Musings on Current Events & Reading Nathaniel Hawthorne

It is dismaying to pick up the newspaper and read more every day about lockdowns, toilet paper shortages, library closings, canceled sports events, social distancing, and death. Everyone is freaked-out, or plain terrified.  And the more you read, the more you realize all you can do is wash your hands, which, honestly, you do a lot of anyway. 

Perhaps the hardest thing about living in the time of the virus is not being able to take a break to go to a movie or some other form of entertainment.  Although it might not (would not!) be wise to go to a movie now, you are willing to take a bottle of Clorox and disinfect the whole theater if necessary–when you learn the theater is closed. 

Some people online are unhappy because their libraries are closed. And that is horrible, almost unbelievable. You do want your library books. They’re recommending e-books.  

THESE DAYS I’M TRYING TO READ MORE BOOKS THAN NEWSPAPERS. IT’S GOOD FOR THE SOUL.  And so I have turned to Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose novels are laced with a Puritanical dark humor that fits very well with our own stressful times. (Somebody somewhere is writing a satiric novel about our times that will one day make us laugh.) And, in case you didn’t care to read Hawthorne  after studying The Scarlet Letter with an English teacher who used Cliff Notes, let me  recommend  Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance and The House of the Seven Gables. Both are actually better than The Scarlet Letter.

The House of Seven Gables is not as charming as The Blithedale Romance (I posted about it here), but it is a brilliant, graceful novel, a romance of loss and renewal.  His style is almost unbearably elegant–you find yourself reading and rereading sentences–and there are  also thrilling Gothic elements, among them witchcraft, mesmerism, and a doomed upper-class family. Hawthorne begins with a detailed history of the Pyncheons, owners of the House of Seven Gables, and their ancestor’s feud over the property with one Matthew Maule, reputed to be a wizard.  Witchcraft, mesmerism, lost deeds and greed are interwoven with the history of the House of Seven Gables.  

One of the highlights of the book is our first meeting with poor, lonely Miss Hepzibah Pyncheon.  Hawthorne is sympathetic but also humorous in his description of the spinster, whose face always seems to be frowning.  This isolated old woman wakes up one morning knowing it is the day she must abandon the dignity of her class to open a small shop in the house.  It is a fall from the upper class, but she has been getting poorer every year, and must earn money.

Hawthorne describes Miss Hepzibah’s isolation, the locks and keys between her and her young, cheeful lodger.

[We presume] to note some of the heavy sighs that labored from her bosom, with little restraint to their lugubrious depth and volume of sound, inasmuch as they could be audible to nobody, save a disembodied listener like ourself.  The Old Maid was alone in the old house.  Alone, except for a certain respectable and orderly young man, an artist in the daguerrotype line, who, for about three months back, had been a lodger in a remote gable–quite a house by itself, indeed–with locks, bolts, and oaken bars, on all the intervening doors.  Inaudible, consequently, were poor Miss Hepzibah’s gusty sighs…. Evidently, this is to be a day of more than ordinary trial to Miss Hepzibah, who, for over a quarter of a century gone by, has dwelt in strict seclusion, taking no part in the business of life, and just as little in its intercourse and pleasures.

Opening the shop is an agonizing event in Miss Hepzibah’s life, but is not quite the crux of the book. There are two arrivals–the first that of Miss Hepzibah’s young cousin, Phoebe, from the country.  And Phoebe is Miss Hepziabah’s savior:  this cheerful young woman likes serving in the shop, and she soon builds a thriving business.  (People were afraid of Miss Hepzibah, but love pretty Phoebe.)

And then Miss Hepzibah’s mentally ill brother, Clifford, returns from Europe.  He is so frail that he hardly responds to anyone but Phoebe. Hepzibah is grateful, because he has always been the central person in Hepzibath’s life, and she would sacrifice anything to make him happy. They become a family of three.   But there are two possible threats from the outside:  the attractive, interesting lodger, who seems very genial, but has an odd intereste in the family history.  Hetells Phoebe a strange story about mesmerism by a descendant of Matthew Maule and  his hypnotism of her ancestor, Alice Pyncheon.  I was so terrified I put the book aside for a while, and Phoebe tuned out the story.  The second, and real threat is the prosperous Judge Pyncheon, a respected man in the community who destroyed Clifford’s life long ago.  He insists he wants the other Pyncheons to live with him at his country house.

In the  melodramatic introduction to my 1935 Heritage Press copy, Van Wyck Brook explains that this dark novel is based on Hawthorne’s impressions and observations of his hated hometown, Salem, Massachusettss.  He returned there as a an adult and socialized with innkeepers and sailors who told him dark stories about the town.  Van Wyck Brook writes of Hawthonrne;  “HIs mind was a twilight mind. Sometimes he even doubted his own existence.  He had lived as a ghost lives, for twelve years, under the eaves of the house in Herbert Street, only appearing for a walk at nightfall.”

Great reading in the time of… I almost said cholera.

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