3. Haunted Households
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C H A P T E R T H R E E HAUNTED HOUSEHOLDS 1. THE I M PRI N T OF T HE R EAL “It is not our purpose to trace down the history of the Pyncheon family,” begins Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1851 romance The House of the Seven Gables,“nor to show as in a magic picture, how the rustiness and infirmity of age gathered over the venerable house itself.”1 The book’s preface contradicts these sentiments, however, since it promises a genealogical account that will show how “the wrong-­ doing of one generation lives into the successive ones,” and hopes to “convince mankind . . . of the folly of tumbling down an avalanche of ill-­ gotten gold, or real estate, on the heads of an unfortunate posterity.”2 The narrator’s statement that he does not intend to show these events “as in a magic picture” is also inconsistent, since the House of the Seven Gables contains “a dim, large looking-­ glass . . . fabled to contain within its depths all the shapes that had ever been reflected there.”3 This mirror is the very scene of family history—the Maule clan that built the house and was cheated of its labor by the Pyncheon family that took possession of it is rumored to have enchanted the mirror and made it “alive with all the departed Pyncheons; not as they had shown themselves to the world, nor in their better and happier hours, but as doing over again some deed of sin.” Indeed, this “magic picture” seems to be the ideal image of the book that we are reading.“Had we the secret of that mirror,” concludes the narrator,“we would gladly sit down before it, and transfer its revelations to our page.” Hawthorne’s teasing rhetoric asks the reader at the outset to find some concealed intersection of art and inheritance. The plot reaches its climax when that intersection’s hiding place is revealed: the Maule family’s deed of ownership (now a useless scrap of paper) is discovered behind a portrait of Colonel Pyncheon, the founder of his line and therefore the immoral origin or, as Hawthorne puts it, the “Evil Genius of his family.”4 This dynamic between inherited capital and the artistic imagination is enacted for us as a Pyncheon family drama, but plays out upon larger scales of history. The theft of the Maule land comes to figure the 74  C h a p ter T h ree disenfranchisement of the Indians, while the magic picture that freezes time foreshadows technological innovations in aesthetic media,most notably photography. Holgrave,the dilettante artist who rents the Pyncheon garret,combines in himself the disinherited member of an ancient race and the creative maker of a future art. He is a daguerreotypist, a writer of romances, and is at last revealed to be the scion of the Maules. If the“evil genius”of the Pyncheon family is explicitly that of legal contract, exploitation, and inbreeding, its redemptive future lies in the love between Holgrave and young Phoebe Pyncheon, which dissolves the novel’s conflict by joining the rival clans. Like the mirror ensorcelled by his distant ancestor, Holgrave’s daguerreotypes reveal the sins of ancestors perpetuated into the present.He shows Phoebe a picture he has taken of her wealthy uncle Judge Pyncheon, which“conceive[s] the original to have been guilty of a great crime.”5 Phoebe fails immediately to understand Holgrave ’s puns on“conception” and“original,” which suggest original sin and identify photographic mimesis with the exposure of hereditary guilt; the taint of ill-­ gotten property repeats itself in successive generations of owners as exactly as the living image is transferred to the photographic plate. When Judge Pyncheon seeks from her a grotesque incestuous kiss, however, Phoebe recalls the image, reflecting that “this very Judge Pyncheon was the original of the miniature,” that his evil “was hereditary in him,and transmitted down as a precious heirloom from that bearded ancestor, in whose picture both the expression, and, to a singular degree, the features of the modern Judge, were shown as by a kind of prophecy.”6 Holgrave sees a diabolical inheritance where Phoebe sees an incestuous lust, but in both cases the artwork shows us exchange—financial in one case, sexual in the other—monstrously restricted to a single lineage. Thanks to the mutually supporting mechanisms of inbreeding and inheritance, present social relations recapitulate past ones and thus the same sin repeats in every...


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Subject Headings

  • Families in literature.
  • Kinship in literature.
  • Modernism (Literature) -- Russia -- History -- 20th century.
  • Modernism (Literature) -- Soviet Union.
  • Bely, Andrey, 1880-1934. Peterburg.
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