Hi, all. Suze here. Happy Thursday!
There’s something sad going on in my neighborhood. A house is coming down. Not just any house, though. It is (or was) a classic New England saltbox built in the 1740s. The last owner of the house was an elderly woman whose family had lived and farmed there for generations. She died a few years ago, and the place has been vacant since then, a victim of the economy. Her absentee heirs managed to sell off one parcel of the farm, which fronts on a busy road on one side, and a large medical building went up. The parcel with the house, which fronts on the same busy road as well as my residential road, did not sell, most likely because the heirs were asking an astronomical amount of money.
The old girl’s got good bones!
I’ll be honest. Until the “For Sale” sign went up, I had no idea the house was that old. I thought it was a newer home built to look that way. At some point it had been re-sided with shakes over the clapboards, and the place was in darned good shape. It didn’t have one of those name plates you see all over New England showing the name of the original owner and the date the house was built. I’d never been inside, only knowing the owner to nod and say hello as one or the other of us was taking a morning walk.
Now the house is nearly gone, and it’s bittersweet. On the one hand, my town is losing one of its ancient homes, and my neighborhood is losing a piece of history. On the other hand, the house isn’t actually being destroyed. A post-and-beam company is dismantling it, tagging each hand-hewn beam and support so that it can be reassembled somewhere else for a person who truly appreciates its significance. I have hope for the old place. Not so much for my neighborhood. I’m sure a subdivision will go into that acreage eventually.
I may lose some of you here, now that I’m about to wax literary. Everytime I go past what’s left of the house, I can’t help but think about a passage in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables. Bear with me, okay? Matthew Holgrave, the mysterious daguerreotype artist, is a boarder in the House. He is speaking to young Phoebe Pyncheon, the last descendant of a once-proud family:
I ought to have said, too, that we live in dead men’s houses; as, for instance, in this of the seven gables!”
“And why not,” said Phoebe, “so long as we can be comfortable in them?”
“But we shall live to see the day, I trust,” went on the artist, “when no man shall build his house for posterity. Why should he? He might just as reasonably order a durable suit of clothes,–leather, or gutta percha, or whatever else lasts longest,–so that his great-grandchildren should have the benefit of them, and cut precisely the same figure in the world that he himself does. If each generation were allowed and expected to build its own houses, that single change, comparatively unimportant in itself, would imply almost every reform which society is now suffering for. I doubt whether even our public edifices–our capitols, state-houses, court-houses, city-halls, and churches–ought to be built of such permanent materials as stone or brick. It were better that they should crumble to ruin, once in twenty years, or there-abouts, as a hint to the people to examine into and reform the institutions which they symbolize.”
The Turner-Ingersoll House in Salem
Now, I’m fairly sure Hawthorne/Holgrave is not actually advocating tearing down every building on the planet every twenty years and building something new in its place. What he is saying is that we should examine our beliefs about who and what we are as individuals. The histories of our families and of our communities should not shape or define us completely. Ultimately, each of us is responsible for creating her own “house” — whether that’s the physical building in which we live, or our own consciousness. Take what you can from the past, but build a new future on it.
Done with the literary criticism here! (You’re lucky. I could go on and on. I absolutely adore The House of the Seven Gables and can talk about it ad nauseum!) Click here for more information about the Turner-Ingersoll house in Salem, Massachusetts, Hawthorne’s real-life inspiration for his novel. I’m pretty glad this place is still around. It’s one of my favorite places to visit. As for Hawthorne’s other most famous novel, The Scarlet Letter, I’ll tell you a secret. I’ve always thought that would make a wonderful musical. Can somebody call Andrew Lloyd Webber for me?
What about you? How much do you allow your history to influence your life? Or if you’re not feeling self-reflective, what book would you most like to see turned into a musical?