ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance
"The Transformation of American Family Property in The House of the Seven Gables"
This essay reads Nathaniel Hawthorne’s House of the Seven Gables (1851) as the product of a watershed historical moment in which the paradigm of kinship became the basis of scientific racism. In this reading, the romance charts the resignification of “blood” central to a transition in American family forms from a system based on real property to a system of symbolic estate. The reform of inheritance laws in the early republic aimed to counteract the entrenchment of social position through family property, raising concerns about the fate of this cherished institution in a society politically distrustful of lineal descent. By the mid-nineteenth century, a conception of hereditary property had emerged that heightened Americans’ obsession with ancestral identity while allowing them to distance themselves from the “artificial,” inherited distinctions of the old world. Mirroring the historical shift from colonial family identity centered on the ancestral past to racial nationalism fixated on posterity, The House of the Seven Gables depicts the consolidation of formerly class-stratified whiteness.