Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864), American author wrote the Gothic Romance The Scarlet Letter (1850);
In a moment, however, wisely judging that one token of her shame would but poorly serve to hide another, she took the baby on her arm, and with a burning blush, and yet a haughty smile, and a glance that would not be abashed, looked around at her townspeople and neighbours. On the breast of her gown, in fine red cloth, surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread, appeared the letter A.—Ch. 2.
Like many of Hawthorne’s works, the setting is New England and protagonist Hester Prynne’s adultery in a Puritanical 17th century town provides the backdrop for a psychological exploration of the themes of sin, repentance, and morality. The Scarlet Letter achieved much critical acclaim for Hawthorne. His previously written short story “The Custom House” forms the prologue. His body of work contains three other major Romantic novels; The House of Seven Gables (1851), The Blithedale Romance (1852) and The Marble Faun (1860).
Hawthorne was friends with and neighbor for a time to some of New England’s finest intellectuals including Amos Bronson Alcott and his daughter Louisa May Alcott, Henry David Thoreau, and Ralph Waldo Emerson who was also prominent in the Transcendentalist movement. It was a tumultuous time to live in America: Hawthorne was troubled when the American Civil War broke out a few years before his death. After he met President Abraham Lincoln in Washington D.C. and toured battlefields he wrote his essay “Chiefly About War Matters” by ‘A Peaceable Man’, published in the Atlantic Monthly’s July 1862 issue.
Hawthorne became one of the leading writers of his time, moving away from formalism and exploring the ideas of individual responsibility, the importance of creative expression and man’s relationship to the natural world. He also at times delves into the mysterious and disturbing;
In the depths of every heart there is a tomb and a dungeon, though the lights, the music, and revelry above may cause us to forget their existence, and the buried ones, or prisoners whom they hide. But sometimes, and oftenest at midnight, these dark receptacles are flung wide open. In an hour like his....pray that your griefs may slumber. “The Haunted Mind”.
While Hawthorne avidly read and enjoyed the short stories of James Fenimore Cooper and Sir Walter Scott, his own were not well-received at first. But whether it be Prynne’s indomitable spirit, the moral dilemma of “Young Goodman Brown” (1835), the disastrous side of vanity in “The Birth Mark” (1843), or “Ethan Brand’s” (1850) Unpardonable Sin, many of Hawthorne’s works remain popular and have inspired numerous other authors’ works, and adaptations to film.
Nathaniel Hawthorne was born on 4 July 1804 in Salem, Massachusetts in the family home at 27 Hardy Street, now a museum. He was the son of Elizabeth Clarke Manning and Nathaniel Hathorne, a Captain in the U. S. Navy who died when Nathaniel was four years old. His ancestors were some of the first Puritans to settle in the New England area and the lingering guilt Hawthorne felt from his great grandfather having officiated during the Salem Witch Trials provided a theme for many of his stories including The House of Seven Gables. After his father died Nathaniel and his mother moved to her parents’ home just a few doors down from #27, which Hawthorne referred to as ‘Castle Dismal’.
Hawthorne attended Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine (1821-24) along with fellow poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and future American President Franklin Pierce, of whom he wrote a biography of in 1852. Hawthorne was not interested in entering any of the traditional professions; he was an avid reader and already writing his own short stories and had many published in magazines. His novel Fanshawe was published anonymously in 1828. Upon graduation he continued to write stories and sketches, some of them included in his collection Twice Told Tales (1837). Longfellow would write a favourable review of it in North American Review magazine. It was not a lucrative pursuit so Hawthorne worked at the Salem Custom-House to augment his income. He also lived at the experimental transcendentalist community ‘Brook Farm’, but stayed only a year.
In Boston on 9 July 1842, Hawthorne married painter and fellow transcendentalist Sophia Peabody with whom he would have three children; daughters Una (1844-1877) and Rose (1851-1926), and future author Julian Hawthorne (1846-1934). The newly married couple settled in the heart of Transcendentalist country Concorde, Massachusetts, living in the ‘The Old Manse’. Hawthorne’s collection of short stories Mosses from an Old Manse (1846) was followed by his brooding Gothic romance The House of Seven Gables (1851);
The old counter, shelves, and other fixtures of the little shop remained just as he had left them. It used to be affirmed, that the dead shop-keeper, in a white wig, a faded velvet coat, an apron at his waist, and his ruffles carefully turned back from his wrists, might be seen through the chinks of the shutters, any night of the year, ransacking his till, or poring over the dingy pages of his day-book. From the look of unutterable woe upon his face, it appeared to be his doom to spend eternity in a vain effort to make his accounts balance.—Ch. 1.
Also in 1851 Herman Melville dedicated Moby Dick to Hawthorne. In 1852 Hawthorne bought his home ‘The Wayside’ where the Alcotts had once lived and called ‘Hillside’. He next worked on The Blithedale Romance (1852) and the re-telling of ancient Greek Myths in Tanglewood Tales for Girls and Boys (1853). The same year, the Hawthorne family set sail for Liverpool, England where Nathaniel served as U.S. Consul. They traveled throughout Europe and lived for a time in France and Italy where they met fellow authors Elizabeth Barrett Browning and her husband Robert Browning. While in Italy Hawthorne wrote The Marble Faun (1860);
“More than that,” rejoined Hilda; “for there is a class of spectators whose sympathy will help them to see the perfect through a mist of imperfection. Nobody, I think, ought to read poetry, or look at pictures or statues, who cannot find a great deal more in them than the poet or artist has actually expressed. Their highest merit is suggestiveness.”—Hilda, Ch. 41.
Back home at The Wayside, Hawthorne continued to write of his travels in his Passages From Notebooks volumes. ‘We sometimes congratulate ourselves at the moment of waking from a troubled dream; it may be so the moment after death.’ (October 25th, 1836 entry from Passages from the American Notebooks ). Our Old Home (1863) was his last publication before his death. Nathaniel Hawthorne died on 19 May 1864. Franklin Pierce, James Russell Lowell, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes were among the many who mourned the loss of their friend. Hawthorne lies buried on Author’s Ridge in the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, Massachusetts among his many friends including the Alcotts, Emerson, and Thoreau. After devoting her remaining years to editing her husbands’ notebooks for publication, Sophia died in 1871.
The greatest obstacle to being heroic is the doubt whether one may not be going to prove one’s self a fool; the truest heroism is to resist the doubt; and the profoundest wisdom, to know when it ought to be resisted, and when it be obeyed. The Blithedale Romance, Ch. 2.
Biography written by C.D. Merriman for Jalic Inc. Copyright Jalic Inc 2007. All Rights Reserved.
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