Wednesday, August 24, 2011
I Should be "doing" something
It's quiet here this morning and there are so many little things needing to be done I could spend the whole day at them. But here I sit at the blogomachine writing about writing and reading. I've been thinking a bit about Nathaniel Hawthorne (Hathorn) lately and have decided it is about time to dig back into The House of the Seven Gables, my favorite of his novels. Of course EVERYONE ends up reading The Scarlet Letter, and teachers love to teach this too as it has so much in terms of moral rectitude and the "gone astray, but innocent enough and wronged." I taught this book myself when I was still doing that kind of thing (along with the typicals: Animal Farm, Fahrenheit 451, etc etc). But overall, I prefer House to Letter any day.
Hathorn considered himself to be a romance writer, or a writer of allegory. His tales were always drenched in the supernatural. But in truth he wrote from his own somewhat checkered family history in Salem, Mass. where he fought against the heavy mantle of his Puritan background. The Scarlet Letter (1850) and The House of the Seven Gables (1851) both deal with secrets, sin, shame, and of course revenge. Both deal with curses and witchery or at least suspected, insinuated, witchery. It was the cause celebre of its day. Hathorn was eager to expunge his own family's penchant for the heavily psychic past they experienced, and his novels do that need great justice. He did this with great aplomb through his well-drawn characters and his well-appointed (even when dingy or dilapidated) edifices.
Hathorn had a way with words, a manner of speaking the lives of his characters so that they were not just sympathetic and acceptable, but so a reader wanted to be in those moments with them, to either cheer them on or wag an accusing finger at them. He also had a way of laying out a community so that it might happen that you ended up walking down those cobbled streets in a dream, feel like you could inhabit the houses yourself. That is what happened to me when I first read House back in, oh maybe, 6th grade. I was fascinated by the idea of cottage industry once I'd read the description of the shop where threads were sold, the infamous house on Pyncheon Street. Some call this a gothic novel. In terms of what we now think of as a "gothic" novel, I wouldn't exactly agree although certainly there are gothic (dark) elements to be sure. Yes, the Pyncheon family is cursed due to its lying, cheating, murderous ways. Yes, the house is to be sold off to pay the debts. Yes, the upstart Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon is summoned to the house to stave off this sale, to accuse the innocent Clifford of murdering the patriarch, and furthermore, the family is living under Maule's Curse ( a strange man allegedly murdered by someone in the Pyncheon family long ago) and a "hidden gold in the house" story has flourished over the history of the family and the house. The plot thickens mightily and although Clifford's off to prison for the murder, the house ends up in the legal care of his fiancé, Hepzibah. She kicks Jaffrey out of the house (way to go, Hepzibah!) and settles in for the long haul. Fast forward two decades (or not, as Hathorn never told a story quickly if he could elongate it) and the house is a mess (as it should be in gothic terms) and the old place is being used as a business (again, you have to love the cottage industry thing here!). Hepzibah's endearingly pretty cousin Phoebe and a mysterious boarder, Matthew Holgrave, arrive on the scene. Clifford is released from prison to strange rumors about him. Clifford has some notions on how to get even with the evil brother who sent him to prison and for how to end Maule's Curse and set the family and the house to rights.
I guess there is something appealing to me in a kind of visceral way about this novel, I can feel myself wandering about the house, can almost smell its old smells and hear the creak of the floors under my feet. It may be why my dream was always to live in an old house... a dream that was realized in 2006. I love my old creaky house and its ghosts. I am happy to co-exist with them in such a happy relationship. I guess they know I am glad they have stayed. But I digress. Back to Hathorn and his House. I got to visit it (It is the Turner Mansion in Salem, Mass) and was enthralled immediately. I wanted to live in THAT house. I would love to tuck myself up in one of the rooms and WRITE in that house. I think that places (houses included) are some of the most important stimuli we have as writers. This was certainly true for Hathorn and his ilk. It was all about places and their effects on people. The intertwining of construct and humanity was undeniable. Of course, place is an important feature in The Scarlet Letter too. The town was the underlying character in that novel. Similarly, this many-gabled home is the featured character of The House of the Seven Gables. It breathes its secrets, oozes intrigue, creaks its dangerousness, on nearly every page, and in the human characters' ways of behaving or misbehaving.
So, upshot here is that I am about to get back to The House of the Seven Gables. I downloaded it free to my iPad. I long ago lost my original hard-covered copy with the etchings of the shoppe, the house itself, the Pyncheons. I scour archival bookshops for just the right copy to tuck away here on my very contemporary shelves. I have a secret wish that my grandchildren would read this great novel of the 17th Century. Sigh. Will they? So far, 4 of them are pretty well grown and have not. But they are young men... does that make a difference?
Oh, and did I mention that I am a DISTANT descendant of Hathorn, via his wife Sophia's blood line? There's that.