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It’s said that you can’t choose your family: Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) was certainly at odds with his. 

On a recent visit to Salem, Massachusetts, my family indulged me by visiting the House of the Seven Gables, the 1668 edifice that provided the setting for Hawthorne’s 1851 novel of the same name.  Hawthorne had been a frequent guest in the house where he played cards and shared stories with his cousin, Susannah Ingersoll. The Ingersoll family built the house and occupied it for generations, but Hawthorne’s novel sets it as the ancestral home of a family that strongly resembled his own ancestors.

Hawthorne’s third great grandfather, William Hathorne (1606-1681), was among the original Puritan settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and one of its prominent leaders. Although he rose from obscurity to wealth and power and succeeded in establishing religious freedom for himself and his fellow Puritans, William Hathorne also framed and enforced harsh laws with equally harsh punishments for others, which led to Quakers being whipped in the streets of Salem.  He was a man of extraordinary ambition whose progeny would, for generations, futilely pursue his claims on rich lands spanning much of present-day Massachusetts and Maine. William’s son, John (1641-1717), was a judge in the Salem witch trials (1692-1693) who is remembered for his clear bias against those accused (an excerpt of the court record can be found here). Known as the original “hanging judge,” John Hathorne survives to the present as a literary character: He appears as the judge chosen by the devil to preside over a demonic trial in Stephen Vincent Benét's 1936 short story, "The Devil and Daniel Webster" and, again, in 1943, as the merciless adjudicator in Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible. It is believed that Nathaniel Hawthorne added the letter, “w” to his own name to distance himself from his forebears. The author’s father, merchant ship Captain Nathaniel Hathorne, died in 1808 of yellow fever during a voyage to South America when the writer was only four years old. This dramatically reversed his family’s status and made their survival dependent on the good will of relatives. 

Despite any effort that Hawthorne made to distinguish himself from his patrimony, he surely embraced their history in writing The House of the Seven Gables. The fictional Pyncheon family closely resembles the Hathornes in having a Puritan progenitor, a lost legacy of wealth and privilege, and generations of futile efforts to claim vast tracts of land. In particular, the novel features an ambitious judge who sentences his neighbor to death for witchcraft and thus gains the land upon which the eponymous House will be built.  
Like Hawthorne, the narrator of his novel is acutely aware of the enduring effects of intergenerational legacies. As he notes in Chapter 1:
“Hence, too, might be drawn a weighty lesson from the little-regarded truth, that the act of the passing generation is the germ which may and must produce good or evil fruit in a far-distant time; that, together with the seed of the merely temporary crop, which mortals term expediency, they inevitably sow the acorns of a more enduring growth, which may darkly overshadow their posterity.”
Towards the end of his novel, Hawthorne shares a macabre vision of the generations of the Pyncheon family coming together for a spectral reunion in the parlor of their house. According to tradition, they are drawn there to be sure that the portrait of the original Judge Pyncheon continues to hang in the parlor where its subject died years ago; the first victim of the family curse. In Chapter 18, Hawthorne speaks of: 
“…the stories which—in times when chimney-corners had benches in them, where old people sat poking into the ashes of the past, and raking out traditions like live coals—used to be told about this very room of his ancestral house. In fact, these tales are too absurd to bristle even childhood’s hair. What sense, meaning, or moral, for example, such as even ghost-stories should be susceptible of, can be traced in the ridiculous legend, that, at midnight, all the dead Pyncheons are bound to assemble in this parlor? And, pray, for what? Why, to see whether the portrait of their ancestor still keeps its place upon the wall, in compliance with his testamentary directions! Is it worth while to come out of their graves for that?
“We are tempted to make a little sport with the idea. Ghost-stories are hardly to be treated seriously any longer. The family-party of the defunct Pyncheons, we presume, goes off in this wise.
“First comes the ancestor himself, in his black cloak, steeple-hat, and trunk-breeches, girt about the waist with a leathern belt, in which hangs his steel-hilted sword; he has a long staff in his hand, such as gentlemen in advanced life used to carry, as much for the dignity of the thing as for the support to be derived from it. He looks up at the portrait; a thing of no substance, gazing at its own painted image! All is safe. The picture is still there. The purpose of his brain has been kept sacred thus long after the man himself has sprouted up in graveyard grass. See! he lifts his ineffectual hand, and tries the frame. All safe!... Here come other Pyncheons, the whole tribe, in their half a dozen generations, jostling and elbowing one another, to reach the picture. We behold aged men and grandames, a clergyman with the Puritanic stiffness still in his garb and mien, and a red-coated officer of the old French war; and there comes the shop-keeping Pyncheon of a century ago, with the ruffles turned back from his wrists; and there the periwigged and brocaded gentleman of the artist’s legend, with the beautiful and pensive Alice, who brings no pride out of her virgin grave. All try the picture-frame. What do these ghostly people seek? A mother lifts her child, that his little hands may touch it! There is evidently a mystery about the picture, that perplexes these poor Pyncheons when they ought to be at rest…
“Thank Heaven, the night is well-nigh past! The moonbeams have no longer so silvery a gleam, nor contrast so strongly with the blackness of the shadows among which they fall. They are paler now; the shadows look gray, not black. The boisterous wind is hushed. …the great world-clock of Time still keeps its beat. The dreary night—for, oh, how dreary seems its haunted waste, behind us!—gives place to a fresh, transparent, cloudless morn. Blessed, blessed radiance! The daybeam—even what little of it finds its way into this always dusky parlor—seems part of the universal benediction, annulling evil, and rendering all goodness possible, and happiness attainable…
“And hark! the shop-bell rings. After hours like these latter ones, through which we have borne our heavy tale, it is good to be made sensible that there is a living world, and that even this old, lonely mansion retains some manner of connection with it. We breathe more freely, emerging from Judge Pyncheon’s presence into the street before the Seven Gables.”

The generations of Hawthorne’s family were similarly blighted by the burden of their ancestor’s malignant desires and reprehensible moral choices which became his family’s legacy. It is to be hoped that, in the writing of The House of the Seven Gables, Nathaniel Hawthorne succeeded in exorcising his family demons to achieve a new measure of freedom from his own grim inheritance.