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.
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.