February 27, 2008 — The entire town of Salem, MA, is an oddity, and one day I’ll write of all my experiences there [Author's Inevitable Correction: I have since done that.]. To do that, though, I need a certain ambiance. Orange and red leaves blowing on omen-laden breezes against my windows. A mug of hot caramel apple cider steaming up my computer monitor. Halloween-themed M&M commercials running in the background on my television. The promise of a Ray Bradbury book after I finish writing. I could keep going forever, but I’ve already broken the Rule of Three as it is. Since most of these things are out of season right now, I’ll write instead about a single oddity that is located in, although not really thematically linked to, Salem, MA. That oddity is the House of the Seven Gables.
If the bewitchery of the late 1600s had never happened in this town, Salem would still have a claim to fame, even if it couldn’t market it to the point of absurdity like it currently does. About a hundred years after the fervor of those infamous trials, Salem became the birthplace of Nathaniel Hawthorne, one of the original innovators of American fiction who helped define an authentic, unique American style that we now have pretty much no use for because it takes effort to read. We’re hideous, I know.
One of Hawthorne’s more famous works is The House of the Seven Gables, published in 1851. It’s the story of an empty peanut butter jar of a family and the titular house that serves as the stage and symbol for the family’s generations-long burden of guilt. I’ll write more about the story later, but for now I just want to talk about the house itself. And there is a house itself, because Hawthorne based Seven Gables on an actual house in the Salem area. It still houses today (of course that’s the verb for what a house does). The House of the Seven Gables was originally located on Washington Street, but the folks at Salem were kind enough to move the entire house to a more accessible (and lucrative) location a few blocks away in the town center.
So why visit it? I have my reasons. You can find your own, of course. First, I’m into most anything literary. I have a couple of degrees (Fahrenheit) on the topic, and that’s gotten me, in total, very low-paying jobs and an interest in books. Believe it or not, the latter has hurt my life way more than the former. Second, it’s right in the middle of Salem, so it’s hard to avoid visiting it if you’re there. Third, the large house, with its many pointed gables and multiple chimneys and dark, foreboding exterior, looks like a place I want to trick-or-treat at, which is exactly how I define the phrase “interesting to visit.” Other reasons for visiting that I don’t personally have are being a fan of the book, wanting insights into authentic historical experiences, and spreading the gospel of the Latter-day Saints.
Also called the Turner-Ingersoll Mansion by pretty much nobody, Seven Gables, like many of Salem’s attractions, is located right on the water of Salem Harbor at the intersection of Derby and Turner Streets, but you don’t even really need that much direction. Just ramble around until you see the inflatable raft sized gold and burgundy sign denoting its presence. Actually, the location is rather idyllic, so strolling is probably more appropriate than rambling.
For a nominal fee you can enter the house as part of a tour group and see some displays on Hawthorne’s life, work, and historic Salem in general. I’ve never done this [Author's Inevitable Correction II: I have since done this. Threw a few scant lines about the experience in my article on Salem itself.]. It’s not so much the nominal fee as having to invest the time it takes to follow a tour guide at his (usually “her,” actually) chosen pace with a bunch of people I don’t know while filtering in real-time all the information delivered in practiced cadences that I don’t care about but still have to listen to. After all, this is “Odd Things I’ve Seen” not “Odd Things I’ve Been Unnecessarily Tour-Guided Through in a Time-Consuming and Impersonal Group Setting” (although I do own that domain name, too). You can go right up to the house, though, without touring and be impressed. You can even double-check the gable count. I didn’t. I assume seven is the correct number and that Hawthorne at least fact-checked his own title, despite the fact that I never do. Which is why I originally published this article under the name “House of the Rising Sun” until a few alert readers called me out.
You can go see Hawthorne’s house of birth, too, because they moved it from its original location on Union Street to right behind the House of the Seven Gables. It’s also included on the tour. Added value and all that. I guess Salem just loves to move houses. I also guess that moving houses is a lot easier than I think it is. Maybe I’m thinking about moving mountains, though. After you house it, you can, of course, statue it. A few blocks away on Hawthorne Boulevard towers a large statue of Nathaniel Hawthorne himself, looking all billowy and dramatic above you. At least that’s how he looked when I visited. He might be in a different mood when you see him. If that doesn’t sate your interest in all things Hawthorne, there are quite a few other locations you can visit relevant to Hawthorne’s life. I didn’t visit any of them, though. I’m usually in Salem for the witches, honestly, like everybody else.
So now that I’ve told you superficially about the house, I might as well tell you superficially about the book. Hawthorne's one of those writers toward whom I've never gravitated personally, but I immediately respect anybody who claims him as a favorite. The caveat to that, though, is that Ethan Brand is one of my favorite stories in the world, and if the lime kiln in that story was based on a real object, I’d visit it over Seven Gables in two heartbeats of an amphetamine addict. I do marvel at a lot of the central ideas of Hawthorne’s tales, but much of my experience in that is only from the brief sips of his short stories that I’ve taken. I do remember reading The Scarlet Letter in high school, but I don't remember my opinion of it. Just the livid image of a woman with a red script “A” on her blouse. I think she was a superhero or something.
Toward the The House of the Seven Gables book itself, though, I don’t glow so much. I’m not going to throw literary terms at you, mostly because they’re not sharp or heavy enough to do damage, but Hawthorne’s style was very New England, very Puritan, and very wordy. You see, this was a pre-Thomas Edison era, so nobody’d really invented dialogue yet. Most people just went around describing stuff around them in giant monologues made up of only three sentences. And I’m talking about in their actual interpersonal conversations. But that’s okay, because they hadn’t yet invented cocktail parties, sit-coms, or instant messaging, either, so they had no reason to be pithy.
Of course, that bled over into the literature of the day. It’s a style of writing that I’m actually way okay with usually. In fact, I think there’s a lot to be said for it that nobody’s saying anymore. In the specific case of Seven Gables, though, it’s tiring to the point of frustration. You see, nothing much happens in this story except for a few overly long history flashbacks and a few scattered conversations. I’m also okay with that, but the narrator rambles and seems a lot more interested in his own words than in communicating anything solid to the reader. Anyway, if you want a much better example of a rotting dynasty living in a house that’s a symbol of its own familial decay, read Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher. It’s way shorter and has much stronger images.
In fact, in summing up my feelings of the story, I can steal directly from Hawthorne’s book itself, Chapter XIV. The House of the Seven Gables is “a drama which, for almost two hundred years, has been dragging its slow length over the ground where you and I now tread.” Take the “t” off that last word and you have my experience with the work in a nutshell. Or a sentence, I guess. I mean, even an apparent murder near the end of the narrative couldn’t speed up the story, and instead just gave occasion for an entire chapter of more giant paragraphs of useless information and self-directed narrator amusement.
I started reading the book in preparation for my most recent visit to the house. That was like six months ago, and, honestly, I only barely finished reading it before posting this article. Granted, I’ve cheated on it about five times with other books, but still, the book’s only a couple of hundred pages long, it’s considered a classic, and I love reading, so this situation shouldn’t happen. I don’t know. Usually mundane objects are romanticized by stories. This is one of the few cases that, for me at least, the opposite is true. The House of the Seven Gables is way more interesting than The House of the Seven Gables.