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Elisa New is the director and host of Poetry in America, director of Verse Video Education, and the Powell M. Cabot Professor of American Literature at Harvard University, where she[…]

Harvard Professor Lisa New describes how Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of Seven Gables speaks to classic American responses to economic crisis.

Elisa NewThe House of the Seven Gables is a – is a clear-eyed and realistic tale of an economy in transition, a New England world of inherited privilege funded by sea journeys, where there are no more sea journeys to fund this way of life.  And an age of commerce and of hustle is beginning. 

We’re introduced to Hepzibah, Hepzibah Pyncheon, an old woman who has, for years and years, lived off the diminishing funds of a family inheritance.  And Hepzibah belongs to a particular stage in American history and to an American elite that’s really at its – uttering its last gasp. 

We're introduced to Hepzibah on the morning that she has to do what no lady had ever had to do in her family, that is, she has to work for a living.  Hepzibah has decided that she must open a scent shop, a little 7-11 on the side of her house, or starve.  And so she’s bought some few provisions, some thread, some gingerbread. . . . I think of Hepzibah a little bit like the – the senior citizen who has to go to work at McDonald's or those grumpy client-unfriendly cashiers who at Christmas time one finds in department stores.  They’re hired for the Christmas rush, they were not suited to this business, but there they are. 

And Hepzibah, when she hears the little bell in the – the little bell ringing for her services, she quivers and quavers through her whole frame.  She’s so nervous that standing behind the counter, she knocks over various of the sundries she’s collected for customers.  And Hawthorne gives us this comic, pathetic view of her in her rusty gown with her bony old buttocks in the air as she scrabbles on the ground for the marbles and spools of thread she’s lost. 

And so what one can get from Hawthorne, as from no other American writer, is what it feels like to have hit bottom, helping us to sympathize with a person who has hit rock bottom, whose life suddenly and irrevocably has been changed. 

Hepzibah who’s had to open a scent shop, it turns out, doesn’t have any of the skills she needs, has no, certainly, has no sense of client services, doesn’t even really understand the marketing, the marketing demands of her moment.  Hawthorne is hard-headed enough not to pretend that old woman Hepzibah is actually going to be able to remake herself. is going to be able to enter this new commercial economy in which she lives.  But lucky for her, her cousin arrives and her cousin has marvelous ideas about how if they just brew up some ginger beer, and she herself, Phoebe, can roll her sleeves up on her snowy white arms, and concoct that ginger beer, that they will be able to make this scent shop a going concern. 

And what The House of the Seven Gables tells us is that an older generation’s ways will – will recede into the past and that with luck, a newer generation’s initiative and energy will not only deliver society to the next stage but also actually provide a bit of a safety net for that prior generation.  And so I do think that Hawthorne is describing succession, natural succession, and insisting that at moments of change we actually have to look to the next generation. 

Certainly in the current economic crisis we’re looking at older persons who had no idea that the preparations that they’d made for their lives, the way they saw themselves, had no idea that those preparations and that self-understanding would be inadequate.  Hawthorne’s clear-eyed, unsentimental, and yet deeply sympathetic and compassionate view of what it is to be older, what it is to be older and unequipped for the present day, I think is invaluable and a text that, since it’s available for free - one can read it on one’s Smart Phone - I think that we should all be reading The House of the Seven Gables. 

Directed / Produced by
Jonathan Fowler & Elizabeth Rodd