Reflections on Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables and Hawthorne: A Life (Part One of Two)

IMG_3178.JPGOver the last few weeks I reread a book by an American writer I have admired for many years, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and his novel The House of the Seven Gables. But I also read a lengthy biography of Hawthorne by Brenda Wineapple. I have provided a threefold approach to the novel and the biography using the following format: Summary, Analysis, Assessment. If you are a reader of serious literature and/or of its masters, I hope you benefit from what follows. I hope you will read (and or reread) Hawthorne’s works yourself. I recommend reading his short stories first, then moving on to The Scarlet Letter and other novels. There is much more to Hawthorne’s works than Hester Prynne’s scarlet A.

The House of the Seven Gables:

 At the risk of oversimplification, the novel explores the power of the past, and some people’s attempts to preserve it, pervert it, yield to it, and/or manipulate it. The “house” of the novel’s title is a house with seven gables, yes, but also a symbol for creation itself—once beautiful but now decaying due to the fall of the universe and all mankind. Does beauty exist anymore? If so, by what standard is beauty to be understood? Is love possible? What worldview best explains the way the world is—chaos or Christianity?

A few quotes from the novel may help to reveal what the novel centers upon:

Nothing gives a sadder sense of decay, than this loss of suspension of the power to deal with unaccustomed things and to keep up with the swiftness of the passing moment. It can merely be a suspended animation; for, were the power actually to perish, there would be little use of immortality. We are less than ghosts, for the time being, whenever this calamity befalls us. (141)

Intellectual honesty requires readers know up front that this novel is not light fare. Hawthorne was a serious thinker and writer; his canon of literature attests to that. In the above passage, the issue is how to capture the fleeting nature of human experience. How can the artist arrest motion and present his art to a world swept up in the quick, fast, and silly? Artists labor to speak to the deep things of life, but the trivial things invariably occupy most people’s time. More accurately stated, most people fill their free time with silliness and distraction.

A second quote from the novel may further illustrate Hawthorne’s concerns:

It seemed to Holgrave—as doubtless it has seemed to the hopeful of every century, since the epoch of Adam’s grandchildren—that in this age, more that ever before, the moss-grown and rotten Past is to be torn down, and lifeless institutions to be thrust out of the way, and their dead corpses buried, and everything to begin anew.

As to the main point—may we never live to doubt it!—as to the better centuries that are coming, the artist was surely right. His error lay, in supposing that this age, more than any past or future one, is destined to see the tattered garments of Antiquity exchanged for a new suit, instead of gradually renewing themselves by patchwork; in applying his own little life-span as the measure of an interminable achievement; and, more than all, in fancying that it mattered anything to the great end in view, whether he himself should contend for it or against it. (157-58)

Summary: As you can tell from the above quotes, the novel is concerned with the past. (Notice how Hawthorne capitalized it.) How we view the past is crucial. What are the standards we should bring to bear when thinking about the past? What should we preserve and what should we erase and/or deemphasize? (I’m thinking in terms of architecture here.) And what about literature? Should we preserve the Classics by Milton, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Sophocles, Homer, Dante, and Tolstoy, for example? Or should we consign these thinkers to “the past” written by those “oppressive white males,” and instead only read today’s writers, many of whom focus on race, class, sexual proclivities, and gender and neglect what Faulkner called “the human heart in conflict with itself”? Hawthorne’s novel explores these underlying issues.

Analysis: How does Hawthorne demonstrate the questions posed above? In short, he explores them via Hepzibah, Holgrave, Clifford, and Phoebe, four of the major characters in the novel. In my view, these four characters embody an angle from which Hawthorne explores how to view the past. Does it cripple us via family and generational curses? That is, are we helpless to overcome the power of the past? Should we seek to carve out a present by neglecting the past and the so-called lessons of history? Should we tiptoe along the surfaces of life, pretending all is well? Contemporize it for a moment: In selfies, isn’t the message most often, “I’m so happy!”? Hawthorne’s characters from the 1800s would not have known the meaning of “selfies,” but some of his characters embodied their takers’ worldviews. If man is the measure of all things, in other words, what you get is, well, man. Don’t curse the heavens if you worship at the altar of man.

Assessment: It will come as no surprise that I am still reading Hawthorne’s fiction—thirty years after I discovered his fiction. Where does Hawthorne fit? He has been called a Dark Romantic, like Edgar Allan Poe. He disavowed Thoreau’s pantheism and Emerson’s paganism. Feminists celebrate Hester Prynne as a brave woman, a martyr for women’s sexuality in a man’s world. Some angry self-professing atheists see Hawthorne as an author who called out some Puritans for their hypocrisy. Where do I fall in my view of Hawthorne’s oeuvre? In sum, I would agree that he is a Dark Romantic. His view of man—his anthropology—is realistic. He sees that man is a sinner by nature, by inclination, by deed, and by choice. I do not see evidence, so far in my studies of Hawthorne, at least, that he was a Christian. He seemed to disavow biblical Christianity several times, in fact (I will explore this more in Part Two). An issue that fascinates me is this: If Hawthorne acknowledged sin, man’s fallenness, the fallenness of the universe of all of mankind, what prevented him from embracing the gospel? Hawthorne was a master, at least in my view, of exploring our sinfulness, but he was less ready to explore the Redeemer. As a result, his writing profoundly explores man’s problem but without proposing a solution, one he would have found in the gospel.


(Part Two coming soon)



Reflections on Kidd’s Biography of a Founding Father


This week I read a history of one of the most influential men in American history, a Founding Father, printer, author, autodidact, aphorist, statesman, scientist, friend of Calvinist George Whitefield, and inveterate ambassador of discovery, education, and self-improvement. Biographies are among my favorite areas in which to read deeply, and Thomas Kidd’s bio of Ben Franklin did not disappoint.

Following is a form to provide a brief book review:

1. Overview

2 Quotation

3. Main idea

4. Questions raised/reflections


 Kidd divides the book into nine chapters: 1) Child of the Puritans; 2) Exodus to Philadelphia, Sojourn to London; 3) Philadelphia Printer; 4) Poor Richard; 5) Ben Franklin’s Closest Evangelical Friend; 6) Electrical Man; 7) Tribune of the People; 8) Diplomat; and 9) The Pillar of Fire.

Kidd provides a clear overview of Franklin’s Calvinist upbringing and deep knowledge of the Bible; his prodigious work ethic and self-discipline; his staggering output of pamphlets, articles, ads and booklets as a printer; his deftness with proverbs; his lifelong friendship and theological foil with Christian evangelist George Whitefield; his discoveries in electricity; his educational and political honors and appointments; his government service; and his final days wrestling with the question of the exclusivity of the Christian gospel.


 Consider the following commentary by Kidd re Franklin’s self-help moralism:

If Whitefield preached transformation by God, Franklin advocated gradual reformation by daily effort, with biblical precepts as a guide. No internal change or divine regeneration was needed. Whatever the lingering influence of his Puritan heritage, this was a point on which Franklin clearly departed from the Puritans, and from their evangelical successors like Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards. In this focus on harnessing daily habits, Franklin was setting foundational precedents for that distinctively American, quasi-religious genre, the self-help movement. Franklin’s “The way to Wealth” and his Autobiography were ur-texts of that movement. (161)

Kidd excels in demonstrating the rich theological culture that existed in America in the middle of the 1700s due mostly to the robust evangelism of Calvinists like Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield amidst the literacy rate of the nation seeking to separate from George and English dominion.

Main Idea:

 Kidd maintains his focus throughout the book on Franklin’s internal struggles. He (Franklin) was saturated with biblical knowledge but he never would concede the divinity of Christ, his virgin birth, or that salvation was by grace alone. Franklin sifted the Bible for moral precepts, acknowledging Jesus’ incomparable greatness, but would not, as far as historians can tell, ever trust in Christ and the gospel completely. Whitefield and Franklin corresponded for decades, and all the while, Whitefield pleaded for Franklin to trust in Christ alone, but Franklin persisted to trust in his own deeds as meriting favor with God, a clear indicator he had not embraced the gospel.

Questions raised/reflections:

 It is interesting to study a man as brilliant and gifted as Benjamin Franklin, one who was largely self-taught, one who explored the Greek and Roman classics, the Bible, philosophers like Locke, Hume, and Kant, theologians and pastors like Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield, and never seemed to lose his zeal for discovery and learning. Despite his experiences of man’s butchery in the American Revolution, the slaughter of Indians by misguided zealots, and some of America’s birth pangs, he continued a rebel soul up until his end in this life. I wish he has listened more to his friend Whitefield and believed the Scriptures, rather than just quoting them when they suited his rhetorical purposes.

Lastly, if you wish to learn of this Founding Father, this contradictory man, this gifted writer and satirist, read Kidd’s bio of Franklin. Kidd writes so well that you may wish the book had been even longer.



Sea to See

I think it was Melville who said something to the effect of contemplation being wed to the sea. I’m no different, I suppose. Not approaching the talent of a Melville, that’s certain, but I too find my mind reflecting upon time at the beach. Is it presumptuous to think we people drive or fly to the beach for reasons all that different from one another? I bet we’re more alike than that. To find reprieve from the mundane? To escape busyness and hectic schedules? To recharge our souls? To make memories with our loved ones? To gorge on crab, oysters, scallops, and shrimp? I went for all of those reasons and more. But the question remains: what did I go to the sea to see?

Back home at my desk, the small of my back hurts from many hours behind the steering wheel during the drive back. We’ve fed our pets and picked up the mail. We’ve plopped luggage down in the living room to put away later. And it’s good to be back. But what did I go to the sea to see?

First, to get away with my loved ones. Though my daughter could not go due to her schedule, the rest of us did get away. Metro Atlanta’s city lights faded into the Carolinas’ sands and brilliant stretches of sun on the Atlantic. Wispy clouds, whose shapes changed with the breezes, arrested my eyes more than a few times. Hours away from home but it felt like a universe away. But what else did I go to the sea to see?

Second, to leave the tyranny of the present. I did not take my schedule out of my backpack once. I’m a Luddite re technology. I still use a paper calendar and write my appointments in pencil to chart each day’s planned events. When most people operate comfortably on their smartphone calendars, I’m the holdout with a paper calendar and pencil. But hey, my pencil is mechanical, so there’s that. I only checked office email once, I think. I used my smartphone to take pictures of scenes I did not want to forget, but tried to stay away from news, social media, etc. It’s amazing how one’s mood improves the farther one gets from the barrage of information overload. But what else did I go to the sea to see?

Third, though not in the order of importance, is what I think I went to the sea to see. It’s one thing, I think, but it’s multifaceted. Here’s the way it washes over my mind’s eye: When my ten-year-old said each day, “Dad, let’s throw the football some more!” and I looked up from my folding chair on the sand, and he’s standing five yards away tossing the pigskin back and forth between his hands in a small spiral, and the sun’s rays shimmer off the waves over his shoulders, and the fall winds lift his blond hair as he walks closer to me shouting, “Dad, Dad, come on.” And I put down my biography of Emily Dickinson and look up to see him smile when he sees I’m coming his way to throw.

And there are the images of my wife walking barefoot up the shore looking at the shells around her tanned feet, and I can see her face brown already from a few days of sun, and I know these images will fill me long after we’ve driven west back to GA. She’s prettiest to me when she does not know I’m watching her and loving her from afar.

And I hear the gulls circling near us as we toss the football, and the pelicans fly in formation two hundred meters out, and blue pigeons strut incredibly close to us on the sands as if to let us know we’re the visitors.

It’s the wash of these sounds, the sea smells, the sun-drenched days, the unmistakable gait of one’s loved ones. The images of the leather spiraling in the sun, of one’s wife walking the beach afternoons or under stars and moonlight so bright it would be shameful to question God.

These reflections come into precious focus now, after I’m back at the desk and hear voices call my name to tell me it’s time to eat. It is as if I’m beginning to understand what I went to the sea to see.