in a glass pitcher. The table sat beside a large window looking out on the garden where “the early sunshine came twinkling through the branches of the pear tree.”
What can a young woman’s elbow grease do to save an old house, in this case a two hundred year old mansion. “The grime and sordidness of the House of the Seven Gables seemed to have vanished since her appearance there; the gnawing tooth of the dry-rot was stayed among the old timbers of it skeleton frame; the dust had ceased to settle down so densely, from the antique ceilings, upon the floors and furniture of the rooms below . . .the shadows of gloomy events that haunted the else lonely and desolate apartments; the heavy, breathless scent which death had left in more than one of the bedchambers.” (“Clifford and Phoebe”)
We have to remember that the House of the Seven Gables is a real structure in the old port town of Salem, Massachusetts. It was owned by Hawthorne’s cousin whom he visited many times. Over the years the building has been preserved since it is the oldest surviving 17th century wooden mansion in New England. But no cement foundation nor sump pump, no weather-stripping nor thermal windows, no non-flammable shingles nor smoke detectors.
Let us stroll into “The Pyncheon Garden”—which can scarcely be called that—for that is where the egg and the roses came from. In one section there are squashes, bean-vines, currant bushes, bees and hummingbirds, and a well for water. The remainder of the plot was badly overgrown with weeds. A rooster, two hens, and a baby chick are all that remain of the flock . Certainly they can’t compare with Mr. Perdue’s hundreds of thousands on his chicken ranches. If this garden were better cultivated, it could provide sufficient protein and vitamins from fruits and greens in our dietary pyramid for a family.
Now that we have sustenance under our belt, let us observe what family-run cent-shops were selling. In “May and November” a young woman has given her much older relative new ideas for items to sell: raisins, apples, flour, thread; and gingerbread cookies, molasses candy, and toys like Dutch wooden milk-maids, whistles, trumpets which are mostly for children.
These shops cannot compete with the newly rising large-volume stores: “Groceries, toy-shops, dry-goods stores, with their immense panes of plate-glass, their gorgeous fixtures, their vast and complete assortment of merchandise, in which fortunes had been invested; and those noble mirrors at the farther end of each establishment, doubling all this wealth by a brightly burnished vista of unrealities! On one side of the street this splendid bazaar, with a multitude of perfumed and glossy salesmen, smirking, smiling, bowing, and measuring out the goods.” (“The First Customer”)
It’s starting to sound a bit like Dickens with that extended string of present participles. Ironic that in this admittedly unreal novel Hawthorne is branding the department stores of the early 19th century as “unreal.” The mom & pop stores always had a difficult time. Today polyconglomerates like Walmart are bestowing the final deathblow.
Let’s go to a parade. So many novels have had parade sequences in them, perhaps circus parades, mummers parades, Easter parades, etc. Hawthorne’s parade is not a gaudy one. It is for elders with idle time; it brings life to them when they can’t actively pursue it. From “An Arched Window” a man can view over the course of a day: a horse cab, omnibus, water-cart, butcher’s cart, fish-cart, a cart of vegetables, baker’s cart, scissor-grinder, barrel-organ with monkey.
Now comes what we today consider a more typical parade, a political procession “with hundreds of flaunting banners and drums, fifes, clarions, and cymbals, reverberating between the rows of buildings, marched all through town, and trailed its length of trampling footsteps, and most infrequent uproar . . .He can distinguish the tedious commonplace of each man’s visage, with the perspiration and weary self-importance on it, and the very cut of his pantaloons, and the stiffness or laxity of his shirt-collar, and the dust on the back of his black coat.”
Fortunately there is no sound amplification to send those with sensitive ears scurrying. However, in another decade (Hawthorne was to die in 1860 prematurely at age sixty) there would be veterans’ parades of Civil War combatants as the years rolled on; those participants eventually dwindled so that Southerners and Northerners commingled and marched in a more brotherly manner together.
Since various trades and professions have been mentioned, let us investigate what jobs were open to a 19th century man. Of course, a woman was almost exclusively relegated to the home. In the Middle Ages and Renaissance if a man from a family of position was fortunate enough to be the oldest son, he would inherit the entire estate, becoming essentially a gentleman farmer. A younger brother—short of begging some property or financial settlement from his oldest brother—could enter the military (the cavalry was often a dashing choice) or enter the clergy. As time went on, becoming an attorney was also a gentleman’s option.
The young man in our novel was flexible and daring for those times. Since America was still on the frontier in the 19th century, perhaps this was not so unusual in comparison with Europeans in a more rigidified society. Although Holgrave was just twenty-two, here are some of the positions he had already held with a limited amount of education but with keen intelligence and excess energy: schoolmaster, salesman in a store, newspaper editor, itinerant pedlar of perfumes, a dentist, hand aboard a packet-ship, member of a Fourierist community, lecturer on hypnotism, and presently in the novel a photographer, thus the chapter title “The Daguerreotypist.”
These jobs had enabled him to travel not only throughout New England and the Middle Atlantic states but to France, Italy and Germany. Many younger people today get varied experience by working in summer jobs. As college tuitions soar, they are forced to think of many more creative ways to make a living. The future dictates that a worker of any age—up to his or her retirement—will change positions every four or five years in the natural course of an adult working life. Holgrave was ahead of the curve.
In this novel we can even look at a man who has made it to the top; perhaps in a questionably ethical manner. This is naturally the villain of our piece, Jaffrey Pyncheon. What does a wealthy man’s day consist of? Visit an insurance office or bank directors’ meeting, meet a State Street broker, attend a real estate auction, buy a horse (today read that as a car), sit on the board of a charitable society, consult a family physician and ironically purchase a new tombstone for the long deceased wife. Did Michael Milken or Bernie Madoff also do things like this recently?
But truly his major goal is to meet with a political committee where the possibility is strong that Judge Pyncheon could be nominated to become “Governor Pyncheon.” ”Five-and-twenty years for the enjoyment of his real estate in town and country, his railroad, bank, and insurance shares, his United States stock—his wealth, in short, however invested, now in possession, or soon to be acquired; together with the public honors that have fallen upon him, and the weightier ones that are yet to fall! It is good! It is excellent! It is enough!” But for a greedy, immoral man it is never enough.
Amid this Romance’s shadowy settings, complications of a half-dozen characters, and strokes of the Gothic, in one of the culminating chapters, “The Flight of Two Owls,” many controversial topics contemporaneous to Hawthorne’s time are raised. He posits through a character that perhaps we live too much by routine and rote: “The soul needs air; a wide sweep and frequent change of it. Morbid influences, in a thousand-fold variety, gather about hearths, and pollute the life of house-holds. There is no such unwholesome atmosphere as that of an old house, rendered poisonous by one’s defunct forefathers and relatives.”
In its most positive light our two major characters consider a train: “It was novelty enough, indeed, that there were fifty human beings in close relation with them, under one long and narrow roof and drawn onward by the same mighty influence that had taken their two selves into its grasp. It seemed marvelous how all these people could remain so quietly in their seats, while so much noisy strength was at work in their behalf . . . sleep; sport; business; graver or lighter study; and the common and inevitable movement onward! It was life itself!”
Hypnotism has its merits in that it might reveal things not known in conscious life. Electricity can transform all of us in ways not yet understood. Hawthorne feels that the telegraph by making the world so much smaller can also limit man’s privacy. What would he think of computer chips implanted in our brains!
In 1854, three years after The House of the Seven Gables, H. D. Thoreau from an opposite direction but not less critical, wrote in Walden about the vapidity of the telegraph: “We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing to communicate.” About trains he was even more cynical: “We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us. Did you ever think what those sleepers are that underlie the railroad? Each one is a man!” And perhaps we rue the fact that when trains were largely discontinued in the mid-twentieth century, the ties were pulled up. Critics now say that we should have developed rail service rather than encourage autos with their concomitant pollution of gasoline.
As a coda since Dickens was mentioned earlier in this writing, let us examine Dr. Manette from A Tale of Two Cities (1859). The poor old man served fifteen years in the Bastille, unjustly sentenced by evildoers. When he emerges, he is barely a shell of a man but slowly heals physically and emotionally. Nearly a decade before Dickens’ novel, Nathaniel Hawthorne had Clifford Pyncheon leave a prison term of thirty years perpetrated by our villain, cousin Jaffrey Pyncheon. He, too, so close to insanity and death, slowly recovers due to those who love him. Hawthorne was ahead of his time in many ways, as well as ahead of the other major authors of his era.
Hawthorne’s explanation of Romance, the style in which he wrote The House of the Seven Gables, is full of words which create a certain mood: “bygone, flitting, legend, gray, distance, mist, float, picturesque.” And yet, in a book he suggests far removed from the reality of the day, he has provided for us a very realistic look at major elements that define the society of his time, indeed, a civilization for our 21st century.
You can find a copy here: https://www.amazon.com/House-Seven-Gables-Thrift-Editions/dp/0486408825
Ray Greenblatt has written articles for: English Journal, Sea Change, Drexel Online Journal, Joseph Conrad Today, Bookmark Quarterly, Sunstone Press. He is an editor on the Schuylkill Valley Journal and teaches a Joy of Poetry course at Temple University-OLLI