About a Place: New England’s, The House of the Seven Gables

The House of the Seven Gables, Salem, Massachusetts.

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s romantic novel, The House of the Seven Gables, begins with remarks by the author which address his concern that his story might resemble any place that is real. Hawthorne is direct, and writes,“The reader may perhaps choose to assign an actual locality to the imaginary events of this narrative. If permitted by the historical connection, (which, though slight, was essential to his plan), the Author would very willingly have avoided anything of this nature.” Since the location of the setting of Hawthorne’s narrative did not leave much for the imaginations of generations of readers of The House of the Seven Gables, it is difficult to determine just what Hawthorne’s real concerns regarding location might have been. Only fifty years after its publication in 1851, the unavoidable happened, and a house was assigned an actual locale, taken from the imaginary events in Hawthorne’s narrative, where, as he describes it, “Half-way down a by-street in one of our New England towns,” it became a very real place in a very real location in the County of Essex, Massachusetts, which Hawthorne does specifically locate in his introduction.

The assigned place, known as “The House of the Seven Gables,” can be seen during visiting hours in the National Historic Landmark District on Derby Street in Salem, Massachusetts. According to its Internet website it is a “private, not-for-profit organization” that manages four historic houses and gardens, provides tours, educational programming, teaching resources, lectures, theatre performances, and even offers its guests the use of its facilities for events such as weddings, reunions, fundraisers, and business gatherings. It is a thriving cultural center that strives, according to its vision statement, “To be a leader in the community by leveraging our strengths as a premier historic and literary site.” It also lists its core values, which include the legacies of Caroline Emmerton, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Salem. When he wrote it, the author of the romantic novel titled, The House of the Seven Gables, might never have imagined a place known as The House of the Seven Gables that would become a tourist destination for thousands of visitors each year.

The Gardens at The House of the Seven Gables, Salem, Massachusetts.

From his chapter “Defining Place” that does the initial work of framing the subject in his book, Place: A Short Introduction, Tim Cresswell writes,“One answer is that they are all spaces which people have made meaningful. They are all spaces people are attached to in one way or another.” This is especially true of The House of the Seven Gables in Salem Massachusetts. People have developed it into a meaningful place and assigned it a deliberate location. Moreover, the larger community of the people who have lived and still live in Salem have attached themselves to it and have exploited it for different purposes. As evidence suggests, the house that inspired the novel, The House of the Seven Gables, has been transformed into a place where the values of preservation and historical relevance have been exchanged for the ideals of celebrity and commerce, which demonstrates the commodification of the imaginary events in Hawthorne’s novel that created a location, known as The House of the Seven Gables, as it appears today.

From its very first pages, Hawthorne personifies the house in a manner that creates a relationship with the narrator, writing, “The aspect of the venerable mansion has always affected me like a human countenance, bearing the traces not merely of outward storm and sunshine, but expressive also, of the long lapse of mortal life, and accompanying vicissitudes that have passed within.” Indeed, the house of Hawthorne’s fiction has many relationships beyond those of its admirers and owners, as Hawthorne is inspired by the Essex County history of the individuals falsely accused and unjustly hanged for the crime of witchcraft there. In his novel, the owner of the house is descended from those who falsely accused others, and a lodger at the house is descended from those who were unjustly hanged. As a result, Hawthorne intimates that the house has taken upon itself, a kind of personality associated with these events. Its situation, “There it rose a little withdrawn from the line of the street, but in pride, not modesty”; its visitors, “-thus early had Death stepped across the threshold of the House of the Seven Gables!”; even its mood, “So much of mankind’s varied experience had passed there — so much had been suffered, and something too, enjoyed — that the very timbers were oozy, as with the moisture of a heart,” all indicate the human qualities of the house, but more importantly, the author’s familiarity with it.

View of five of the gables at The House of the Seven Gables, Salem, Massachusetts.

The house, once personified by Hawthorne’s references to its human qualities, is then given a personality that is ominous by design — it can summon back the dead, create apparitions in its fountain, and make the subject in a portrait move as it hangs upon the wall. Some of its inhabitants are no less mysterious and possess powers of persuasion, magnetism, and the command of modernity through technology, all of which allude to the supposed practices of witchcraft that are associated with the history of the house. In her 1854 travel diary, Harriet Beecher Stowe meditated upon The House of the Seven Gables, after visiting the Louvre. In it, she writes of her transcontinental thoughts on Art and Literature, “Rembrandt is like Hawthorne. He chooses simple and everyday objects, and so arranges light and shadow as to give them a sombre richness and a mysterious gloom. The House of the Seven Gables is a succession of Rembrandt pictures done in words, instead of oils. Now, this pleases us, because our life really is a haunted one…” “Haunted” is an accurate reference associated with the house, since Hawthorne himself, suggests it is so.

It is also an accurate reference to Hawthorne himself, since his own ancestral history includes a member who was guilty of judging individuals falsely, during the Salem witchcraft trials, and Hawthorne was so affected by this knowledge that he altered the spelling of the family name to include the now infamous “w.” Hawthorne’s personal attachment with the house begins with his birth on July 4, 1804, in Salem, Massachusetts, in a home once located on Hardy Street. He visited his future wife, Sophia Peabody, on Charter Street; worked as a surveyor of the port at the Custom House; and wrote his earliest works at the Manning House, where he lived for twenty -five years. Most importantly, he visited his second cousin, Susan Ingersoll, at the Turner Street mansion, according to publications made available for tourists visiting Salem, Massachusetts, making Hawthorne well acquainted with what was known as the Turner Street Mansion, which is said to be the inspiration for The House of the Seven Gables.

Illustration from The House of the Seven Gables.

In her essay, “Salem as Hawthorne’s Creation,Nancy Lusignan Schultz finds that the nature of Hawthorne’s relationship with location allowed him to “infuse so much power into his depictions of Salem and how the town of Salem shaped his work,” which is also best be described by Eudora Welty, in her essay “Place in Fiction.” Welty writes, “Place has a more lasting identity than we have, and we unswervingly tend to attach ourselves to identity.” But Schultz goes on to argue that Hawthorne’s connection to Salem so formed and shaped his own identity that his published work, once made famous by its popular consumption, shaped Salem, in turn. According to Schultz, Hawthorne’s belief in the representation of a larger national American identity through his fiction is rooted in his assertion that human behaviors are at once, universal. In The House of the Seven Gables, Hawthorne explores the good and bad nature of the human condition in the context of its relationship to a physical location, that is, a house that locates itself as though it participates in relationships with those who pass through its rooms.

Hawthorne’s celebrity and the commerce associated with The House of the Seven Gables began with the release of its first printing in 1851, which followed the success of his novel, The Scarlet Letter. Nearly 6,000 copies were sold with four printings in the first year. It received favorable reviews by Hawthorne’s contemporaries, was an inspiration for other American Gothic writers, and was soon released in illustrated editions. It was also later adapted for a silent film in 1910 and then another film in 1940 which starred the actor, Vincent Price, who later became noted for his appearance in American horror films. This was followed by a remake in 1967, but before that, in 1960, it was adapted for a television production, as well as a shorter story version for a collection that included two other shorter stories for a production of Twice Told Tales. This commercial success, through the development of mass modern media, further aided the growth of celebrity associated with Hawthorne and Salem. It invited the curiosity of American tourists to New England in search of the place where the legend that connected Hawthorne’s novel to the location “Half-way down a by-street,” would point to where The House of the Seven Gables is situated today.

Film, The House of the Seven Gables

In his essay, “Touring History: Guidebooks and the Commodification of the Salem Witch Trials,” Stephen Olbrys Gencarella writes that there were numerous guidebooks written for Salem tourism and that, as a combination of history and entertainment, they are important to the development and advancement of the identification of tourist sites. As he and others note, preserving and restoring the real estate that inspired The House of the Seven Gables was the singular work of Caroline Emmerton, who determined that the house should reflect specific events in Hawthorne’s novel and that proceeds from admission fees to view the house be used to fund her charitable work. That work was the nationalization of immigrants in Salem who were in need of her integrative teachings on becoming more “American.” The location of what became known as her “settlement house” began with inhabitants of Native Americans, followed by a midwife, a sea captain, a military colonel, and an esquire from several generations of the Turner family. By the time it became the possession of Caroline Emmerton in 1908, it had once belonged in the Ingersoll family, before the Upton family assumed ownership.

This history of ownership of the house is significant, as research by Lorinda Goodwin in her essay titled, “Salem’s House of the Seven Gables as Historic Site,” shows that extensive archeological work uncovered a several hundred year history of the people who once lived in the house that speaks to the American identity with which Hawthorne believed his fiction held an affinity. Beginning with Native Americans, the site where the house is situated today was known as Naumkeag and appears to have been used as a camp. Since the name is roughly translated to mean a “fishing place” in the Algonkian language, it is assumed that the site was a social or political center. After this, the first known evidence of people there is indicated by the historical records that show that the Salem Town Council granted the midwife, Ann More, three-quarters of an acre of land for her “support” in 1637, where she lived alone for about 30 years until she sold her small English style house to John Turner, around 1668. Captain John Turner added several rooms to the house, including a kitchen and a parlor, which made for a more elaborate structure that was intended to impress the pubic with his success in trade and shipping. It included rooms that were used for business, as well, since the house would have been in close proximity to shipping vessels in the harbor.

Postcard, The House of the Seven Gables, before it was restructured to appear as it did in Hawthorne’s novel.

Colonel John Turner owned the home until the mid-eighteenth century and during his time as a member of His Majesty’s Council in Boston, he achieved much prosperity. Thirteen pages of probate inventory records indicate that he died in 1742, with a home furnished in luxurious material goods and furnishings. According to Goodwin, the documented records associated with his life are rich with folklore and history that connect his life to pirating, scalping, and amassing wealth. The next generation of the Turner family, the Honorable John Turner, Esquire seems to have squandered his family inheritance while keeping a high profile in Salem as an Anglican and a Tory. He managed to die in poverty, selling the house to Captain Samuel Ingersoll in 1782, in order to pay his debts. Until 1804, Ingersoll lived in the house with his wife and daughter, Susannah, who later became its owner. He was responsible for building the sea-wall that surrounded the property in addition to tearing down older parts of the house and making it a residential home that no longer associated itself with conducting trade and shipping. It was Susannah, who invited her cousin Nathaniel Hawthorne to visit her there during her seclusion as a spinster from 1784, until her death in 1858. After this, it was owned briefly by several other families before Emmerton purchased the house.

Emmerton was charmed by the house and intent on restoring it. She hired Joseph Chandler, an architect, to restructure it according to the prescribed conditions of Hawthorne’s novel. The House of the Seven Gables would then come to life, not as it might be determined by accurate preservation and historical relevance to the documented history of previous owners, but by the celebrity and tourism that would come to be associated with the author and the novel that would mark the settlement’s name. Emmerton believed in the transformation of the immigrant culture and society in Salem into the more acceptable American ideal that assured their assimilation into established local standards for living through her settlement work. As a result of Emmerton’s efforts, the structure that stands today is much smaller than the original and has only seven of the original eight gables — once reduced to five — for the purpose of accommodating Hawthorne’s description in his text. This, Emmerton hoped, would firmly associate Nathaniel Hawthorne and his novel with the property that would then be known as, “The House of the Seven Gables Settlement Association,” for the success in funding her philanthropic efforts.

Immigrant children learning to become more “American,” at “The House of the Seven Gables Settlement Association,” in what is now, The House of the Seven Gables, Salem, Massachusetts.

In her 1914 book, Historic Homes of New England, Mary Harrod Northend writes brief summaries of her visits to about twenty New England properties and includes photographs of their interiors. In it, one can see the deliberate associations with Hawthorne’s narrative that Caroline Emmerton intended for the house, through the photographs included with Northend’s chapter on The House of the Seven Gables. Emmerton’s influence can be seen in both her ownership of the copyright of the photographs and in the carefully restored interiors that are associated with the events of Hawthorne’s novel, as she interprets them. Northend took particular care, when she wrote about The House of the Seven Gables for her book, in noting each room, its content of furnishings, and its connection to the characters and incidents in Hawthorne’s narrative. Northend begins her description of her visit to The House of the Seven Gables by observing that the neighborhood in which it is located is surrounded by old houses now turned into tenements. She does, however, remind readers that it is situated with a view of Salem harbor that visitors will find desirable.

Her narrative tour of the house informs readers that, before they even step inside, the romance of the house is so evident that they might find Miss Hepzibah, Hawthorne’s spinster in The House of the Seven Gables, waiting for them there. Interestingly, upon entering the house, she writes that a visitor will find themselves standing in the pence shop that Hepzibah kept, just as readers first encounter her in the opening pages of Hawthorne’s novel. The shop, as Hepzibah might have kept it was never a part of the original interior space of the structure and had to be added and made to appear as it would in the novel. Northend does write a few sentences that describe the former ownership of the house, but nothing of the depth of the history associated with it. An explanation of the efforts of Emmerton to restore the house to its original condition, includes the telling of the story of restoring a “secret staircase” that was thought to have been “discovered” by previous owners. This is an addition to Northend’s book that aides the imagination of the reader, who might picture the events from Hawthorne’s novel within the walls of The House of the Seven Gables.

View of The House of the Seven Gables, from a neighboring house, Salem, Massachusetts.

The most important connection to The House of the Seven Gables that Northend makes is her description of what was known as “the hall” or the “keeping room,” which has been transformed into “the parlor” from Hawthorne’s imagination. Here, Northend situates the location of some of the more significant and dramatic events of Hawthorne’s novel, such as the death of the house’s owner, the movement of the subject in a portrait on the wall, and the exact use of the secret staircase. Northend goes so far to suggest that readers might find an answer to the mystery of Hawthorne’s character, Hepzibah, searching through the house for her brother, Clifford, and finding that he is not in his room, but suddenly appearing in the parlor. Northend concedes that the house originally had eight gables, not seven, and that it was restored to become as Hawthorne imagined it, owing to the troublesome condition of an extra gable that was not part of the original structure and added by a previous owner. This is explained without reference to the preferences of the previous owners or their business once located there, but rather, to the inconvenience of its poor design.

As Northend escorts the potential visitor through her narrative tour, she describes each of the rooms in the house, including the dining room, bedrooms, and attic, as they would be associated with the characters who lived there in Hawthorne’s fiction. The heroine Phoebe, the hero Halgrave, Hepzebah, Clifford, and Judge Pyncheon are each assigned rooms in the house by Northend, who describes scenes from The House of the Seven Gables together with descriptions of the material objects, furnishings, and architectural structure that makes a visit to The House of the Seven Gables an entertaining experience. And, according to Northend, the 19th century material objects and furnishings that are situated in the 17th century house are accounted for by the tour guide at the house, who explains that the collection is for the purpose of making the home as it would have been when Hawthorne visited his cousin there. There is no extensive description of the long history of the three generations of the earliest owners and their lives there — only the experience of a tour of the house with casual references to the past and a strong emphasis on the experience that a reader might encounter as a tourist in Salem who seeks out the celebrity that is associated with Nathaniel Hawthorne and The House of the Seven Gables.

Emmerton’s intention to create The House of the Seven Gables as “The House of the Seven Gables,” would have been dependent upon the publication of other guidebooks that are necessary to the merchandizing of what are called “site sacralizations,” as tourist guidebooks are “a collusion of historical fact and entertainment” that combine to form the appearance of an actualized location. In today’s commodification of historical locations, a tourist might never find it necessary to actually visit the sites that preserve celebrity and promote tourism, because they can be experienced through the pages of a published text that includes lavish photographic images of interior and exterior spaces connected to historical buildings and sites. In 1914, when Northend published the narrative of her tour through The House of the Seven Gables, it would have been experienced by readers as if they were accompanying her on a journey there. For the price of the book, their admission into the place where Hawthorne is supposed to have imagined The House of the Seven Gables, is accessible just decades after its initial publication. And yet, the book serves as an invitation to the tourist that might not be refused, which Northend makes clear in her closing remarks, which invite visitors to sit in the garden near the grape arbor, and sip a cup of tea beside a beautiful view of the harbor.

The House of the Seven Gables is assigned a meaningful geographic location by those who would capitalize on the celebrity of its author, the scandals of the region, and an attachment that obscures specific truths about the historical evidence concerning what is now known as The House of the Seven Gables. It is given a new interpretation by those who would assign meaning to its location. Attaching themselves to it for the purpose of commodifying the novel, The House of the Seven Gables, individuals and organizations have developed numerous opportunities for merchandising the celebrity of Nathaniel Hawthorne. If The House of the Seven Gables is the product of Hawthorne’s imagination and his own attachment to it, then his association with the city of Salem and his need to identify himself with meaningful location is riddled with a strange dichotomy. And if, as some Salem brochures claim, Hawthorne sought to distance himself from the ancestral origin of his shared guilt in the deaths of innocent people accused of witchcraft — why then, does he craft fiction that centers itself on subject matter attached to a location that is deeply connected to his personal history?

Hawthorne makes only a little effort to secure the location of the house that inspired his romantic novel and what is more; he leads his readers to its doorstep with the temptation to try and locate it by way of his introduction, when he writes, “The reader may perhaps choose…” Hawthorne’s attachment to meaningful location through his relationship with the town of Salem and the historical events which occurred there is evidenced in his romantic novel that he situates specifically in a house where he exploits the people, events, and architecture of the region for the purpose of advancing and securing his career as a New England regional author. Even more, The House of the Seven Gables, is exploited by Caroline Emmerton through creating The House of the Seven Gables and attaching her philanthropic efforts and her personal legacy there. Still more, the city of Salem exploits The House of the Seven Gables and the celebrity of both Nathaniel Hawthorne and Caroline Emmerton through its modern tourism industry.

The history of the house that inspired the novel, The House of the Seven Gables, has been revised to create a place where the extensive historical relevance of the property is exchanged for the purpose of successful financial gain. This demonstrates the commodification of the imaginary events in Hawthorne’s novel that created a location known as The House of the Seven Gables, as it appears today. Historical houses throughout New England are visited through the exploitation of the celebrity of the lives of the individuals associated with them, which speaks to the questions about region, history, and culture that are both real and imagined. The authenticity of a region through its history and culture is an evolving and changing phenomenon. It divides those who would preserve and those who would restore meaningful locations and places, where generations of people have been attached for reasons that are both sentimental and profitable. Somewhere in between, there is the truth of a place that is made more valuable, by understanding not only the historical facts attributed to its existence, but the historical evidence associated with its changes through time.

The House of the Seven Gables

About a Place: New England’s, The House of the Seven Gables, by Robin Whitham McCrady, Copyright, 2020

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