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Hawthorne Feels Your Pain: Understanding Economic Crisis Through American Literature

November 29, 2011, 12:00 AM

What's the Big Idea?

How can Americans think their way out of the current economic crisis?

According to Lisa New, professor of English at Harvard University, Americans ought to download Nathaniel Hawthorne's The House of Seven Gables to their smartphones. Indeed, classic American literature abounds with examples of how Americans have responded to economic upheavals. According to Lisa New, Hawthorne's novel happens to present a particularly "clear-eyed and realistic tale of an economy in transition."

Set in the middle of the 19th century, The House of Seven Gables describes the stresses on the elderly who, New says, "must work or starve." The central character in this novel is Hepzibah Pyncheon, a member of an elite class who has been living off the diminishing funds of a family inheritance. According to New, Hepzibah belongs to "a particular stage in American history and to an American elite that’s uttering its last gasp."

And yet, Hepzibah's predicament is clearly recognizable to us today, as she is a bit like "the senior citizen who has to go to work at McDonalds," says New, or those "unfriendly cashiers" who are hired to work in department stores for the Christmas rush, but who are not suited for that type of work.

The House of Seven Gables is invaluable to us today, says New, because "Hawthorne is better than anyone else at sympathizing with and helping us to sympathize with a person who has hit rock bottom, whose life suddenly and irrevocably has been changed."

Watch the video here:

What's the Significance?

According to Lisa New, Hawthorne is hard-headed enough not to pretend that an old woman, Hepzibah, "is actually going to be able to remake herself." In other words, Hepzibah is the product of a seafaring economy that is starting to recede, and she is not going to be able to enter and participate in the new commercial economy. According to New, Hawthorne is providing us with a "clear-eyed, unsentimental, and yet deeply sympathetic and compassionate view of what it is to be older, and unequipped for the present day."

Ultimately Hepzibah needs to look to the next generation, whose "initiative and energy will not only deliver society to the next stage," says New, "but also actually provide a bit of a safety net for that prior generation." In this sense, Hawthorne's novel is a story about succession, and one generation assisting another one in a moment of great economic change.

Stay tuned to Big Think as Lisa New will analyze other works of classic American literature, including Melville and Robert Frost. 

Image courtesy of Shutterstock


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