House of the Seven Gables

February 27, 2008 — The entire town of Salem, MA, is an oddity, and one day I’ll post about all of my experiences there [Author's Inevitable Correction: I have since done that. Multiplemultiple, multiple times.]. 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.

Since most of these things are out of season right now, I’ll write instead about a single oddity that is located in Salem: The House of the Seven Gables.

If the bewitchery of the late 1600s had never happened in this town, Salem would still have many elements of it history to tout, even if they wouldn't be as fun as conical hats and warty rubber masks. Like its literary heritage. About a hundred years after the fervor of the trials, Salem became the birthplace of Nathaniel Hawthorne, one of the original innovators of American fiction who helped define an authentic, unique American style.

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 Salem. It still houses today.

The House of the Seven Gables, with its many pointed gables, multiple chimneys, and dark, foreboding exterior, is extremely eye-catching. It looks like a place I'd want to trick-or-treat at, which is exactly how I define the phrase “extremely eye-catching.”

Also called the Turner-Ingersoll Mansion by pretty much nobody, Seven Gables is right on the water of Salem Harbor at the intersection of Derby and Turner Streets. For a 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 lines about the experience in my article on Salem itself.].

It’s not so much the fee as having to invest the time it takes to follow a tour guide at his or her chosen pace with a bunch of people I don’t know while filtering in real-time all the information delivered in practiced cadences. 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.

Hawthorne’s house of birth is also included on the tour. They moved it from its original location on Union Street to right behind the House of the Seven Gables.

After you house it, you can statue it. A few blocks away on Hawthorne Boulevard towers a large statue of Nathaniel Hawthorne himself, looking billowy and dramatic. 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, like the Old Customs House where he worked, places he lived, places he wrote about or was inspired by, graves of his forebears like John Hathorne, one of the Salem trial judges. But it's okay if you're just there for the witches. That's why I go.

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 I don't often find myself with, but when I do I berate myself for not finding him more. 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.

Toward the The House of the Seven Gables book itself, though, I don’t glow so much. Seven Gables was, well, tiring for me. Nothing much happens except for rambling history flashbacks and scattered conversations. If you want to read about 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 sentence. Basically, I find The House of the Seven Gables way more interesting than The House of the Seven Gables.