The Month in Books - September 2009

At the start of 2009, I set a goal to read 30,000 pages by year's end. I am measuring progress in pages, rather than titles, to avoid last year's bias toward shorter books. Here's what I read in September:

  1. The Vintage Guide to Classical Music - Jan Swafford (review)
  2. Empire Express - David Haward Bain (review)
  3. The Gold Bug Variations - Richard Powers (review)
  4. Native Son - Richard Wright (review)

Pages Read: 2,230
Year-to-Date: 28,440

September Classical CD Purchases

Just as with the last time I redeployed from Kuwait, my final weeks in the desert had me hungry for some new classical music. During those three long months, my main escapes were literature and classical music; I thus become very familiar with the two dozen titles I'd transferred to my Ipod, but also ready for more, particularly after reading Jan Swafford's The Vintage Guide to Classical Music (reviewed here). My first stop was Amazon, as usual, where I found a few used bargains and redeemed a gift certificate earned through this site's referral fees:

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The Brahms' symphonies round out the set begun with my purchase of Carlos Kleiber's rendition of the Symphony No. 4 with the Vienna Philharmonic. I like the idea of building symphonic cycles from individually lauded recordings, rather than the boxed sets featuring complete cycles featuring the same conductor and orchestra. I have greatly enjoyed Arthur Rubinstein's rendition of Chopin's Ballades and Scherzos, and am very excited to hear Dinu Lipatti's performance of the Waltzes, which earned a Rosette in the Penguin Guide. The remaining three titles were inspired by Swafford's book, which gave considerable attention to choral music and finally convinced me to dip a toe into the Wagnerian end of the pool.

I had planned for that to be my entire spending for the month; those discs should, after all, keep me busy for at least a few weeks. But alas, the best-laid plans for self-restraint were foiled by an excellent sale at British retailer Presto Classical, which offered 50% off most of the 2-disc titles in the DG Originals series. Coming in at less than $12 each, including shipping across the Atlantic, my admittedly limited self-control was insufficient to resist the temptation:

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Nathan Milstein's reading of Bach's Sonatas and Partitas is the third recording of that extraordinary work to enter my collection, after Grumiaux and Mintz. It will surely not be the last; Perlman, Heifetz, and Szeryng are still out there, at the very least.

Another title with multiple recordings on my shelf is Bach's ever-popular Cello Suites, where Yo-Yo Ma is now joined by Frenchman Pierre Fournier, whose performance tops the list of many Bach aficionados. I think it is safe to say this is another piece where I have yet to buy my last recording, knowing that the renditions by Rostropovich, Bylsma, Starker, and Gendron have not yet entered my collection.

Maurizio Pollini's full cycle of Beethoven sonatas has been much-lauded, but his recording of the last five "have assumed almost legendary status," in the words of Amazon editor David Hurwitz. This is another one where I'd like to put a collection together piece-by-piece rather than buy one of the $100 collections. Similar praise has been heaped upon Russian Emil Gilels' recordings of the Brahms concertos, backed by Eugen Jochum and the Berlin Philharmonic. My cautious approach to an appreciation of Gustav Mahler continues; enjoyment of his first symphony has given me the courage to tackle one of his later pieces, Symphony No. 6 with Herbert von Karajan leading the Berliners. Finally, Mozart's late symphonies, the final two of which I already own in an excellent Leonard Bernstein recording, were labeled "sublime" by Swafford and Karl Böhm's recordings, according to Hurwitz, "belong in the collection of every fan of the composer."

Empire Express by David Haward Bain

bain_empire.jpgFor Christmas in 2002, my law school roommate gave me a copy of Stephen Ambrose's memoirs, titled To America. He structured the book to trace American history through the series of pivotal events to which he had devoted at least one of the many books he published in his career. Thus the chapters on Lewis & Clark (covered in his Undaunted Courage), World War II (D-Day, Citizen Soldiers, Band of Brothers), and Dwight Eisenhower (Eisenhower).

One of the most interesting chapters in the book was that devoted to the building of the Transcontinental Railroad. Ambrose spoke compellingly of his love of railroads, and offered a brief but fervent defense of those who led the effort to build the grand road. My father is a serious lover of trains, I have fond memories of taking the commuter rail to see my grandparents in Skokie, and the six years I lived in Utah left me with a standing fascination with the American West. So I was greatly taken in by this brief account. Ambrose explored the topic more fully in his 2000 book, Nothing Like It in the World, but the book received rather mediocre reviews. Instead I turned, after a mere six year interlude, to David Haward Bain's lengthier, much lauded, Empire Express, which opens with the story of Asa Whitney, one of several forlorn visionaries of the cross-country railroad:

The importance of such a route was incalculable, [Whitney] said. Military forces could be concentrated at any point east or west in eight days or less. A naval station near the mouth of the Columbia River in Oregon, "with a comparatively small navy, would command the Pacific, the South Atlantic, and Indian oceans, and the China seas." Using a combined rail and steamship route between New York and China, which would require only third days, the products of American factories could be exchange for Asia's rarities. Compare this to the round-trip sailing distance between New York and China (nearly thirty-thousand miles, requiring up to three hundred days). World commerce would be revolutionized, with Whitney's Pacific route its channel. Each state and every town "would receive its just proportion of influence and benefits," he wrote, "compared with its vicinity to, or facility to communicate with, any of the rivers, canals, or railroads crossed by this great road."

After decades of having such ambitions met by total government inaction, after a series of Congressional battles pitting unholy alliances of parochial congressman and business interests against one another, the bill authorizing the building of the railroad was finally signed by Lincoln on July 1, 1862. This landmark event allegedly prompted Theodore Judah, Whitney's successor as engineering visionary, to telegraph his colleagues, "We have drawn the elephant, now let us see if we can harness him up."

It was quite an elephant--exciting, ferocious, possibly ungovernable--dubious in many respects to the public interest and formidable both in spelling out the burden on the nation and in the rights and responsibilities of the railroad builders. At a time when the resources of the federal government were taxes to the limit, with McClellan's Army of the Potomac retreating on the peninsula, with the president having desperately replaced a poseur with a paper-pusher by naming Henry W. Halleck as new general-in-chief, the people were now committed, with this act, to do what had eluded them for nearly twenty years. Some twenty million acres of public land, and a $60 million loan, at least, were to be handed over to groups of obscure businessmen, most of whom had yet to prove themselves.

The focus of the book is on the railroad's construction and little else. This is a blessing and a curse; it allows Bain to keep his story centered, without the many possible distractions of the Civil War years, and to go into great detail about everything from supply shortages to corporate machinations. But it seems odd to fill 700 pages of text without a greater sense of context; there are scattered references to the war, to the social, economic, and political pressures that ebbed and flowed, to the whiskey towns that sprung up alongside. But only rarely did I ever really feel the context, get a real sense of when and where in America's history these events were taking place. Strangely enough, one of the book's few historical markers was Mormon leader Brigham Young, whose nascent religious colony is ideally located to reap the benefits of the cross-country race:

When Samuel Reed obtained an audience with Brigham Young, the Mormon leader was eager to discuss obtaining good-paying work for his faithful. In the valley there had been, memorably, plagues of crickets and grasshoppers, but now, with the Saints' empire firmly established and blooming, there were locusts; for three years running the farmers' crops had been affected. What surplus there was of hay, oats, and potatoes, Young knew, they would sell to the railroaders. Moreover, as and original shareholder in the Union Pacific, he savored the trains' approach, still blissfully convinced that the Pacific Railroad could never avoid running through the City of the Saints. Reed had been instructed to be non-committal on which way the railroad would turn upon reaching Ogden.

One of the book's other shortcomings, to my mind, is the paucity of maps. There are only 8 maps interspersed through the many hundred pages, and while they provide a basic sense of the geography in question, they were inadequate overall. There were numerous occasions when a passage begged for a visual accompaniment, and even if I flipped fifty pages backward or forward to the closest map, it rarely fit the bill. This was particularly true late in the book, when the race between Union Pacific and Central Pacific was being fought as much in the survey maps registered at the Department of the Interior in D.C. as on the construction line.

It also would have been most helpful to have something of a cast of characters, or at least a basic visual depiction of the corporate hierarchies of the UP and CP. Particularly since the tales of these men's unbridled avarice and zeal are key motivating engines behind the railroad's construction. It can become difficult to figure out which side of the race Bain is discussing at any particular time, especially when he is focused on the corporate fundraising, infighting, or political maneuvering. Since he frequently switches from one to the next with little more than a line break, it would have been helpful to have a management structure to refer to in order to keep all the names straight.

With those caveats, this is still a laudable effort by Bain. If at times a bit confusing or narrowly focused, Empire Express provides a thorough account of one of the great feats of 19th-century American ambition, greed, labor, and technological achievement.

The Vintage Guide to Classical Music by Jan Swafford

swafford_vintage.jpgOne of the many marvels of classical music is the symbiosis of efforts from three different actors: the composer who writes the music, the performer who plays it, and the listener who hears it. This is not a universal characteristic of classical music (Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms were all accomplished concert keyboardists), though it became nearly so as the composer/performer archetype went out of vogue in the last century. And it is not unique to classical music as compared to other genres; some musicians have made a lot of money playing music written by other people, and I've long been a fan of "covers" in rock and folk (see e.g., the Cry Cry Cry album). Nevertheless, I think there is something special about the mechanics of this phenomenon in the classical genre, where an enthusiastic contemporary listener can be exposed to multiple interpretations of the same written piece of music, each synthesizing an entirely new experience every time it is played.

As my collection of recordings has slowly expanded, I've put together a simple page displaying the covers of each album I own. A quick perusal of the first few rows reveals that I have already crossed that line from novice to enthusiast (or obsessive) demarcated by owning multiple recordings of the same piece, in this case Bach's Cello Suites and Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin. As works for solo instruments, these lend themselves especially well to the varieties of style and technique of the different performers. But even in the most heavily-orchestrated symphonies or choral works, there is plenty of room for interpretation by different conductors, by different orchestras, or even by the same conductor at different stages of his career (Herbert von Karajan famously recorded no less than four complete cycles of Beethoven's symphonies; one each in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s).

A second-order benefit of this aspect of classical music is that it greatly increases the number of subjects to which I can devote my literary appetite. To help me navigate the thousands of classical recording options available today, I've consulted several sources, including The Penguin Guide to Recorded Classical Music and The NPR Guide to Building a Classical CD Collection. But that leaves a great deal to learn about the artists themselves, both the composers and the performers. Of the latter, I've spent an embarrassing number of hours reading Wikipedia biographies of the great violinists and pianists of the past century. For the composers, and the developmental arc of the Western classical tradition, I turned to Jan Swafford's The Vintage Guide to Classical Music:

I don't claim that the life of a composer tells you everything about his music. There are technical factors, too, that I touch on to the extent appropriate in a nontechnical book. I do claim, however, that a composer's life, personality, and milieu tell you as much about his music as anything else does. Haydn wrote over a hundred symphonies as compared to Beethoven's nine, because for various reasons a symphony for Haydn was a less weighty matter than it was for Beethoven. What symphonies were to Beethoven, operas were to Mozart; in both cases, they were the most ambitious of their works and what they preferred to be writing most of the time, As we move through the years we'll find that each new generation tends to raise the ante of its forebears: the achievements of Beethoven prepared the way for Wagner's exalted notion of the artist, which led in turn to the still-more-exalted ideas of Mahler and Schoenberg. Meanwhile, that train of thought--involving the near deification of the artist--contributed to Stravinsky's disgust with the whole Romantic apparatus. While these historical developments did involve technical concerns, they were social, political, economic, and personal as well, so they fall within the scope of this book.

Swafford takes a strictly chronological approach to his subject, opening with the Middle Ages and proceeding through the major composers of each of five subsequent periods: Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and Twentieth Century. The basic template for each composer is a brief introduction, followed by a biography, an outline of their music development (and how it fits into those that came before and after), and finally his recommendations for introductory works by that composer. Interspersed through the text are a series of sidebars in which Swafford provides an introduction to important musical topics, such "Consonance and Dissonance," "Fugue and Canon," and "Sonata Form," in a way that does not require the reader to have any existing technical proficiency:

What we call sonata form indicates a general way of organizing shorter pieces or individual movements of longer pieces... It can be found in numerous genres--symphony, string quartet, and sacred choral works, to name a few. Most commonly, first movements of instrumental pieces are organized according to sonata form.... In the classical instrumental works of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, key changes became dramatic events, often signaled by thematic, rhythmic, and textural contrasts. To rationalize this new variety, composers of the period developed some habits of musical syntax and long-range organization which worked so well that they pervaded Western music for over a century. It was these habits that were later abstracted and dubbed "sonata form."

In addition to these sidebars, Swafford also provides a twenty-page glossary of musical terms, covering everything from "a capella" to "glissando" to "woodwind instruments." In his vignettes of the various composers, he makes an effort to indicate the changes in the lifestyles and social status of composers, from the sponsorship of church and court in the Baroque to greater independence with success dependent on popular approval (resulting either in mass fame or utter obscurity) to the almost anti-social alienation of some movements in the 20th-century. Particularly enlightening are Swafford's insights into the evolution of classical music in the context of broader artistic movements; composers, after all, were influenced and inspired by the same economic, social, and political events as other artists, as well as by those artists themselves. Take, for example, the explosive premiere of Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps:

That evening in the spring of 1913 was the symbolic beginning, with a bang, of twentieth-century music. In fact, Schoenberg's Pierrot luniaire had made an equally important beginning the year before in Berlin. But Schoenberg did not have the glamour of the Ballets Russes backing up his revolution, and Paris in those years was the epicenter of the new in the arts. So in history books if only partly in reality, Le Sacre begins musical Modernism. It shook the Western tradition to its foundations; it made Stravinsky the champion of the avant-garde and the bete noire of traditionalists. He was seen as the musical counterpart of his friend Picasso, the Cubist and Primitivist. Just under a year following its tumultuous premiere, after the first concert performance of Le Sacre, Stravinsky was paraded through the streets of Paris on the shoulders of a cheering crowd. Around the world, the same pattern was enacted: violent rejection at the early hearings, soon followed by enthusiasm. By the thirties, the work was famous--and safe--enough to accompany animated dinosaurs in Walt Disney's Fantasia (Stravinsky was outraged but helpless to stop it).

The book is not perfect; for one, I question spending more pages on the 20th-century than any other period, with composers such as Ives, Webern and Shostakovich getting equal or greater attention than Mendelssohn, Chopin, and Tchaikovsky. Swafford pleads as an excuse that the passage of time has yet to measure the relative worth of more recent composers, but that seems all the better reason to spend more time on those whose work has already passed that test. I also would have appreciated a greater number of musical sidebars, to further bridge the gap between those with musical training and those without. Nit-picking aside, this is an excellent introduction for those who lack a musical background but want to complement their listening with a basic understanding of the history and lives behind the music.

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

waugh_brideshead.jpgIn my discussion of James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, I referenced his feat of landing two out of the first three spots in the Modern Library's contentious list of the Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century. Another author with multiple titles on the list was mid-century British writer Evelyn Waugh (and let's get this upfront: EVE-lin WAR), with A Handful of Dust slotted at #34, Scoop at #75, and Brideshead Revisited at #80.

The latter title also made the Radcliffe list, published in response to the dearth of female authors on the Modern Library list, as well the similar Time Magazine list. It has also been the subject of two screen adaptations: an early-80s British miniseries (starring Jeremy Irons and Laurence Olivier!) and a 2008 feature film. It was a mass-market paperback copy of the book, published in conjunction with the recent film adaptation, which I found on the bookshelves in the barracks in Qatar when I had exhausted my own reading supply during my trip to the Arab emirate.

The basic framework of the novel is rather straightforward. As the book's subtitle ("The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder") suggests, the narration is provided by a British Army Captain who, in the midst of World War II, has just arrived with his unit for billeting at an old English aristocratic estate called Brideshead:

"Brigade Headquarters are coming there next week. Great barrack of a place. I've just had a snoop round. Very ornate, I'd call it. And a queer thing, there's a sort of R.C. church attached. I looked in and there was a kind of service going on--just a padre and one old man. I felt very awkward. More in your line than mine." Perhaps I seemed not to hear; in a final effort to excite my interest he said: "There's a frightful great fountain, too, in front of the steps, all rocks and sort of carved animals. You never saw such a thing."

"Yes, Hooper, I did. I've been here before."

The words seemed to ring back to be enriched from the vaults of my dungeon... I had been there before; I knew all about it.

As it happens, Brideshead was the home of the Flyte family, whose second son, Sebastian, was Charles' closest friend during his time as a student at Oxford. His wartime arrival at the home triggers a flood of memories of these college years, which occupy the first two-thirds of the novel. Raised in a rather sheltered home by his distant widower father, Charles entrance into the greater world would be largely shaped by this connection to Sebastian and his family, a relationship not entirely approved of by those looking out for Charles:

"I expected you to make mistakes your first year. We all do. I got in with some thoroughly objectionable O.S.C.U. men who ran a mission to hop-pickers during the long vac. But you, my dear Charles, whether you realize it or not, have gone straight, hook, line and sinker, into the very worst set in the University. You may think that, living in digs, I don't know what goes on in college; but I hear things. In fact, I hear all too much. I find that I've become a figure of mockery on your account at the Dining Club. There's that chap Sebastian Flyte you seem inseparable from. He may be all right, I don't know. His brother Brideshead was a very sound fellow. But this friend of yours looks odd to me, and he gets himself talked about. Of course, they're an odd family.

Charles' affection for Sebastian, which ambiguously skirts the line between friendship and romance, is tested by Sebastian's descent into alcoholism and alienation from his family, particularly his piously Catholic mother. Charles' growing intimacy with Sebastian inevitably draws him into the Flyte family circle, and Charles gradually becomes drawn into the internecine struggle for Sebastian's soul:

[S]ince Sebastian counted among the intruders his own conscience and all claims of human affection, his days in Arcadia were numbered. For in this, to me, tranquil time Sebastian took fright. I knew him well in that mood of alertness and suspicion, like a deer suddenly lifting his head at the far notes of the hunt; I had seen him grow wary at the thought of his family or his religion; now I found I, too, was suspect. He did not fail in love, but he lost his joy of it, for I was no longer part of his solitude. As my intimacy with his family grew I became part of the world which he sought to escape; I became on of the bonds which held him. That was the part for which his mother, in all our little talks, was seeking to fit me. Everything was left unsaid. It was only dimly and at rare moments that I suspected what was afoot.

Sebastian's increasingly eccentric behavior eventually leads to his departure from Oxford, and his eventual estrangement from his family, seeking solace in the cities of North Africa. Charles drifts away from both Sebastian and the Flyte family, leaving for Paris to study art. The book leaps forward ten years in its second section, now finding Charles unhappily married to the sister of another Oxford classmate, with two children. During a sea voyage back from the U.S., where an exhibition of his architectural paintings had opened to great acclaim, Charles encounters Sebastian's sister, Julia, who is equally unhappy in her marriage. They renew their acquaintance and embark on a serious affair, with many of Charles' long-standing feelings for Sebastian being triggered by family resemblances, and Charles being pulled back into the endless internal strife of the Flyte clan:

These memories are the memorials and pledges of the vital hours of a lifetime. These hours of afflatus in the human spirit, the springs of art, are, in their mystery, akin to the epochs of history, when a race which for centuries has lived content, unknown, behind its own frontiers, digging, easting, sleeping, begetting, doing what was requisite for survival and nothing else, will, for a generation or two, stupefy the world; commit all manner of crimes, perhaps; follow the wildest chimeras, go down in the end in agony, but leave behind a record of new heights scaled and new rewards won for all mankind; the vision fades, the soul sickens, and the routine of survival starts again.

In line with Waugh's mixed feelings about the British aristocracy, Brideshead Revisited looks at the decline of the landed class with a sense of critical nostalgia, and there were moments in the book that reminded me of Robert Altman's brilliant film, Gosford Park, with its searing depiction of an English country house in the interwar years. There are any number of social climbers and snobs running in and out of the book, and one of the text's many ambiguities is with whom Waugh's sympathies lay.

Another recurring topic in the novel is the Catholicism of the Flyte family, which places them in the minority in 20th-century Britain and particularly the aristocracy. The faith is approached with varying degrees of devotion within the family, with Sebastian's mother, brother, and youngest sister the most devote. His father, Lord Marchmain, converted for purposes of marriage, and then abandoned the faith at the same time he abandoned his wife for an adulterous life overseas. Charles was raised without religion, and for most of the book brings a great deal of skepticism to the religiosity of his adopted family. I am told, by various online reviews of the book, that Brideshead Revisited is heavily influenced by important Catholic themes like grace and reconciliation, reflecting Waugh's conversion to the faith, as well as the tensions within a religious Catholic family. I picked up on some of this, but I am not particularly well-versed in Catholic doctrine nor the history of Catholicism in England, and I suppose much of it must have gone straight over my head.

The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne

hawthorne_house.jpgNathaniel Hawthorne was amongst the first great men of letters in the young American nation, with an ancestry linked to the tumultuous social atmosphere of the country's colonization. Born in 1804 in Salem, Massachusetts, Hawthorne was the great-great-grandson of John Hathorne, a magistrate in the witch trials for which that town remains famous. Though it is disputed whether Nathaniel added the "w" to his last name to distance himself from these ancestors, it is clear this family history had an important influence on him.

In both of Hawthorne's most celebrated novels, there are overt themes regarding the oppressive nature of Puritan society, the lingering consequences of that oppression, and the injustice inherent therein. In The Scarlet Letter, of course, it is the persecution of the sympathetic Hester Prynne for adultery and the subsequent shunning of Hester and her daughter that raises a sense of unfairness. In The House of the Seven Gables, things are a bit more complicated. As it happens, the title structure, owned by the Pyncheon family, was not the first home to sit on the property. Instead, the site used to belong to a farmer named Maule, who engaged in a long land dispute with the influential Colonel Pyncheon over his title, a dispute that ended with Maule's remarkable death:

Old Matthew Maule, in a word, was executed for the crime of witchcraft. He was one of the martyrs to that terrible delusion, which should teach us, among its other morals, that the influential classes, and those who take upon themselves to be leaders of the people, are fully liable to all the passionate error that has ever characterized the maddest mob.

But Hawthorne does not stop with this simple retrospective condemnation of the errors of his ancestors. Instead, he makes pivotal to the novel's plot the possibility that Colonel Pyncheon's role in supporting this prosecution, implicitly for the purpose of securing the long-sought Maule property, would redound to his discredit:

[I]n after days, when the frenzy of that hideous epoch had subsided , it was remembered how loudly Colonel Pyncheon had joined in the general cry, to purge the land from witchcraft; nor did it fail to be whispered that there was an invidious acrimony in the zeal with which he had sought the condemnation of Matthew Maule. It was well known that the victim had recognized the bitterness of personal enmity in his prosecutor's conduct towards him, and that he declared himself hunted to death for his spoil. At the moment of execution--with the halter about his neck, and while Colonel Pyncheon sat on horseback, grimly gazing at the scene--Maule had addressed him from the scaffold, and uttered a prophecy, of which history, as well as fireside tradition, has preserved the very words. "God," said the dying man, pointing his finger, with a ghastly look, at the undismayed countenance of his enemy, "God will give him blood to drink!"

Unsurprisingly, Colonel Pyncheon quickly takes possession of the dead man's land, and proceeds to begin construction on the famous structure which inspires the book's title (Hawthorne was himself inspired by an actual Salem mansion owned by his cousins). Tempting fate by employing the executed Maule's son as his carpenter, Colonel Pyncheon oversees the successful building of his new home, only to be struck down on the very day the home is to be consecrated:

a little boy--the Colonel's grandchild, and the only human being that ever dared to be familiar with him--now made his way among the guests, and ran towards the seated figure; the pausing halfway, he began to shriek with terror. The company, tremulous as the leaves of a tree, when all are shaking together, drew nearer, and perceived that there was an unnatural distortion in the fixedness of Colonel Pyncheon's stare; that there was blood on his ruff, and that his hoary beard was saturated with it. It was too late to give assistance. The ironhearted Puritan, the relentless persecutor, the grasping and strong-willed man, was dead! Dead, in his new house!

Thus in the openings pages of Hawthorne's novel is set the sin and resulting curse which ensured the succeeding generations of Pyncheon residents in the great house would not enjoy the happiness and prosperity that Colonel Pyncheon had surely foreseen. By the novel's contemporary day, in the mid-19th century, the home is inhabited by a sole Pyncheon, the reclusive Hepzibah Pyncheon, whose financial straits are sufficiently dire that she has taken to opening a cent-shop on the house's first floor in an effort to increase her income:

A lady--who had fed herself from childhood with the shadowy food of aristocratic reminiscences, and whose religion it was that a lady's hand soils itself irremediably by doing aught for bread--this born lady, after sixty years of narrowing means, is fain to step down from her pedestal of imaginary rank. Poverty, treading closely at her heels for a lifetime, had come up with her at last. She must earn her own food, or starve! And we have stolen upon Miss Hepzibah Pyncheon, too irreverently, at the instant of time when the patrician lady is to be transformed into the plebeian woman.

She is alone in the home because her brother has been imprisoned for thirty years as the convicted murderer of their uncle, but Clifford is expected to be released soon. And she refuses any help from her successful cousin, Judge Pyncheon, who so closely resembles the original Colonel Pyncheon that portraits of his ancestor are sometimes taken to be portraits of him. The cast is completed by a mysterious boarder, Holgrave, who lives in the infamous house but keeps largely to himself, and by the arrival of young Phoebe Pyncheon, another cousin whose arrival at the home breathes new life into Phoebe and Clifford:

The young girl, so fresh, so unconventional, and yet so orderly and obedient to common rules, as you at once recognized her to be, was widely in contrast, at that moment, with everything about her. The sordid and ugly luxuriance of gigantic weeds that grew in the angle of the house, and the heavy projection that overshadowed her, and the timeworn framework of the door--none of these things belonged to her sphere. But, even as a ray of sunshine, fall into what dismal place it may, instantaneously creates for itself a propriety in being there, so did it seem altogether fit that the girl should be standing at the threshold. It was no less evidently proper that the door should swing open to admit her.

And thus enters the key to salvation that, as the novel progresses, offers the last hope to the last decaying occupants of the septuple-gabled residence. Hawthorne is clearly concerned throughout the book with his themes of sin, revenge, and redemption, and the resulting consequences that echo down through time. He raises the issue explicitly in his preface:

Many writers lay very great stress upon some definite moral purpose, at which they profess to aim their works. No to be deficient in this particular, the author has provided himself with a moral--the truth, namely, that the wrongdoing of one generation lives into the successive ones, and, divesting itself of every temporary advantage, becomes a pure and uncontrollable mischief.

Surely a worthy moral, but unfortunately Hawthorne pursues it with the blunt elements of curse, catastrophe, and coincidence, those hallmarks of Gothic literature (which I like no better in Hawthorne's hands than in those of Emily Bronte). I think it no matter that Hawthorne apologizes in advance, stating in his preface that "[w]hen a writer calls his work a Romance, it need hardly be observed that he wished to claim a certain latitude, both as to its fashion and material..." Perhaps that excuses Hawthorne from a charge that he has committed some "literary crime," as he asserts in the same preface, but it adds no luster to the quality of the work.