by Nathaniel Hawthorne
If we can agree that the short story's like the equivalent of a 45 RPM single, the novella's the equivalent of a 12" EP, and the novel's the equivalent of an album, CD, or whatever large data storage file the kids of today are listening to their tinny, overproduced, uninteresting dance music on, then Nathaniel Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables is very much like that mediocre second album put out by a once-great band that wowed you with their debut LP. What happened? While I can't blame Hawthorne for electing not to come out with The Scarlet Letter II as the follow-up release to his smash hit, I'm not sure that this wildly uneven "ghost story"/"romance" of his was really the right medium for the morality tale about the Pyncheon family curse he chose to deliver. For starters, even in his preface he's rather heavyhanded about his didactic aims: "Many writers lay very great stress upon some definite moral purpose, at which they profess to aim their works. Not to be deficient in this particular, the Author has provided himself with a moral;--the truth, namely, that the wrong-doing of one generation lives into the successive ones, and, divesting itself of every temporary advantage, becomes a pure and uncontrollable mischief;--and he would feel it a singular gratification if this romance might effectively convince mankind (or, indeed, any one man) of the folly of tumbling down an avalanche of ill-gotten gold, or real estate, on the heads of an unfortunate posterity, thereby to maim and crush them, until the accumulated mass shall be scattered abroad in its original atoms" (4). Whatever you make of an author telling you what his story's about before you even get to the story, to my disappointment I found much of the narrative that follows just as clunky and programmatic in tone. Maybe I don't get the guy's alleged sense of humor anymore, but his exposition-heavy passages made me grit my teeth with frequency. Oftentimes striking descriptions shared the stage with awkward, clumsy and flat out mystifying ones like this one: "The evil of these departed years would naturally have sprung up again, in such rank weeds (symbolic of the transmitted vices of society) as are always prone to root themselves about human dwellings" (76). Finally, the cardboard cutout characters were a joke, especially in light of the fact that 1851 was also the same year that New England's other newest hit maker gave us the unforgettable trio of Ishmael, Queequeg, and Ahab. Despite almost giving up on the book about halfway through, though, I'm basically glad I didn't because there's an absolutely fantastic chapter near the end where Hawthorne departs from his mostly boring storytelling style with a night-long vigil at the side of a key character who has just died under mysterious circumstances. The mocking way "the Author" chides and admonishes the deceased character for over a dozen pages is a sight to behold, and for one unbelievably compelling chapter at least I felt like I was in the presence of something electric and special and "classic." Too bad then, with apologies to our dear Hawthorne-loving friend Frances, that so much of the rest of The House of the Seven Gables is as tame and as cloying as any major label power ballad act from the 1980s only without the big hair! (www.modernlibrary.com)
The House of the Seven Gables was read as part of a group read for R.I.P. VI.