Nathaniel Hawthorne is probably one of the most despised figures in the American literary canon, at least in the minds of the millions of school children forced to read "The Scarlet Letter." I will go so far as to admit I never finished that novel. I took one look through the book and laughed at the ridiculous idea of reading such a convoluted looking story. That was at age seventeen. Now, many years later I am able to go back and actually read some of these daunting novels. What is surprising is that they are not daunting at all, just written in an ornate style from a different age. The plots often deal with the same issues and concerns modern people fret about. For those uninterested in relationships and human dramas, there are also great old stories with supernatural elements, which is where this book comes in. This edition of the book includes an introduction by Mary Oliver and several commentaries on the work by Edwin Percy Whipple, Henry T. Tuckerman, F.O. Matthiessen, and Herman Melville. The Melville commentary is actually a letter the author of "Moby Dick" sent to Hawthorne where he concludes with a demand that Hawthorne "walk down one of these mornings and see me." Pretty neat.
In "The House of the Seven Gables," the author tells his reader the story is a romance. What he means by this terminology is not a cheap paperback that involves swooning hearts with Fabio on the cover, but "a legend prolonging itself, from an epoch now gray in the distance, down into our own broad daylight." Hawthorne's specific goal is to show that the bad behavior of one generation devolves on future descendents. He accomplishes this by examining the Pyncheon family, a clan founded on America's shores by the stern Puritan Colonel Pyncheon, who used his considerable influence to inveigle prime real estate from one Matthew Maule in the 17th century. Pyncheon carried out this task by using the Salem witchcraft scare to secure Maule's execution. In his last moments, Maule laid a curse on the good Colonel and all of his descendents, telling him that God would give them blood to drink as a punishment for this evil injustice. Shortly after the Colonel builds his house with seven gables on Maule's property, he dies in a way that makes Maule's curse seem to be a reality. Rather than trace this terrible evil down through the ages in minute detail, Hawthorne only touches on a few important points before beginning his story in the middle of the 19th century.
The Pyncheon family is slowly moldering into extinction when Hawthorne introduces us to poor old Hepzibah Pyncheon. She lives alone in the ancient estate, reduced to near starvation because her brother Clifford is in prison and Jaffrey Pyncheon, a rich judge who lives in his own manor in the country, refuses to offer her assistance. The only way to survive for Hepzibah is to open a penny store in an old part of the decaying house. Just when things reach a nadir, another Pyncheon turns up to save the day. This is Phoebe, a vivacious young lady who lives in the country. This fetching lass is a blessing for Hepzibah; she runs the penny store, helps to lift the gloomy atmosphere in the house, and when Clifford returns from his long imprisonment, Phoebe entertains the doddering man with her multitude of charms. She even strikes up an acquaintance with Holgrave, a young boarder in the house. Things start to look up when yet another tragedy strikes the Pyncheon family, leading to the momentary evacuation of the ancestral estate by Hepzibah and Clifford before Hawthorne settles all accounts in an ending that is both quick and highly implausible.
The reputation this book has with many people is not good. They disparage the lengthy digressions, the massive amount of time Hawthorne takes to explore Hepzibah's dilemma over opening the penny store, the sentences that go on and on without seeming to make any point whatsoever, and the organization of the book as a whole. There is some foundation in these charges. The chapters describing the penny store do seem interminable, especially when viewed in the context of the story as a whole. As for the descriptions of Hepzibah's scowling countenance and Clifford's puny mental state, we get the idea well before Hawthorne quits harping on them. Yes, there are flaws in "The House of the Seven Gables."
However, I personally enjoyed the deeply rich 19th century prose. Hawthorne's command of the English language is impressive and, at times, as precise as a cruise missile. One need only read the chapter about Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon's unfortunate incident in the house to grasp the beauty of this author's style. As for the digressions, if people have a problem with chapters such as "Alice Pyncheon" and the introductory material setting down the history of the doomed family, it is really their loss. It is when Hawthorne writes about supernatural elements that he really managed to grab me. If this counts as a lengthy digression from the story, I will take more, please!
If I had to assign a Hawthorne novel to a group of slack jawed high school students, I would give them this one in place of "The Scarlet Letter." At least with "The House of the Seven Gables," someone might enjoy the eerie curse that united the Maules with the Pyncheons for two centuries. A letter sewn on clothing cannot stack up against ghosts, a disembodied hand, and mysterious deaths. The kids will still grumble, but not as much when they realize there are less "thees" and "thous" tossed around in this novel.