Academic journal article ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)

Consuming Tragedy and "The Little Cannibal" in the House of the Seven Gables

Academic journal article ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)

Consuming Tragedy and "The Little Cannibal" in the House of the Seven Gables

Article excerpt

"If you pass Hepzibah's cent-shop, buy me a Jim Crow (fresh) and send it to me by Ned Higgins." (Herman Melville, The Letters 125)

When he emerged from his feverish writing of The Scarlet Letter, his "hell-fired" tale, Nathaniel Hawthorne was left in a state of mental and physical exhaustion that would linger for months. As we are reminded by Thomas Mitchell (51-53), he had been shattered by his expulsion from the Salem custom-house, the death of his mother, and chronic financial difficulties that had compelled him to borrow money from George Hillard, all of which trials told on his health which was still uncertain when, a few months later in August 1851, he set out to write his second romance, The House of the Seven Gables. He felt the need for a change. "Uncomfortable with the starkness of his own tragic vision ... [too] one-sided, too uniform in its tone and its sense of life," Richard Brodhead observes (69), Hawthorne was now bent on letting "the genial sunshine" into his work. This was first of all necessary for financial reasons: he felt--and the commercial success of The House of the Seven Gables proved him right--that a more optimistic romance would draw a larger reading public and provide him with the financial security that had eluded him so far. But, as Mitchell underlines, he also had psychological reasons for presenting his readers with a brighter narrative: The Scarlet Letter had "stimulate[d] disturbing speculations about his character" (53). Very close acquaintances such as his sisters-in-law Elizabeth and Mary Peabody and friends Ellery Channing and George Hillard had attributed the darkness of the romance to "a darkness within himself" (54). The underlying assumption was that the writer must necessarily have drawn from personal experience, in other terms that his innermost, secret self must have been in the image of those troubled, sinful souls to whom he had lately given life. Feeling that her husband was under attack, Sophia immediately flew to his defense, vehemently contending in her letters that imagination and "divine intellect" were powerful enough to make the writer of fiction envision predicaments to which he was a stranger in real life. "Mr. Hawthorne," she claimed, was "pure" and no less than "a seraph." It would be preposterous to think of him as having gone through "the fiery ordeal of sin" (qtd. in Mitchell 55-56). Yet suspicion of intimate acquaintance with evil became even more of a threat when, as Hawthorne had just embarked on the writing of his second romance, a "Virginian Spending July in Vermont," alias Herman Melville, he not only emphatically proclaimed his elder's "great power of blackness" but also expressed his conviction that such a feature could only originate in personal experience: " [S]uffering, some time or other and in some shape or other,--this only can enable any man to depict it in others" ("Hawthorne and His Mosses" 1157). The result was, to quote Robert K. Martin and Leland S. Person, that "Hawthorne found himself writing Seven Gables in resistance to the view of his writing that Melville was determined to promote both in his review of Mosses from an Old Manse and in his conversations with the author" (116); or, in a more general way, that "the stakes were clearly very high for Hawthorne at home.... Pouring more 'sunshine' into his fiction now seemed a personal as well as a commercial necessity" (Mitchell 56).

Building one's plot on a curse that was meant to doom not only a man but his whole progeny nevertheless made it difficult to break the tragic dynamics thus entailed. There was some inherent contradiction between this initial choice and Hawthorne's desire to demonstrate that he was as responsive to sunshine as to darkness. This conflict may explain why the composition of the romance was such a lengthy, laborious process (16:359, 369, 371, 378), or why Hawthorne himself complained, as he was completing his tale, that it "darkens damnably towards the close" (16:376). …

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