Academic journal article Nathaniel Hawthorne Review

Comical Reflections and Delayed Affect in the House of the Seven Gables

Academic journal article Nathaniel Hawthorne Review

Comical Reflections and Delayed Affect in the House of the Seven Gables

Article excerpt

Much critical attention has been given to Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1855 complaint to his publisher William Ticknor about the "d---d mob of scribbling women" crowding the literary marketplace and making hopeless his chances of commercial success (17:304). Although in his dismissal Hawthorne rhetorically distinguished himself from commercially successful sentimental women writers, implying that his stories pursue hard truths rather than sentiment and sales, evidence suggests that Hawthorne, keen to support his family and build his reputation, cared deeply about writing novels that the public would buy. While he was working on The House of the Seven Gables, which would be published in April of 1851, Hawthorne wrote letters comparing his manuscript to his previous novel, The Scarlet Letter (1850), before anxiously speculating about its public reception. On November 3, 1850, he wrote to James T. Fields, "My prevailing idea is, that the book ought to succeed better than the Scarlet Letter; though I have no idea that it will" (16:371), and then the next year conjectured, "The book, I think, has more merit than the Scarlet Letter; but it will hardly make so much noise as that" (16:402). Wary of the market, he noted yet again to Fields that though the new work was "better (which I insist it is) than the Scarlet Letter, I have never expected it to be so popular" (16:435). As Michael T. Gilmore asserts in "The Artist and the Marketplace in The House of the Seven Gables", Hawthorne's ambivalence about his relationship to the consuming public made its way into his fiction. Gilmore detects in The House of the Seven Gables a writer torn between competing desires, "a Hawthorne deeply concerned with his relationship to the public and with his priorities as a writer who both craved fame and money and aspired--in Melville's words--to be a master of 'the great Art of Telling the Truth'" (172).

In The House of the Seven Gables, Hawthorne characterizes writing intended for a public audience as "the chisel that inscribes, the voice that speaks, and the pen that writes for the public eye and for distant time--and which inevitably lose much of their truth and freedom by the fatal consciousness of doing so" (3:122). (1) Nonetheless, by the time he composed The House of the Seven Gables, Hawthorne had experienced considerable success as a writer of sketches and Gothic tales, and he was aware of his own audience as well as changes to the literary landscape. In Material Texts: American Literature and the Culture of Reprinting, 1834-1853, Meredith McGill argues that Hawthorne distances himself from his success in minor literary forms while he self-consciously incorporates those forms into his 1851 novel. Because Hawthorne associates sentimentalism in particular with the public taste, his conflicts with the market play out in his relationship to sentimentalism in The House of the Seven Gables. In catering to audience expectation through conventions designed to prompt marketable feelings, most notably in the happy ending of the novel, Hawthorne employs sentimentalism as it is popularly understood, yet he reveals his misgivings about it through figurations of it in the novel. (2)

Hawthorne's use of the word "scribbling" in his 1855 complaint to Ticknor echoes his portrayal of sentimentality in The House of the Seven Gables as a mode that robs writers of precise control over their hands, creating a product that robs readers of precise control over their emotions and bodies. By emphasizing the lack of agency for writer and reader, Hawthorne portrays sentimental fiction as alienating for readers and writers alike. I argue here that because Hawthorne was suspicious of the power of sentimentalism, yet felt pressured by the market to resort to it, he offsets it with humor in The House of the Seven Gables. Through subtle humor that attends to the processes of labor and meaning-making, Hawthorne creates a metanarrative position from which he resists, and helps readers to evade, the problems of the marketplace associated with sentimentalism. …

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