"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, November 2, 2015

Old Families, Heredity, And Legacy - Hawthorne And Early America

Nathaniel Hawthorne in The House of the Seven Gables begins with the tale of the Pyncheon family who settled Salem in the mid-1600s.  Colonel Pyncheon, the patriarch built his large and imposing house on the site of that of Matthew Maule who was executed in the infamous witch trials of the period.  The old colonel was one of the most outspoken about Maule’s wizardry, and rumor had it that without his enthusiastic support, Maule might never have been sent to the gallows.  Generations of Pyncheons had lived in the house until Hawthorne’s story begins in the mid-19th century with the saga of Miss Hephzibah Pyncheon.

House of the Seven Gables
The Ingersoll House www.thesecondempire.wordpress.com

In the opening chapter of The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne writes of the historical legacy of Salem.  He traces the trajectory of its early settlers from England to America, the establishment of the harsh, punitive laws of Puritanism, and how in a few short decades became the antithesis of the Elizabethan and Jacobean England they left. There was no pomp and ceremony in Salem, no ruffs and frills; and it was far more than the unfamiliar, hard, and dangerous land to which they moved which led to such austerity and unremitting judgment.

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       Lillian Gish in The Scarlet Letter www.artsfuse.org

Although the townspeople of Salem come to tacitly forgive Hester Prynne for her sin of adultery, the burghers and clerics do not.  Their livelihood, status, and self-ascribed importance depends on a conservative preservation of the past and a uniform will to continue its influence.

In The House of the Seven Gables, Hawthorne writes of the double edge of family legacy. There is something noble in the longevity of a great family, but such nobility has a corrosive effect as well.  Here he refers to the family’s ancestral land in Maine, thousands of acres of land legally secured but impossible to exploit:
This impalpable claim, therefore, resulted in nothing more solid than to cherish, from generation to generation, an absurd delusion of family importance, which all along characterized the Pyncheons. It caused the poorest member of the race to feel as if he inherited a kind of nobility, and might yet come into the possession of princely wealth to support it. In the better specimens of the breed, this peculiarity threw an ideal grace over the hard material of human life, without stealing away any truly valuable quality. In the baser sort, its effect was to increase the liability to sluggishness and dependence, and induce the victim of a shadowy hope to remit all self-effort, while awaiting the realization of his dreams.
Years and years after their claim had passed out of the public memory, the Pyncheons were accustomed to consult the Colonel's ancient map, which had been projected while Waldo County was still an unbroken wilderness. Where the old land surveyor had put down woods, lakes, and rivers, they marked out the cleared spaces, and dotted the villages and towns, and calculated the progressively increasing value of the territory, as if there were yet a prospect of its ultimately forming a princedom for themselves.
The Salem house is a symbol of Hawthorne’s ambivalence, for generations of both sharp-edged, canny descendants and ne’er-do-wells have resided in it.
In almost every generation, nevertheless, there happened to be some one descendant of the family gifted with a portion of the hard, keen sense, and practical energy, that had so remarkably distinguished the original founder. His character, indeed, might be traced all the way down, as distinctly as if the Colonel himself, a little diluted, had been gifted with a sort of intermittent immortality on earth.
At two or three epochs, when the fortunes of the family were low, this representative of hereditary qualities had made his appearance, and caused the traditionary gossips of the town to whisper among themselves, "Here is the old Pyncheon come again! Now the Seven Gables will be new-shingled!" From father to son, they clung to the ancestral house with singular tenacity of home attachment.
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       www.legendsofamerica.com
There is something permanent, says Hawthorne, about aristocratic legacy. Something indelibly part of each descendant; and despite their individual fortunes or failures, no Pyncheon could possibly turn his back on the family.
But there is no one thing which men so rarely do, whatever the provocation or inducement, as to bequeath patrimonial property away from their own blood. They may love other individuals far better than their relatives,—they may even cherish dislike, or positive hatred, to the latter; but yet, in view of death, the strong prejudice of propinquity revives, and impels the testator to send down his estate in the line marked out by custom so immemorial that it looks like nature.
In all the Pyncheons, this feeling had the energy of disease. It was too powerful for the conscientious scruples of the old bachelor; at whose death, accordingly, the mansion-house, together with most of his other riches, passed into the possession of his next legal representative.
I had a close friend whose ancestors rode in the Third Crusade.  He was the last in a long line of French aristocrats who had fought for Christianity, suited up in the wars against usurping English kings, fought Henry V courageously at Agincourt, survived the Jacobin Reign of Terror, defied the little Corsican Napoleon in his predation and murderous wars of vainglory, were advisers to Louis XIV, and arbiters of high French culture for centuries.

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Getting rid of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette was easy, but not so the aristocracy. Even the most patriotic Frenchman understood that the post-Revolutionary period was far too bloody, vengeful, and above all chaotic for the new Republic, and eventually welcomed back the aristocracy which could provide the social order that France had enjoyed for centuries.  My friend’s family was one of those celebrated and revered and quickly regained its position and social, cultural, and moral authority.

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French greatness, said my friend, was thanks only to the aristocracy.  Yes, the peasantry had tilled the land, worked the mills, and fought in the trenches in foreign wars, but it was the dukes, counts, viscounts, and other well-bred members of the court who patronized the arts, promoted and preserved French culture, and continued to serve as the anchor of a great nation. 

The individual families which made up the aristocracy had played different but important roles in upholding French cultural tradition.  Members of these families were no different than the Pyncheons and subject to the same inconsistencies.  For as many valorous dukes and viscounts, there were just as many descendants who did little, living on the prestige and renown of the family name.
Yet all in all, aristocracy was a good thing. Aristocrats, as my friend noted, were the guardians and caretakers of the country’s patrimony.  Even the French Revolution could not eradicate the need for a ruling class.

Hawthorne tells of the fate of the Maule family who were simple farmers who ran afoul of Puritan justice. After Matthew Maule was put to death, whatever hope the family had of bettering themselves died with him. While the Salem townsfolk wondered about Colonel Pyncheon, his complicity in the death of Maule and the construction of his house on the very site of the house where a witch lived; they had no doubt about the rightness of Maule’s unceremonious death.  Families are not equal in wealth or status, but none can avoid the legacy of the past.

A new, commoner aristocracy grew up in France at the same time as the old guard nobility struggled to regain its place in society. The énarques,graduates of the prestigious L’École Nationale d’Administration, filled top positions in government and were even more ubiquitous and influential than graduates from Yale and Harvard in the United States.  Together the landed aristocracy and the secular énarques ruled France.  The aristocracy was the arbiter of good taste and cultural and intellectual values, and represented an unbroken historical link to Charlemagne.  The énarques provided intelligent government and were the guardians of the post-regal period of Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité. 

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           ENA, Paris www.en.wikipedia.or

In the New England town where I grew up, the descendants of families that had risen to the top of colonial society like the fictional Pyncheons, still lived in the West End, most of them in the same houses built by the first industrialists.  The archives of New Brighton history show the same trajectory as the noble families of France or Salem. In my school days, the old-line New England families had long ago ceded political power to new immigrants; had spent down on inherited fortunes made in the early years of the Industrial Revolution; but hung on to the last vestiges of privilege, status, and influence.

Their sons and daughters went to the elite country day school in the town regardless of ability.  The country club was arbitrary and inflexible about keeping out newcomers, regardless of their own demographic decline.  By now all these families are dead and buried.  They have run their course, done remarkable things for the town of New Brighton, failed and floundered in their last years, and are now forgotten.

There is one house which remains on Madison Street which dates almost as far back as The House of the Seven Gables.  I have no idea who lives there now, but whenever I pass it I think of Hawthorne.
The street in which it upreared its venerable peaks has long ceased to be a fashionable quarter of the town; so that, though the old edifice was surrounded by habitations of modern date, they were mostly small, built entirely of wood, and typical of the most plodding uniformity of common life. Doubtless, however, the whole story of human existence may be latent in each of them, but with no picturesqueness, externally, that can attract the imagination or sympathy to seek it there.
But as for the old structure of our story, its white-oak frame, and its boards, shingles, and crumbling plaster, and even the huge, clustered chimney in the midst, seemed to constitute only the least and meanest part of its reality. So much of mankind's varied experience had passed there,—so much had been suffered, and something, too, enjoyed,—that the very timbers were oozy, as with the moisture of a heart. It was itself like a great human heart, with a life of its own, and full of rich and sombre reminiscences.










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