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  • Hawthorne’s Romance and the Right to Privacy
  • Milette Shamir (bio)

The laws of the land are intended not only to preserve the person and material property of every citizen sacred from intrusion, but to secure the privacy of his thoughts, so far as he sees fit to withhold them from others. Silence is as great a privilege as speech . . .

—J. Holbrook (1855)

The home ought not to be open to the casual eye, or the secrets of it liable to the prying or the propinquity of neighbors . . . How much greater the harm which comes from always living so near to others so exposed front and rear, and both sides, that inevitably, in spite of you, the daily life . . . is subject to influences you would gladly be rid of.

—John F. Ware (1864)

Romance, Hawthorne explains in the first paragraph of the preface to The House of the Seven Gables, must “rigidly subject itself to laws,” even as it claims for itself—in contradistinction to the novel—“a right,” or “privileges” of representational latitude and of the freedom of the imagination. 1 This famous definition of romance is at this point misleadingly simple; for what precisely is that system of “laws,” “rights” and “privileges” to which the romance writer must adhere? Are those laws that delimit and determine the genre, that is, strictly aesthetic ones? The last paragraph of the same preface suggests otherwise. Here, in a judicious disclaimer (that has since become standard in fictional works), Hawthorne cautions his readers not bring “his fancy-pictures . . . into positive contact with the realities of the [End Page 746] moment,” and thereby expose the romance “to an inflexible and exceedingly dangerous species of criticism.” In different terms, “[h]e trusts not to be considered as unpardonably offending, by laying out a street that infringes upon nobody’s private rights and appropriating a lot of land which has no visible owner” and urges that the book be read “strictly as a Romance” (352–53). Hawthorne’s definition of romance, thus, spills over from the purely literary into the legal domain: the “laws” that regulate its mode of representation involve those that safeguard the right of individuals to keep their affairs private, while the “privilege” of the imagination claimed by the romance writer protects his work from charges of “unpardonable” infringement upon that right.

Indeed, this contiguity of the legal and the literary in the preface has inspired some of the most important work on the Hawthornian romance in recent years. Critics such as Walter Benn Michaels, Brook Thomas, and Gillian Brown have argued that the system of “laws” and “private rights” that the romance is defined through and is anxious to protect is the primary, yet residual, right of property. 2 “Residual” because, as these critics explain, by the time Hawthorne wrote his romances, the near-mythical eighteenth-century legal paradigm of the right of property was no longer regarded as either philosophically indisputable or rhetorically sound. If the late-eighteenth-century patrician class marked the limits of governmental and societal intrusion upon the individual and secured his liberty and autonomy through rights of property, and first and foremost through real estate, the rise of the middle class and of modern capitalism in the first half of the nineteenth century considerably complicated this model. The logic of the modern marketplace no longer assumed the intrinsic value of real-estate, and consequently the Lockean notion that property based on labor and natural use of land secures the inalienability of personhood could no longer offer a stable legal foundation for the definition of personhood. As the “age of contract” gradually replaced the “age of property,” that is, personhood became dangerously alienable, potentially appropriable by market relations. 3 According to critics, Hawthorne’s romance, “appropriating a lot that has no visible owner” and placing the disputed seven-gabled estate at its hermeneutical crux, tries to re-secure the vestigial definition of personhood based on property, and to create a middle-class foundation for the right of property, in Michaels’ words, “based neither on labor nor wealth and hence free from the risk of appropriation.” 4

What this critical emphasis tends to overlook, I think, is that...

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