H Is for The House of the Seven Gables: #atozchallenge

Unable to think of an H word I could get a post out of (I searched the dictionary for a likely candidate, but in vain), I fall back on a post that appeared April 9, 2018, exactly one year ago, for Day H of the A to Z Challenge. It’s a little English majory, but I restrained myself as best I could. For example, I used only five semicolons.

 

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In November 2016, I posted about my upcoming visit to Salem, Massachusetts for UnCon, the writers’ conference hosted biennially by Writer Unboxed.

And in my usual flippant fashion, I said, “Cold is what I wanted when I registered for the conference last summer. Sweater weather. I don’t get nearly enough.”

The truth is that I’d heard good things about the conference and wanted to go to it.

But there’s also truth in the flippancy: the Austin fall was unseasonably warm, and I wanted to wear sweaters.

So my wishes were granted. Good conference; cold weather.

The the other draw was Salem itself and specifically, the House of the Seven Gables, the house Nathaniel Hawthorne used as his setting for the novel of the same name. What English major could resist?

I attended a class in the annex, a modern building on the property, and during a break walked around outside. Across a courtyard sit the Counting House and Hawthorne’s birthplace.

Hawthorne and his wife, Sophia Peabody, moved from Concord to Salem in 1845 and the next year he was appointed “Surveyor for the District of Salem and Beverly and Inspector of the Revenue for the Port of Salem.” While in the position, he had difficulty writing, and told writer Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, whom he’d met in college, “Whenever I sit alone, or walk alone, I find myself dreaming about stories, as of old; but these forenoons in the Custom House undo all that the afternoons and evenings have done. I should be happier if I could write.”

After Whig Zachary Taylor’s election to the presidency in 1848 election Hawthorne, a Democrat, lost his job. A letter he wrote in protest was published in a Boston newspaper, and his dismissal became known and talked about throughout New England. But he returned to writing and in 1850 published The Scarlet Letter

It was one of the first mass-produced books in America, selling 2,500 volumes within ten days and earning Hawthorne $1,500 over 14 years. The book was pirated by booksellers in London and became a best-seller in the United States; it initiated his most lucrative period as a writer. (Wikipedia)

It has been called the first psychological novel, and writer D. H. Lawrence later said that there “could be no more perfect work of the American imagination.

Unfortunately, Hawthorne died long before Lawrence expressed his opinion; among his contemporaries, the novel became the subject of controversy.

Hawthorne’s friend Edwin Percy Whipple objected to the novel’s “morbid intensity” and its dense psychological details, writing that the book “is therefore apt to become, like Hawthorne, too painfully anatomical in his exhibition of them.”

It also added to his troubles. There was a “furious” response from newspapers, politicians, and members of the clergy. (Hawthorne also mentioned his job in the introduction and referred to certain politicians, so he shouldn’t have been surprised that those readers weren’t complimentary. Just my opinion.)

In A Chapter from Nathaniel Hawthorne: Studies In The House Of The Seven Gables, Thomas St. John quotes Hawthorne on Salem:

I detest this town so much that I hate to go into the streets, or to have the people see me. . .I feel an infinite contempt for them, and probably have expressed more of it than I intended; for my preliminary chapter has caused the greatest uproar that ever happened here since witch-times.

“He half-expected the crowds to tar and feather him,” says St. John: ‘from such judges as my fellow-citizens, I should look upon it as a higher honor than a laurel-crown.'”

The Scarlet letter was published in mid-March 1850. In late March, the Hawthorne family moved to Lenox, Massachusetts, in the Berkshires. In 1851, he published The House of the Seven Gables, which poet  James Russell Lowell said was better than The Scarlet Letter and called “‘the most valuable contribution to New England history that has been made.'”

When I began this post, I intended it to comprise mostly pictures of the House of the Seven Gables. But to ensure I got my facts straight, I googled, found the chapter by St. John, and was struck by Hawthorne’s opinion of Salem. I’d assumed he was happy there. After all, he’d set a novel there.

Never assume. Research instead.

I also thought I would post early for a change. Vain hope. Once I began clicking, I followed one bunny trail after another–for over three hours. And I enjoyed every minute. I learned Hawthorne translated The Aeneidfor entrance to Bowdoin College when he was sixteen , and that The House of the Seven Gables is closely linked to Virgil’s epic. That in itself makes the search worthwhile.

Now, end of digression and on to the heart of the matter.

*

I took the photographs in this post during the break between classes. The image of Nathaniel Hawthorne is detail from a portrait hanging in the House of the Seven Gables Museum store.

Day H: House of the Seven Gables #AtoZChallenge

In November 2016, I posted about my upcoming visit to Salem, Massachusetts for UnCon, the writers’ conference hosted biannually by Writer Unboxed.

And in my usual flippant fashion, I said, “Cold is what I wanted when I registered for the conference last summer. Sweater weather. I don’t get nearly enough.”

The truth is that I’d heard good things about the conference and wanted to go to it.

But there’s also truth in the flippancy: the Austin fall was unseasonably warm, and I wanted to wear sweaters.

So my wishes were granted. Good conference; cold weather.

The the other draw was Salem itself and specifically, the House of the Seven Gables, the house Nathaniel Hawthorne used as his setting for the novel by the same name. What English major could resist?

I attended a class in the annex, a modern building on the property, and during a break walked around outside. Across a courtyard are the Counting House and Hawthorne’s birthplace.

Photo: detail of a portrait of Hawthorne hanging at the House of the Seven Gables Museum store

Hawthorne and his wife, Sophia Peabody, moved from Concord to Salem in 1845 and the next year he was appointed “Surveyor for the District of Salem and Beverly and Inspector of the Revenue for the Port of Salem.” While in the position, he had difficulty writing, and told writer Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, whom he’d met in college, “Whenever I sit alone, or walk alone, I find myself dreaming about stories, as of old; but these forenoons in the Custom House undo all that the afternoons and evenings have done. I should be happier if I could write.”

After Whig Zachary Taylor’s election to the presidency in 1848 election Hawthorne, a Democrat, lost his job. A letter he wrote in protest was published in a Boston newspaper, and his dismissal became known and talked about throughout New England. But he returned to writing and in 1850 published The Scarlet Letter

It was one of the first mass-produced books in America, selling 2,500 volumes within ten days and earning Hawthorne $1,500 over 14 years. The book was pirated by booksellers in London and became a best-seller in the United States; it initiated his most lucrative period as a writer. (Wikipedia)

It has been called the first psychological novel, and writer D. H. Lawrence later said about the book that there “could be no more perfect work of the American imagination.

Unfortunately, Hawthorne died long before Lawrence expressed his opinion; the novel became the subject of controversy among his contemporaries.

Hawthorne’s friend Edwin Percy Whipple objected to the novel’s “morbid intensity” and its dense psychological details, writing that the book “is therefore apt to become, like Hawthorne, too painfully anatomical in his exhibition of them.” (Wikipedia)

It also added to his troubles. There was a “furious” response from newspapers, politicians, and members of the clergy. (Hawthorne also mentioned his job in the introduction and referred to certain politicians, so he shouldn’t have been surprised that those readers weren’t complimentary. Just my opinion.)

In A Chapter from Nathaniel Hawthorne: Studies In The House Of The Seven Gables, Thomas St. John quotes Hawthorne on Salem:

I detest this town so much that I hate to go into the streets, or to have the people see me. . .I feel an infinite contempt for them, and probably have expressed more of it than I intended; for my preliminary chapter has caused the greatest uproar that ever happened here since witch-times.

“He half-expected the crowds to tar and feather him,” says St. John: ‘from such judges as my fellow-citizens, I should look upon it as a higher honor than a laurel-crown.'”

The Scarlet letter was published in mid-March 1850. In late March, the Hawthorne family moved to Lenox, Massachusetts, in the Berkshires. In 1851, he published The House of the Seven Gables, which poet  James Russell Lowell said was better than The Scarlet Letter and called “‘the most valuable contribution to New England history that has been made.'”

When I began this post, I intended it to comprise mostly pictures of the House of the Seven Gables. But to ensure I got my facts straight, I googled, found the chapter by St. John, and was struck by the above quotation. I’d assumed Hawthorne had positive feelings about Salem. After all, he’d set a novel there.

Never assume. Research instead.

I also thought I would post early for a change. Vain hope. Once I began clicking, I followed one bunny trail after another–for over three hours. And I enjoyed every minute. I learned Hawthorne translated The Aeneid  for entrance to Bowdoin College when he was sixteen , and that The House of the Seven Gables is closely linked to Virgil’s epic. That in itself makes the search worthwhile.

Now, end of digression and on to the heart of the matter.

 

For more Day H posts click here.

 

 

 

 

One Pebble in a Shoe Can Change the Universe

It happened again.

An author killed off a character I love.

I hate that. I hate the author. I continue to like the book, but the author I despise.

This time it’s Anne Tyler. I love her novels. The Accidental Tourist. Breathing Lessons. Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. My favorites, if I have favorites, are Back When We Were Grownups and Saint Maybe.

"Must Love Anne Tyler." Cherry Ride. "Must Love Anne Tyler." CC BY 2.0.
“Must Love Anne Tyler.” Cherry Ride. “Must Love Anne Tyler.” CC BY 2.0.

Tyler’s plots are rather loose. Instead of going directly from here to there, they detour, turn corners you didn’t see coming, abandon the now for backstory that might take you a generation or two into the past before returning to the main narrative.  “[C]haracter is everything,” Tyler said in an interview. “I never did see why I have to throw in a plot, too.” 

She writes about families: ordinary, quirky, dysfunctional families–dysfunctional as ordinary families tend to be. They’re humble people, living in ordinary houses, working at ordinary jobs; their furniture is often mismatched and their carpet runners often worn from someone’s pacing. Her families stick together; children and grandchildren don’t stray far, come home often, and sometimes don’t leave at all.

Even their extraordinary problems  are ordinary, the kinds of problems real people experience.

Her characters’ days are filled with matters of little importance. “As for huge events vs. small events,” says Tyler, “I believe they all count. They all reveal character, which is the factor that most concerns me….It does fascinate me, though, that small details can be so meaningful.”

She loves to “think about chance–about how one little overheard word, one pebble in a shoe, can change the universe…The real heroes to me in my books are first the ones who manage to endure.”

If her plots meander, it’s because they reflect the common, insignificant, everyday events that are so important, because, taken together, they form the essence of life.

Tyler cares about her characters. “My people wander around my study until the novel is done,” she said in another interview. “It’s one reason I’m very careful not to write about people I don’t like. If I find somebody creeping in that I’m not really fond of, I usually take him out.”

And therein lies my problem, and the reason that Anne Tyler is, for the moment, on my bad list.

She isn’t alone in liking her characters. I like them, too. Some of them, I love. And when one dies–or, as I see it, when she kills one–I take it personally. The character’s family stand around in the kitchen saying all the plain, simple, often awkward, frequently funny things that real people say when someone they love has died.  They crowd together in pews to hear a sermon by a minister who didn’t know the loved one and might not know how to pronounce his name. They return home to refrigerators stuffed with casseroles and play host to friends and neighbors until they’re so tired they’re about to drop. Left alone, they get on one another’s nerves and offend with, or take offense at, the most innocent remarks. Then they pick themselves up and go on with their lives.

But I don’t. Because even though I stand outside the novel, reading about people who don’t exist, never have, never will, I know them. I’ve been where they are, said what they say, done what they do. And when I have to go through it one more time, with them–that seriously messes up my day.

Tyler always manages to redeem herself, though. One of her characters says or does something so remarkable, so absolutely right. And the world of the novel shifts. And so does mine.

In the book I’m reading now–I won’t mention the title so as not to spoil it for you–Tyler gives that role to the “disconcertingly young” minister who conducts the funeral. After a friend and a sister-in-law and a fourteen-year-old granddaughter wearing “patent leather heels and a shiny, froufrou dress so short she could have been a cocktail waitress,” have paid tribute to the deceased, he approaches the lectern and does what the deceased wanted–to “say something brief and–if it wasn’t asking too much–‘not too heavy on religion.'”

He starts by saying he didn’t know their loved one and so doesn’t have memories like they have.

But it has occurred to me, on occasion, that our memories of our loved ones might not be the point. Maybe the point is their memories–all that they take away with them. What if heaven is just a vast consciousness that the dead return to? And their assignment is to report on the experiences they collected during their time on earth. The hardware store their father owned with the cat asleep on the grass seed, and the friend they used to laugh with till the tears streamed down their cheeks… The spring mornings they woke up to a million birds singing their hearts out, and the summer afternoons with the swim towels hung over the porch rail… and the warm yellow windows of home when they came in on a snowy night. “That’s what my experience has been,” they say, and it gets folded in with the others–one more report on what living felt like. What it was to be alive.

And so Anne Tyler performs her magic. Once more I start bawling. I reconsider. My hostility passes into nothingness. I forgive her. We’re friends again.

I leave the church and go home with the family to a refrigerator stuffed with casseroles, and visit with their friends, and watch them give and take offense but then quickly, or perhaps slowly, repair their relationships, and pick themselves up and go on with life.

Now I have to read the second half of the book. That’s a lot of pages to cover without the character I love. But, like the others, I pick myself up and get on with it.

If I can’t have the character, I can still love Anne Tyler. And I will. And I do.

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Of Tyler’s novel Searching for Caleb, John Updike wrote, “Funny and lyric and true, exquisite in its details and ambitious in its design…This writer is not merely good, she is wickedly good.”

What a fine thing to be–wickedly good.

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In writing this post, I relied heavily on “Anne Tyler” from Wikipedia. More information can be found at

http://www.nytimes.com/topic/person/anne-tyler
https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/457.Anne_Tyler
http://www.npr.org/2015/02/10/384112113/cozy-blue-thread-is-unabashedly-domestic
http://www.baltimoresun.com/entertainment/arts/bal-book-review-anne-tyler-s-vinegar-girl-a-clever-riff-on-shakespeare-s-shrew-20160622-story.html
http://www.nytimes.com/books/98/04/19/specials/tyler.html
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/feb/15/anne-tyler-interview-i-am-not-a-spiritual-person-spool-of-blue-thread
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/home/event/article-2931435/Anne-Tyler-began-writing-idea-wanted-know-like-somebody-else.html
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/apr/13/anne-tyler-interview

Find her on Amazon at http://www.amazon.com/Anne-Tyler/e/B000APV4K0/ref=sr_tc_2_0?qid=1466827414&sr=8-2-ent