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Paths to POP Culture

By Dan Marshall

Defining pop culture is difficult, with volumes of text dedicated to achieving the task.  Pop Culture has its own ebb and flow; moving into the mainstream at high tide, pulling back to the edges of society at low tide and then charging forward again.  LeRoy Ashby, in his 2006 book With Amusements for All: A History of American Popular Culture Since 1830, states, “…popular culture both reflects and shapes the larger society.  How it does so is anything but simple.  It can refract as well as mirror, breaking the larger society into a wide range of images and meanings.  It can follow well-worn paths and set new directions.”

In many ways, Hawthorne’s novel, The House of the Seven Gables, published in 1851, helped define one of these new directions.  “Hawthorne’s characters, such as the troubled ex-convict Clifford Pyncheon, became figureheads for a new, distinctly American literature,” says David Moffat, Senior Guide and Researcher here at the museum.  “Today, Hawthorne’s novel is a classic work of literature and the subject of study, but in the 1800’s his writing had mass appeal.”

By the late 19th century, a true technological explosion of phonographs, radios and moving pictures allowed Americans to hear and see the world in an entirely new way.  Advances in printing allowed images to more frequently appear in books and newspapers, giving birth to the comic book.  These technological wonders were their own popular phenomenon but soon evolved into vehicles to deliver pop culture to the masses.

By combining existing American values and culture with the dreams and aspirations of newly arriving immigrants, a new national narrative was forged.  Hawthorne’s novel was a part of that narrative and became one of those well-worn paths.  It has been drawn upon, again and again, appearing in many forms of media over the last 168 years.

Hawthorne’s tale appeared on film in 1910, 1940, 1963 and 1967. Classics Illustrated released multiple graphic novel editions between 1948-1970.  It sparked radio readings, plays, and even an opera.  Its most recent incarnation is a stop-motion animated short film released in 2018.

The House of the Seven Gables’ mansion became part of the narrative too.  As a symbol of American culture, it was saved by Wonder Woman when Nazi spies threatened to destroy it in 1942.  In 1970, the famed television show, Bewitched, filmed a series of episodes in Salem. In one episode featuring The House of the Seven Gables, Darrin and Samantha are followed back to their hotel by an enchanted bed warmer. The police are called and Samantha is forced to help Darrin get out of jail.

While each generation has been attracted to different aspects of the national narrative over the years, we are again at a crossroads.  Will today’s technological explosion of digital media, instant entertainment, and constant connectivity unravel Hawthorne’s yarn into so many pieces that it becomes unrecognizable?  We hope that it will instead spark new opportunities for fresh takes on his age-old story.

Date: March 28, 2019

Author: Sarah Garriepy

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