"Shall we never, never get rid of this Past? …It lies upon the Present like a giant's dead body."
- Nathaniel Hawthorne, "The House of the Seven Gables"
Turner-Ingersoll Mansion, built in 1668
The steeply-pitched gables of varying heights dominate each side of the 17th century mansion that faces Salem Harbor. A quaint garden surrounds the home, though during my January visit it was in its winter dormancy. I've seen the garden in every other season, and while it is gorgeous in full-bloom, there is something quite striking in seeing the home completely exposed, obscured only by winter's naked branches.
Owned by his cousin Susanna Ingersoll, Nathaniel Hawthorne was a frequent visitor to the old mansion. Its tales and history being recounted to him, must have stirred his simmering imagination. His cousin's home became the inspiration for the title of Hawthorne's story and would serve as its greatest symbol, representing the devious ascension of the powerful Pyncheon family and then ultimately their decline and decay through the generations.
The theme that the sins and choices of one generation being visited upon successive generations is something that has been weighing on my own mind lately. We endure the consequences of our ancestors' choices. It becomes our fate, and sometimes our curse. However, in Hawthorne's tale we discover that fate can be overthrown for free will, if only we can break down our own deeply-ingrained, preconceived limits.
"For, what other dungeon is so dark as one's own heart! What jailer so inexorable as one's self!"
- The House of the Seven Gables
The fencing between the House Of the Seven Gables and the harbor.
In a story filled with such romantic gothic elements as ghosts, a decaying, spooky house, witches, and curses, the theme plays out well. It begins in the 17th century as the greedy Colonel Pyncheon gains some highly valuable property by accusing the poor farmer living on it of witchcraft. Before the poor farmer is hung, he curses Pyncheon with the words, "God will give you blood to drink!"
After the Colonel builds his impressive home on the foundations of the farmer's hut, he is found dead in his study, blood spilled from his mouth, covering his shirt. Every generation after is cursed until the family is fractured, and their once aristocratic status descends to near poverty, evidenced by their need to open a cent shop in their formerly grand home.
The Accounting Room in The House of the Seven Gables, made up to look like Colonel Pyncheon's study
Hepzibah's Cent Shop. There never was a cent shop in the home, though one was added for tours to fit Nathaniel Hawthorne's story.
Over a century ago, Caroline Emmerton bought and restored the Turner-Ingersoll mansion and opened it for tours. Capitalizing on Hawhorne's book, she called the home The House of the Seven Gables. Other antique colonial homes of Salem, in danger of falling into complete disrepair or demolition, have been moved to the property. Hawthorne's birthplace was moved to the property as well.
Nathaniel Hawthorne's birthplace, on the House of the Seven Gables property
In the restoration of the old mansion, and in building up the property, Caroline Emmerton played into The House of the Seven Gables' theme of redemption, of restoration, and breaking of a past generation's curse. The symbolism is perfect, and a reminder that we don't need to crumble to a perceived fate. Homes can be brought back from decay, and so can people.
The Counting House, circa 1830, on the Gables property
One of the main purposes in opening the property for tours over a century ago was to raise money to help those in need in the Salem community, and that purpose still holds true today.
The Hooper-Hathaway House, built in 1682, on Seven Gables property
The House of the Seven Gables amongst its neighbors
The House of the Seven Gables, both the book and the property, symbolize the overcoming of insurmountable odds; the saving of a home, the saving of the soul, the saving of those in need. And beyond those lofty ideals, it is simply a beautiful place to sit, read a book, look out to the harbor, take in the gardens, and imagine life in New England generations ago.
(To read more on my January visit to The House of the Seven Gables, and other Salem locales, read my Yankee Magazine article here.)