January 14, 2008

The CCLaP 100: "House of the Seven Gables," by Nathaniel Hawthorne

(Over the next two years, I am writing an ongoing series of essays here that I call the "CCLaP 100," whereby I read for the first time a hundred books considered by many to be classics, and then write reports here on whether or not I think they deserve this title. For the complete list of books, as well as an explanation behind how the list was compiled, you can click here.)

House of the Seven Gables, by Nathaniel Hawthorne
House of the Seven Gables (1851)
By Nathaniel Hawthorne
Book #2 of this essay series

The story in a nutshell:
Like any good horror story, the spooky House of the Seven Gables actually tells two stories at once: it is simultaneously the historic tale of the cursed Pyncheon family, concurrent owners of a reputedly haunted house in Salem, Massachusetts for over two centuries now, as well as the specific tale of the most recent generation of this family, dealing with the same curse that has haunted all the Pyncheons since Puritan times. It seems that the original owner of the seven-gabled house, old Colonel Pyncheon, ended up getting a man named Maule killed as a witch in order to weasel out of the construction costs of the house itself, even deliberately knowing that the man was innocent; Maule, it seems, as a result issued an infamous curse on the Pyncheon family as he died, one that has haunted any member in those two centuries who's had anything to do with the house in question. In the meanwhile, though, another persistent rumor has been that the Pyncheon family actually owns a whole lot more land in Salem than the simple Seven Gables estate, and that if they could simply find the 200-year-old evidence then they could get the state government to retroactively reimburse them and make them rich, rich, stinkin' filthy rich; and in that respect, House of the Seven Gables is as much a morality tale as it is a horror or haunted-house one, in that any Pyncheon over the decades who takes an interest in finding this old evidence just ends up obsessed with the subject to their ultimate ruin, as surely as the supposed magical curse that also exists, along the tormented ghosts of all those cursed Pyncheons who still supposedly reside within the house's walls.

Like I said, as a result the book ends up telling two stories at once, with the majority of it dedicated to the current Pyncheon family at the time of the story itself (mid-1800s): bitter spinster Hepzibah, for example, who has ended up having to open a cent-store on the first floor (basically the Victorian equivalent of a convenience store) in order to make ends meet; her elderly brother Clifford, a broken sad-sack who has just gotten out of jail after spending 30 years there for a crime he didn't commit; Judge Jaffrey, a haughty and hard old man who is thinking of running for governor, and who has become convinced that Clifford knows where the hidden Pyncheon real-estate evidence is; and the sweet-as-sunshine Young Phoebe, a rural cousin who is visiting that summer in order to help out this terminally dour family, and who is like a freakin' little rainbow compared to the rest of the family's endless thunderstorms. Combine with a lot of melodrama, a series of events that are semi-supernatural in nature, and a liberal sprinkling of backstory about the doomed Pyncheons of yore, and you have yourself one very Victorian novel indeed.

The argument for it being a classic:
As hinted above, the main argument for this being a classic is its historic nature; it is not only a fine example of the Victorian Novel (also known as the Romantic Novel), but indeed one of the first American examples of the genre to exist, at a time when American-born and -educated artists were just starting to make a mark on world culture for the first time in history. As such, its fans argue, House of the Seven Gables in effect becomes one of the very first American "weird" stories ever published, a subgenre within Romanticism that eventually led to such modern subgenres as horror, psychological thriller, science-fiction, mystery and more. Most people agree at this point that Hawthorne himself is an imminently important figure in American artistic history (mostly because of the perpetually loved and hated The Scarlet Letter), one of the first-ever US writers to have not only a global reputation but to argue for a distinctly "American" style of artistic expression; his fans, though, argue that he was not only this, but also one of a handful of people who began what is arguably the US's most prolific and ultimately important artistic output, the so-called "genre" projects that we seem so particularly damn good at.

The argument against:
The main charge that seems to be leveled at Hawthorne by his critics (and there's more and more of them in our contemporary times) is that his work simply isn't aging very well; that even though it's extremely important from a historical standpoint, there's also a reason that Hawthorne is so closely associated with the stereotypical "Victorian style" of narration, that has become so outdated in modern times. What's that, Dear Reader? You need more elucidation as to the nefarious nature of the Victorian style of narration? Perhaps if the more well-heeled in the audience will think of an overflowery style that directly addresses the intellectually curious in question, they will have more of a grasp over what Your Humble Narrator is dutifully trying to explain. Yeah, now imagine 200 pages of that, and you start to understand the rationale behind the critics' claims that this novel is important historically but not necessarily a classic.

My verdict:
After reading House of the Seven Gables myself, I tend to fall on the side of its critics; the manuscript itself certainly is a flowery mess to modern eyes, with a plotline lacking the modern "oomph" that we contemporary genre fans are used to and expect from genre projects. In fact, this is arguably the most interesting thing about it in our modern times, and the main argument for a horror or mystery fan to still read it, is to see the actual evolution of so-called "spooky stories" in this country. The fact is that this novel is not very scary at all, not very spooky or weird either from the standpoint of how we modern audiences define it; there are some hallways that creep people out, the general feeling of gloom and doom that the eponymous house emits, and of course the central curse driving it all, but is otherwise a fairly conventional morality tale about how one should be happy with the things one currently has in life, not just endlessly yearning for what's not there.

It's fascinating for anyone who's read a broad depth of weird American literature from over the decades, because you can very plainly see the starting point for the genre's maturation; you can literally see the things that ended up inspiring people such as Edgar Allen Poe and HP Lovecraft, which were the things that then inspired people such as Stephen King and Clive Barker, which is what's now inspiring a whole new generation of genre writers. It's definitely an interesting intellectual exercise for anyone seriously interested in the history of strange literature in this country, but otherwise a book that can safely remain unread by most without having to feel guilty on one's deathbed.

Is it a classic? No

The next four books scheduled to be read:
This Friday: The Great Gatsby, by F Scott Fitzgerald
In two Fridays: Midnight's Children, by Salman Rushdie
In three Fridays: The Man Who Was Thursday, by GK Chesterton
In four Fridays: The Ripley Trilogy, by Patricia Highsmith

Read even more about House of the Seven Gables: Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 3:51 PM, January 14, 2008. Filed under: CCLaP 100 | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |