Half-way down a by-street of one of our New England towns, stands a rusty wooden house, with seven acutely peaked gables facing towards various points of the compass, and a huge, clustered chimney in the midst. -- Nathaniel Hawthorne, The House of the Seven Gables
When I write another romance, I shall take the Community for a subject, and shall give some of my experiences and observations at Brook Farm. -- Nathaniel Hawthorne, letter to William B Pike, 24 July 1851
In the 'Blithedale' of this volume, many readers will probably suspect a faint and not very faithful shadowing of Brook Farm, in Roxbury, which (now a little more than ten years ago) was occupied and cultivated by a company of socialists. -- Nathaniel Hawthorne, preface to The Blithedale Romance
American novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) was born and lived in Salem, Massachusetts. He was a direct descendant of Major William Hathorne, one of the original Puritan settlers.
Hawthorne was educated at Bowdoin College (Brunswick, Maine) where he met Longfellow (1807-1882), a fellow class-mate. In 1850 Hawthorne met his contemporary, Herman Melville (1819-1891).
Nathaniel Hawthorne is known for two major novels, The Scarlet Letter (1850) and The House of the Seven Gables (1851). Both novels concentrate on what appears to be an obsession with Hawthorne, Sin, though his upbringing and family background may explain much. The Scarlet Letter deals with adultery, The House of Seven Gables with family ancestral guilt.
Other novels include The Marble Faun (1860), written whilst visiting Italy and The Blithedale Romance (1852), a satire on Brook Farm Institute, a failed experiment where the Transcendentalists attempted to put into practice their ideas of self-sufficiency and communal living.
With the exception of The Blithedale Romance, Hawthorne deals with his obsession of mortal sin, all, with the exception of The Marble Faun, were set in New England.
Major William Hathorne, Hawthorne's Great Great Grandfather, was one of the original Puritan settlers from England. Major William Hathorne landed with the first settlers in 1630 and soon became one the community's leaders, he was merciless in his persecution of Quakers. Hawthorne's Great Grandfather, Colonel John Hathorne, was the Judge who presided over the Salem Witch Trials. Nathaniel Hawthorne added the 'w' to his name to distance himself from his evil ancestors. The Hathornes became a seafaring family, both his Grandfather and Father were sea captains.
Hawthorne lived most of his life in Salem, apart from brief interludes in Concord, Massachusetts and Liverpool, England.
Hawthorne worked in the Boston Custom House (1839-1841), then in the Salem Custom House (1846-1849). The post was a cosy sinecure, when political fortunes changed, Hawthorne lost the post. Hawthorne refers to his time at the Salem Custom House in his introduction to The Scarlet Letter, written after he left the custom house.
With his new bride, Hawthorne moved into the Old Manse, Concord, Massachusetts (1842), near the Old Bridge from which the American militia men faced down the British Army during the War of Independence. Whilst living in the Old Manse, Hawthorne wrote Mosses from an Old Manse. At Concord, Hawthorne had a loose association with the Transcendentalists.
After the Salem Custom House post, Hawthorne moved to Lenox, western Massachusetts, where he wrote The House of Seven Gables. A near-neighbour was Herman Melville, who lived at Pittsfield.
Autumn 1851, Hawthorne moved to West Newton, near Boston.
At Bowdoin College, Maine, Hawthorne befriended Franklin Pierce who was later elected President (1853). Pierce offered his friend an appointment as consul at Liverpool, England, where Hawthorne and his wife lived for four years.
The House of Seven Gables was based on a house, The Gables, belonging to an older cousin, Miss Susannah Ingersoll. From Susannah Ingersoll, Hawthorne was able to learn much of his family's disreputable history. The Gables had been built by a seafaring man, Captain John Turner (1668). The house contains a secret hiding place, one of five in Salem, for escaped slaves, part of the Underground Railroad. Susannah felt justice was being served because money to build the house came from the slave trade. The house also contains a secret staircase, located in a closed off section of a flue in one of the four chimneys. The house was purchased (1908) by Caroline Emmerton of an old established Salem family. She restored the house to its original design with seven gables as described by Hawthorne, and opened the house to visitors (1910). The house, now renamed The House of Seven Gables, forms the centrepiece of the House of the Seven Gables Historic Site. The site contains several other historic buildings, including, relocated to the site, the house that was Hawthorne's birthplace. Not far from the historic site lies the Salem Burying Point cemetery, in which lies the body of the evil Judge John Hathorne 'Here lyes inter'd ye body of Colo. John Hathorne Esq. Aged 76 years who died May 10th 1717.', also nearby, on Salem wharf, lies the Salem Custom House.
Salem was infamous for the Salem Witch Trials (1692). As magistrate, John Hathorne, son of founding Pilgrim, William Hathorne, was the main persecutor of the women. Stephen King set one of his novels in Salem. It is only in recent years that Salem has started to come to terms with its shameful past, even to the extent of seeing its value as a tourist attraction, though this has not proved too popular with many of Salem's residents who prefer to see the past dead and buried, and even today, are fearful of what may be stirred up.
Brook Farm, an experiment in communal and cooperative living ran from 1841 to 1847. An isolated farmstead nine miles from Boston, located on the Charles River, Roxbury, Massachusetts. Hawthorne, braving leaden skies and a threatening snowstorm, walked the nine miles from Boston to Brook Farm. He invested $500 apiece for himself and his fiancee, Sophia Peabody. He resided there from April 1841 to November 1841. The Blithedale Romance was a thinly disguised satire on Brook Farm.
Brook Farm was described by its founders as 'a society of liberal, intelligent and cultivated persons, whose relations with each other would permit a more wholesome and simple life than can be led amidst the pressures of our competitive institutions.' Brook Farm was a reaction to the rapid urbanisation that was taking place at the time. Like all such experiments it failed. Financial problems plagued it from the start, it then suffered a devastating fire in 1846.
Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Blithedale Romance, intro Annette Kolodny, Penguin, 1983
Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter and selected tales, ed Thomas E Connolly, Penguin, 1970