The work of American fiction writer Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) was based on the history of his Puritan ancestors and the New England of his own day but, in its "power of blackness, " has universal significance.
Nathaniel Hawthorne was born in Salem, Mass., on July 4, 1804, into the sixth generation of his Salem family. His ancestors included Puritan magnates, judges, and seamen. Two aspects of his heritage were especially to affect his imagination. The Hathornes (Nathaniel added the "w" to the name) had been involved in religious persecution with their first American forebear, William, and John Hathorne was one of the three judges at the 17th-century Salem witchcraft trials. Further, the family had over the generations gradually declined from its early prominence and prosperity into relative obscurity and indigence. Thus the Pyncheons and the Maules of Hawthorne's Salem novel The House of the Seven Gables represent the two different faces of his ancestors, and his feelings about his birthplace were mixed. With deep and unbreakable ties to Salem, he nevertheless found its physical and cultural environment as chilly as its prevalent east wind.
Early Life and Education
Nathaniel's father, a sea captain, died in 1808, leaving his wife and three children dependent on relatives. Nathaniel, the only son, spent his early years in Salem and in Maine. A leg injury immobilized the boy for a considerable period, during which he developed an exceptional taste for reading and contemplation. His childhood was calm, a little isolated but far from unhappy, especially since as a handsome and attractive only son he was idolized by his mother and his two sisters.
With the aid of his prosperous maternal uncles, the Mannings, Hawthorne attended Bowdoin College from 1821 to 1825, when he graduated. Among his classmates were poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow; Franklin Pierce, the future president of the United States, who was to be at his friend's deathbed; and Horatio Bridge, who was to subsidize the publication of Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales in 1837. At Bowdoin, Hawthorne read widely and received solid instruction in English composition and the classics, particularly in Latin. His persistent refusal to engage in public speaking prevented his achieving any marked academic distinction, but he made a creditable record. On one occasion he was fined 50 cents for gambling at cards, but his conduct was not otherwise singled out for official disapproval. Though small and isolated, the Bowdoin of the 1820s was an unusually good college, and Hawthorne undoubtedly profited by his formal education, as well as making steadfast friends. Such men as Longfellow, Pierce, and Bridge remained devoted to him throughout life, and each would render him timely assistance.
Years as a Recluse
Hawthorne's life was not externally exciting or remarkable, but it presents an interesting symbolic pattern. As John Keats said of Shakespeare, he led a life of allegory and his works are the comments on it. Returning from Bowdoin, Hawthorne spent from 1825 to 1837 in his mother's Salem household. Later he looked back upon these years as a period of dreamlike isolation and solitude, spent in a haunted chamber, where he sat enchanted while other men moved on. The "solitary years" were, however, his literary apprenticeship, during which he learned to write tales and sketches that are still unrivaled and unique.
Recent biographers have shown that this period of Hawthorne's life was less lonely than he remembered it to be. In literal truth, he did have social engagements, played cards, and went to the theater and the Lyceum; his sister Elizabeth remarked that "if there was any gathering of people in the town he always went out; he liked a crowd." Nevertheless, he consistently remembered these 12 years as a strange, dark dream, though his view of their consequences varied.
"In this dismal chamber Fame was won, " Hawthorne wrote, perhaps a little ironically, in 1836. To his fiancée, Sophia Peabody, he later confided, "If ever I should have a biographer, he ought to make great mention of this chamber in my memoirs, because so much of my lonely youth was wasted here, and here my mind and character were formed." On the whole, he felt that his isolation had been beneficial: " … if I had sooner made my escape into the world, I should have grown hard and rough, and been covered with earthly dust, and my heart would have become callous by rude encounters with the multitude"—an observation that he made more than once.
Writing the Short Stories
Most of Hawthorne's early stories were published anonymously in magazines and giftbooks. In his own words, he was "for a good many years, the obscurest man of letters in America." In 1837 the publication of Twice-Told Tales somewhat lifted this spell of darkness. In the preface to the 1851 edition he spoke of "the apparently opposite peculiarities" of these stories. Despite the circumstances under which they were written, "they are not the talk of a secluded man with his own mind and heart … but his attempts, and very imperfectly successful ones, to open an intercourse with the world." The Twice-Told Tales he supplemented with two later collections, Mosses from an Old Manse (1846) and The Snow-Image (1851), along with Grandfather's Chair (1841), a history for children of New England through the Revolution; the Journal of an African Cruiser (1845), edited from the observations of his friend Horatio Bridge while he was purser on an American frigate; and the second edition of the Tales (1842).
Hawthorne's short stories came slowly but steadily into critical favor, and the best of them have become American classics. It may well be claimed for them as a whole that they are the outstanding achievement in their genre to be found in the English language during the 19th century. Lucid, graceful, and well composed, they combine an old-fashioned neoclassic purity of diction with a latent and hard complexity of meaning. They are broadly allegorical but infused with imaginative passion. The combination has produced very different opinions of their value, which Hawthorne himself acutely foresaw, remarking that his touches "have often an effect of tameness, " and that his work, "if you would see anything in it, requires to be read in the clear, brown, twilight atmosphere in which it was written; if opened in the sunshine, it is apt to look exceedingly like a volume of blank pages" (1851 Preface, Twice-Told Tales).
Hawthorne is a master of balance and suggestion who inveterately understates: the texture of his tales, as of his novels, is so delicate that some readers cannot see it at all. But many, too, will testify as Herman Melville did to his "power of blackness." Of Hawthorne's story "Young Goodman Brown, " Melville wrote, "You would of course suppose that it was a simple little tale. … Whereas it is as deep as Dante: nor can you finish it, without addressing the author in his own words: 'It is yours to penetrate, in every bosom, the deep mystery of sin."'
Out in the World
By his own account it was Hawthorne's love of his Salem neighbor Sophia Peabody that brought him from his "haunted chamber" out into the world. His books were far from profitable enough to support a prospective wife and family, so in 1838 he went to work in the Boston Custom House and then spent part of 1841 in the famous Brook Farm community in hopes of finding a pleasant and economical haven for Sophia and himself. It is curious that the seclusive Hawthorne was always interested in experiments in community living: in Brook Farm, in the New England Shaker settlements, and later in Greenwich Hospital in London. He was to record his mingled feelings of sympathy and skepticism about Brook Farm in The Blithedale Romance (1852).
At any rate, Hawthorne and Sophia, whom he married in 1842, resorted not to Brook Farm but to the Old Manse in Concord, where they spent several years of idyllic happiness in as much solitude as they could achieve. Concord, however, contained Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Ellery Channing, and Hawthorne was in frequent contact with these important thinkers, though his was not a nature for transcendental affirmations.
Writing the Novels
Facing the world once more, Hawthorne obtained in 1846 the position of surveyor in the Salem Custom House, from which as a Democrat he was expelled after the Whig victory in the 1848 presidential election. He did not leave without a fight and considerable bitterness, and he took revenge in the "Custom-House" introduction to The Scarlet Letter (1850) and in The House of the Seven Gables (1851), in which he portrayed his chief Whig enemy as the harsh and hypocritical Judge Pyncheon. His dismissal, however, turned out to be a blessing, since it gave him leisure in which to write his greatest and crucial success, The Scarlet Letter. Except for his early Fanshawe (1828), which he suppressed shortly after publication, The Scarlet Letter was his first novel, or, as he preferred to say, "romance"; thus his literary career divided into two distinct parts, since he now almost wholly abandoned the shorter tale.
The period 1850-1853 was Hawthorne's most prolific. Doubtless stimulated by the enthusiastic reception accorded The Scarlet Letter, he went on with The House of the Seven Gables and The Blithedale Romance, along with AWonder Book (1852) and Tanglewood Tales (1853), exquisitely fanciful stories for children from Greek mythology. During 1850 the Hawthornes lived at the Red House in Lenox in the Berkshire Hills, and Hawthorne formed a memorable friendship with novelist Herman Melville, whose Arrowhead Farm was some miles away on the outskirts of Pittsfield. The association was more important to Melville than to Hawthorne, since Melville was 15 years younger and much the more impressionable of the two men. It left its mark in Melville's celebrated review of Mosses from an Old Manse, in the dedication of his Moby-Dick, and in some wonderful letters. Hawthorne's share in their correspondence has not survived, but he clearly aided Melville with insight and sympathy.
In 1852 Franklin Pierce was elected to the presidency of the United States, and Hawthorne, who was induced to write his campaign biography, was appointed to the important overseas post of American consul at Liverpool, in which he served form 1853 to 1857 with considerable efficiency. These English years resulted in Our Old Home (1863), a volume drawn from the since-published "English Note-Books." It was to give considerable offense to the English public. Hawthorne felt a very deep affinity for "our old home, " but as with his other "old home, " Salem, his feelings were mingled, and he did not hesitate to express them.
In 1857 the Hawthornes left England for Italy, where they spent their time primarily in Rome and Florence. They returned to England, where Hawthorne finished his last and longest complete novel, the "Roman romance" The Marble Faun (1860). They finally returned to the United States, after an absence of seven years, and took up residence in their first permanent home, The Wayside, at Concord, which Hawthorne had bought from Bronson Alcott.
Hawthorne was to live only four more years. Although he had always been an exceptionally vigorous man, his health inexplicably declined; and since he refused to submit to any thorough medical examination, his malady remains mysterious. During these last years in Concord he struggled with no less than four romances, The Ancestral Footstep, Dr. Grimshawe's Secret, Septimius Felton, and The Dolliver Romance, but completed none of them. Ironically, they are obsessively concerned with the theme of "earthly immortality" and the "elixir of life, " which he had earlier touched upon in stories like "Dr. Heidegger's Experiment" (Twice-Told Tales).
Hawthorne died on May 19, 1864. He had set off for the New Hampshire hills with Franklin Pierce. He had always been fond of such expeditions and hoped to benefit from this one. But he died the second night out in Plymouth, N.H., presumably in his sleep. The circumstances of his end were somehow representative of the man, at once settled and at the same time restless when too long in one place. He once said that New England was enough to fill his heart, yet he sought the broader experience of Europe. Modest in expectations, he had yet desired to live fully.
Hawthorne's Literary Background
The case of Hawthorne is complex, in his life and in his writings. A born writer, like Edgar Allan Poe he suffered the difficulties of the writer in early-19th-century America: an unsympathetic environment, the materialism of a physically expanding nation, the lack of an artistic tradition. His Puritan heritage was both a support and a drawback. Its tradition of soul-searching encouraged profundity, and its penchant for seeking God's Providence in natural events provided Hawthorne with a way of seeing and interpreting. It was a highly literate tradition as well. It was, however, notoriously unfriendly to art—fiction as make-believe was mere vanity, and as imitation of God's creatures and creations it was idolatry. A natural artist, Hawthorne was always to worry about the morality of imitating and analyzing human nature in his art of fiction.
With his Puritanism, Hawthorne also inherited the Augustan culture of the early 18th century—a common case in New England, but especially powerful in his. Thus came the purity of his prose style, and its coolness and balance, in a sense retrogressive in his own time. Yet he was also responsive to the influence of his near contemporaries, the English romantics. He read widely and was vitally influenced by all the chief romantic poets, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats. Hawthorne drew especially upon Coleridge's critical principles for his own theory of the prose romance. Like the romantics, he too desired to live fully and make the best use of his sensibilities, but his impulses were tempered by Augustan moderation and Puritan self-distrust.
A serious and conscientious craftsman, Hawthorne yet was not committed (as was Henry James) to the craft of fiction, not being minded to sacrifice either himself or those who depended upon him to its demands. He held a rather too pessimistic view of his own talent, and his deep Puritan skepticism of the value of merely human effort was also a deterrent to complete dedication to fiction; the volume of his writing is substantial but not great.
Power of Darkness
Hawthorne's belief in Providence could be discouraging, but it was also a source of strength. Along with Melville, he was one of the great "no-sayers" of 19th-century America. He accepted, imaginatively if not literally, the doctrine of the Fall of Man, and thus the radical imperfection of man. In his work there is as much light as darkness, but the dark is perhaps the more dramatic hue. In imaginative literature evil can be an esthetic element with the dark as a contrast to light; and Hawthorne used contrast so effectively that Henry James believed his "darkness" to be mere fanciful playing, with evil and pain used simply as counters in his fictional game. Melville, however, perceived more deeply that Hawthorne might be fascinated with the problem of evil as an element of his design, yet at the same time treat it with the utmost seriousness ("Hawthorne and his Mosses").
Tragedy is traditionally the most complex literary form, while it is also an imaginative testing ground, in which the human spirit is broadened and deepened by its struggle with the utmost imaginable adversity. In The Scarlet Letter, for example, the protagonists Hester and Dimmesdale are opposed not only by Puritan society but by something in themselves, and by a mysterious and invisible principle of reality still more powerful.
Allegorical Structures and Themes
Hawthorne's fictional structures are basically allegorical confrontations of good and evil, and his characters can usually be classified as types. He writes, however, not to prove points or teach moral lessons, which are themselves his fictional materials rather than his conclusions. The House of the Seven Gables, for instance, has a message, "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." But Hawthorne reflects that when romances do teach anything, "it is usually through a far more subtle process than the ostensible one. … A high truth, indeed, fairly, finely, and skillfully wrought out, brightening at every step, and crowning the final development of a work of fiction, may add an artistic glory, but is never any truer, and seldom any more evident, at the last page than at the first" (Preface, The House of the Seven Gables).
Isolation or "alienation" is Hawthorne's principal theme and problem, and loss of contact with reality is the ultimate penalty he envisions. Characteristically, this results from a separation of the "head, " or intellect, and the "heart, " a term that includes the emotions, the passions, and the unconscious. The heart is the custodian of man's deepest potentialities for good and evil, and it is man's vital connection with reality. Too much "head" leads always to a fatal intellectual pride, which distorts and finally destroys the wholeness of the real world. This, for Hawthorne, is the worst sin or calamity that man is heir to.
Randall Stewart, Nathaniel Hawthorne (1948), is the standard biography. Newton Arvin, Hawthorne (1929), contains criticism and psychological analysis. Mark Van Doren, Nathaniel Hawthorne (1949), presents a balanced interpretation of Hawthorne's life and principal works. Older works include Henry James, Jr., Hawthorne (1879).
Notable treatments of Hawthorne's art in its historical and national contexts appear in Yvor Winters, Maule's Curse: Seven Studies in the History of American Obscurantism (1938); F. O. Matthiessen, American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman (1941); Charles Feidelson, Jr., Symbolism and American Literature (1953); and Richard Chase, The American Novel and Its Tradition (1957), which is illuminating on the tradition of "romance" in America. More specialized interpretations of Hawthorne's fiction are Richard Harter Fogle, Hawthorne's Fiction: The Light and the Dark (1952, rev. ed. 1964) and Hawthorne's Imagery (1969); Hyatt H. Waggoner, Hawthorne: A Critical Study (1955, rev. ed. 1963); and Roy R. Male, Hawthorne's Tragic Vision (1957). □
Nationality: American. Born: Nathaniel Hathorne in Salem, Massachusetts, 4 July 1804. Education: Samuel Archer's School, Salem, 1819; Bowdoin College, Brunswick, Maine, 1821-25. Family: Married Sophia Peabody in 1842; two daughters and one son. Career: Lived with his mother in Salem, writing and contributing to periodicals, 1825-36; editor, American Magazine of Useful and Entertaining Knowledge, Boston, 1836; weigher and gager, Boston Customs House, 1839-41; invested and lived at the Brook Farm Commune, West Roxbury, Massachusetts, 1841-42. Lived in Concord, Massachusetts, 1842-45, 1852, and 1860-64. Surveyor, Salem Customs House, 1846-49. Lived in Lenox, Massachusetts, 1850-51, and West Newton, Massachusetts, 1851. U.S. Consul, Liverpool, England, 1853-57. Lived in Italy, 1858-59, and London, 1859-60. Died: 19 May 1864.
Complete Writings. 22 vols., 1900.
Complete Novels and Selected Tales, edited by Norman HolmesPearson. 1937.
The Portable Hawthorne, edited by Malcolm Cowley. 1948; revised edition, 1969; as Hawthorne: Selected Works, 1971.
Works (Centenary Edition), edited by William Charvat and others.1963—.
Poems, edited by Richard E. Peck. 1967.
Tales and Sketches (Library of America), edited by Roy HarveyPearce. 1982.
Novels (Library of America), edited by Millicent Bell. 1983.
Nathaniel Hawthorne: Three Complete Novels. 1993.
Miscellaneous Prose and Verse. 1994.
Fanshawe: A Tale. 1828.
Twice-Told Tales. 1837; revised edition, 1842.
Mosses from an Old Manse. 1846.
The Snow-Image and Other Twice-Told Tales. 1851.
The Dolliver Romance and Other Pieces, edited by Sophia Hawthorne. 1876.
Fanshawe and Other Pieces. 1876.
The Celestial Rail-Road. 1843.
The Scarlet Letter: A Romance. 1850.
The House of the Seven Gables: A Romance. 1851.
The Blithedale Romance. 1852.
Transformation; or, The Romance of Monte Beni. 1860; as The Marble Faun, 1860.
Pansie: A Fragment. 1864.
Septimius: A Romance, edited by Una Hawthorne and RobertBrowning. 1872; as Septimius Felton; or The Elixir of Life, 1872.
Dr. Grimshaw's Secret: A Romance, edited by Julian Hawthorne.1883; edited by Edward H. Davidson, 1954.
The Ghost of Dr. Harris. 1900.
The Great Stone Face. 1997.
Grandfather's Chair: A History for Youth. 1841; Famous Old People, Being the Second Epoch of Grandfather's Chair, 1841; Liberty Tree, with the Last Words of Grandfather's Chair, 1841, revised edition, 1842.
Biographical Stories for Children. 1842.
True Stories from History and Biography. 1851.
A Wonder-Book for Girls and Boys. 1851.
Life of Franklin Pierce (campaign biography). 1852.
Tanglewood Tales for Girls and Boys, Being a Second Wonder-Book. 1853.
Our Old Home: A Series of English Sketches. 1863; in Works, 1970.
Passages from the American Note-Books, edited by Sophia Hawthorne. 2 vols., 1868.
Passages from the English Note-Books, edited by Sophia Hawthorne. 2 vols., 1870.
Passages from the French and Italian Note-Books, edited by UnaHawthorne. 2 vols., 1871.
Twenty Days with Julian and Little Bunny: A Diary. 1904.
Love Letters. 2 vols., 1907.
Letters to William D. Ticknor. 2 vols., 1910.
The Heart of Hawthorne's Journal, edited by Newton Arvin. 1929.
The American Notebooks, edited by Randall Stewart. 1932; in Works, 1972.
The English Notebooks, edited by Randall Stewart. 1941.
Hawthorne as Editor: Selections from His Writings in the American Magazine of Useful and Entertaining Knowledge, edited by Arlin Turner. 1941.
Hawthorne's Lost Notebook 1835-1841, edited by Barbara S. Mouffe. 1978.
American Travel Sketches, edited by Alfred Weber and others. 1989.
Editor, with Elizabeth Hawthorne, Peter Parley's Universal History. 2 vols., 1837; as Peter Parley's Common School History, 1838.
Editor, Journal of an African Cruiser, by Horatio Bridge. 1845.
Editor, The Yarn of a Yankee Privateer, by Benjamin FrederickBrowne(?). 1926.*
Hawthorne: A Descriptive Bibliography by C.E. Frazer Clark, Jr., 1978; Hawthorne and the Critics: A Checklist of Criticism 1900-1978 by Jeanetta Boswell, 1982; Hawthorne: An Annotated Bibliography of Comment and Criticism Before 1900 by Gary Scharnhorst, 1988.
Hawthorne by Henry James, 1879; Hawthorne: A Biography by Randall Stewart, 1948; Hawthorne by Mark Van Doren, 1949; Hawthorne's Fiction: The Light and the Dark, 1952, revised edition, 1964, and Hawthorne's Imagery, 1969, both by Richard Harter Fogle; Hawthorne: A Critical Study, 1955, revised edition, 1963, and The Presence of Hawthorne, 1979, both by Hyatt H. Waggoner; Hawthorne's Tragic Vision by Roy R. Male, 1957; Hawthorne, Man and Writer by Edward Wagenknecht, 1961; Hawthorne: An Introduction and Interpretation, 1961, and Hawthorne: A Biography, 1980, both by Arlin Turner; Hawthorne Centenary Essays edited by Roy Harvey Pearce, 1964; Hawthorne by Terence Martin, 1965, revised edition, 1983; The Sins of the Fathers: Hawthorne's Psychological Themes by Frederick Crews, 1966; Hawthorne: A Collection of Critical Essays edited by A. N. Kaul, 1966; Twentieth-Century Interpretations of The Scarlet Letter edited by John C. Gerber, 1968; Plots and Characters in the Fiction and Sketches of Hawthorne, 1968, and A Hawthorne Encyclopedia, 1991, both by Robert L. Gale; Hawthorne, Transcendental Symbolist by Marjorie Elder, 1969; The Recognition of Hawthorne: Selected Criticism since 1828 edited by B. Bernard Cohen, 1969; Hawthorne as Myth-Maker: A Study in Imagination by Hugo McPherson, 1969; Hawthorne: The Critical Heritage, 1970, and Hawthorne: A Collection of Criticism, 1975, both edited by J. Donald Crowley; The Pursuit of Form: A Study of Hawthorne and the Romance by John Caldwell Stubbs, 1970; Hawthorne's Early Tales: A Critical Study by Neal F. Doubleday, 1972; Hawthorne's Career by Nina Baym, 1976; Hawthorne: The Poetics of Enchantment by Edgar A. Dryden, 1977; Rediscovering Hawthorne by Kenneth Dauber, 1977; Hawthorne and the Truth of Dreams by Rita K. Gollin, 1979; A Reader's Guide to the Short Stories of Hawthorne by Lea B.V. Newman, 1979; Hawthorne: The English Experience 1853-1864 by Raymona E. Hull, 1980; Hawthorne in His Times by James R. Mellow, 1980; The Productive Tension of Hawthorne's Art by Claudia D. Johnson, 1981; Hawthorne: New Critical Essays edited by A. Robert Lee, 1982; Family Themes in Hawthorne's Fiction by Gloria C. Erlich, 1984; The Province of Piety: Moral History in Hawthorne's Early Tales by Michael J. Colacurcio, 1984, and New Essays on The Scarlet Letter edited by Colacurcio, 1985; Hawthorne's Secret: An Untold Tale by Philip Young, 1984; Hawthorne's Tales edited by James McIntosh, 1987; Secrets and Sympathy: Forms of Disclosure in Hawthorne's Novels by Gordon Hutner, 1989; Hawthorne and the Romance of the Orient by Luther S. Luedtke, 1989; Hawthorne's Early Narrative Art by Melinda M. Ponder, 1990; Hawthorne: Tradition and Revolution by Charles Swann, 1991; The Hawthorne and Melville Friendship edited by James C. Wilson, 1991; The Production of Personal Life: Class, Gender, and the Psychological in Hawthorne's Fiction by Joel Pfister, 1992; The Critical Responses to Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter edited by Gary Scharnhorst, 1992; Nathaniel Hawthorne: A Study of the Short Fiction by Nancy L. Bunge, 1993; The Style of Hawthorne's Gaze: Regarding Subjectivity by John Dolis, 1993; A Thick and Darksome Veil: The Rhetoric of Hawthorne's Sketches, Prefaces, and Essays by Thomas R. Moore, 1994; Nathaniel Hawthorne: The Contemporary Reviews, 1994; Engendering Romance: Women Writers and the Hawthorne Tradition by E. Miller Budick, 1994; The Province of Piety: Moral History in Hawthorne's Early Tales by Michael J. Colacurcio, 1995; Hawthorne's Narrative Strategies by Michael Dunne, 1995; The Making of the Hawthorne Subject by Alison Easton, 1996; Liquid Fire: Transcendental Mysticism in the Romances of Nathaniel Hawthorne by Harvey L. Gable, 1997; Mesmerism and Hawthorne: Mediums of American Romance by Samuel Coale, 1998.* * *
Nathaniel Hawthorne's career as a writer of short fiction began inauspiciously with his failure to publish any of three unified collections of tales and sketches ("Seven Tales of My Native Land," "Provincial Tales," and "The Story Teller"). As a result he was forced to publish most of these pieces separately—and anonymously or pseudonymously—in newspapers and in the few magazines and gift-book annuals available in the American literary scene. It was not until almost a decade later, in 1837, when he had written almost 50 tales and sketches, some of them among his finest, that he published 18 under his own name as Twice-Told Tales. In 1842 a two-volume edition of his work added 19 others. Mosses from an Old Manse reprinted 22 more with an author's preface, "The Old Manse." His third major collection, The Snow-Image, did not appear until 1851 after Hawthorne had turned to writing full-length romances, and a number of the 15 selections—most notably "My Kinsman, Major Molineux"—predated the 1837 volume. By this time Hawthorne had begun to enjoy widespread acclaim as author of The Scarlet Letter, a romance that Henry James would later describe as America's first indisputably classic work of fiction.
The story of Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale marks at once the culmination and the transformation of Hawthorne's development as a writer of tales; likewise, "The Custom-House" introduction perfects his use of the sketch form as a way, fully integrated with the fiction, of commenting on the American artist's situation and on the nature both of his materials and his creative processes. Together they define the two most essential threads of his practice in short fiction. Indeed, his original choice of title for his masterpiece, curious but instructive, is probably the best description of the work he did between 1828 and 1851, "Old Time Legends: Together with Sketches, Experimental and Ideal."
The conventions and exigencies of publication, Hawthorne's right sense of his audience's predisposition to sentimental and pietistic didacticism, and his own penchant for historical consciousness and what James called "the deeper psychology" required that Hawthorne not only create fictions but instruct his audience about the nature of those fictions. Thus, he was given to frequent subtitles such as "A Parable," "A Fantasy," "An Imaginary Retrospect," "A Moralized Legend," and "Allegories of the Heart," all of them designed to mediate between his readers and his materials; thus, too, did he write half a dozen juvenile collections, as if to prepare a serious audience for the future. Often (as in the four "Legends of the Province-House") he used framed narratives that allowed the collaborative voice and character of the narrator/persona to guarantee the reliability of the tale. One of his finest sketches, "The Haunted Mind," traces, like many of his prefaces, the processes of the creative imagination. And among the memorable tales that dramatize the plight of the artist caught between the hard-headed practicality of his audience and the subtleties of his materials are "Drowne's Wooden Image," "The Artist and the Beautiful," and "The Snow-Image." Nowhere is that collaborative, and meditative, voice more obvious than in "Wakefield," the slight sketch of a middle-aged man who, all unaware, leaves his wife of ten years and spends the next 20 years viewing her behavior in his absence, "If the reader choose," says the narrator, "let him do his own meditation; or if he prefer to ramble with me through the twenty years of Wakefield's vagary, I bid him welcome."
Hawthorne's imagination found his own contemporary scene recalcitrant: what he called "The Present, the Immediate, the Actual" offered him no fit materials. He needed, he said, "a neutral territory, somewhere between the real world and fairyland, where the Actual and the Imaginary may meet, and each imbue itself with the nature of the other." Typical opening sentences that establish that "neutral territory" through vague distancing include: "In the latter part of the last century," "At nightfall, once, in the olden time," and "In those strange old times, when fantastic dreams and madmen's reveries were realized among the actual circumstances of life." The strategy is by no means escapist but is instead Hawthorne's indirect way of exercising his acute sense of the past to comment incisively on humankind's moral condition in the present.
It was early New England history—provincial and colonial—and the drama of Puritan consciousness that provided the richest abundance of materials, themes, and techniques. "The May-Pole of Merry Mount" dramatizes allegorically the struggle between the Puritan Endicott and the Merry Mounters, "Jollity and gloom were contending for an empire." Mr. Hooper's crepe veil in "The Minister's Black Veil" is the sort of single central symbol that anticipates Hester's scarlet letter; like the letter, the veil is also a symbolic action expressive at once of self-concealment and self-revelation; like it, too, the veil at once alienates Hooper from his community and encloses him within it. The Puritan mistreatment of the Quaker boy Ilbrahim in "The Gentle Boy" constitutes an early version of Hawthorne's later definition of the unpardonable sin, "The violation of the sanctity of the human heart." In "My Kinsman, Major Molineux" young Robin, thinking it "high time to begin the world" with the aid of his powerful relative, leaves home only to discover himself participating symbolically in the ritual killing of his would-be benefactor. Robin discovers not only that he can't go home again but the same grim fact that so many other protagonists do. In Ralph Waldo Emerson's terms, the truth goes this way: "It is very unhappy, but too late to be helped, the discovery we have made that we exist. That discovery is called the Fall of Man." Hawthorne's genius in developing this and other themes has made him a profound influence on other major writers as various as Herman Melville and Henry James, Robert Frost and William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor and Jorge Luis Borges.
—J. Donald Crowley
See the essays on "The Birthmark," "Wakefield," and "Young Goodman Brown."
Born: July 4, 1804
Died: May 19, 1864
Plymouth, New Hampshire
Writer and descendant of John Hathorne, chief magistrate in the Salem trials
Although American author Nathaniel Hawthorne was born more than a hundred years after the Salem witch trials, he was profoundly affected by the Puritans' persecution of innocent people during the New England witch-hunts. Hawthorne was a direct descendant of the Hathornes, one of the founding families of the Massachusetts colony, and his ancestor John Hathorne was the chief magistrate in the trials that led to the deaths of twenty people. Haunted by his Puritan past, Hawthorne explored the issue of sin in such works as "Young Goodman Brown" (1835; see primary source entry), The Scarlet Letter (1850), and The House of Seven Gables (1851), which have become American literary classics.
The "haunted chamber"
Nathaniel Hawthorne's father was a sea captain who died of yellow fever in 1808, leaving his wife and three children dependent on relatives. Nathaniel, the only son, spent his early years in Salem, Massachusetts, and at a country home in Maine. Immobilized by a leg injury for a long period of time, he developed an interest in reading and contemplation (the act of thinking or meditating about something thoughtfully). Although he was often isolated, he had a pleasant childhood, adored by his mother and two sisters and supported by relatives as he grew into adulthood. In 1821 Hawthorne's prosperous uncles, the Mannings, sent him to Bowdoin College, where fellow students were poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow; future U.S. president Franklin Pierce; and Horatio Bridge, who would later finance one of Hawthorne's publications. After graduating from Bowdoin in 1825, Hawthorne returned to Salem and lived with his mother for twelve years. He spent most of his time alone in what he called a "haunted chamber," developing his skills as a writer and discovering the themes that later became the trademarks of his works. In 1838 he met Sophia Peabody, to whom he confided, "If ever I should have a biographer, he ought to make great mention of this chamber in my memoirs, because so much of my lonely youth was wasted here, and here my mind and character were formed," as quoted in the Encyclopedia of World Biography.
Hawthorne and Peabody were soon engaged, and he credited her with bringing him out into the world again. Although he had published several stories, which he called tales, his writing did not provide sufficient income to support a future wife and family. In 1839 he took a job measuring salt and coal at the Boston Custom House, where he stayed until 1841, when he invested $1000 in Brook Farm Community, a well-known commune (a group that jointly owns property and shares daily chores). Hawthorne thought Brook Farm would provide an economical home for himself and Peabody, but he soon became disenchanted with the experiment in communal living. After their marriage in 1842 the couple moved to Old Manse of Concord, a similar community whose residents included essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson, writer Henry David Thoreau, and clergyman Ellery Channing. The Hawthornes stayed at Old Manse until 1846, when Nathaniel took a position as surveyor at the Salem Custom House. He was dismissed in January1849 as a result of local political conflicts.
Hawthorne was discouraged about losing his job, but his wife urged him to devote himself to writing. Within two years he had produced The Scarlet Letter and The House of Seven Gables. Immediate acclaim from critics and other writers gave him the motivation to continue publishing his work. In 1852, when his old friend Pierce was elected president, Hawthorne was appointed overseas U.S. consul (official government representative) at Liverpool, England, where he served from 1853 to 1857. In 1857 the family moved from England to Italy, living mainly in Florence and Rome. Upon returning to the United States in 1860, they settled into their first real home at Concord, New Hampshire. Despite a lifetime of vigor and few illnesses, Hawthorne's health went into a mysterious decline. Refusing medical attention, he died in his sleep on May 19, 1864, while on an expedition with Pierce. Before his death he had started four other books, none of which was completed.
Hawthorne and the Salem trials
Hawthorne was deeply affected by the legacy of his ancestors and the shameful association of his family with the Salem witch trials. He was especially troubled by the deeds of John Hathorne. Hawthorne reportedly added a "w" to the family name in order to distinguish it from the Hathornes. This was not the only way he was affected, as his life in Salem also profoundly haunted him. Hawthorne's main literary theme was the inheritance of guilt. He felt strongly that the sins of one generation were passed on to the next generation and would play themselves out in a cycle of mischief and tragedy in small ways. From the actions of his ancestors Hawthorne
The Legacy of John Hathorne
Nathaniel Hawthorne's first Puritan ancestor was major William Hathorne, who settled in Boston, Massachusetts, in the 1630s before moving on to Salem as one of the founders of the town. In the introduction to The Scarlet Letter Hawthorne described his ancestor as "a grave, bearded, sable-cloaked and steeple-crowned progenitor—who came so early with his Bible and sword . . . and had all the Puritanical traits, both good and evil." William expressed his Puritan fervor by persecuting Quakers (members of the Society of Friends). His son John earned an even more infamous reputation for persecution as an unrepentant magistrate during the Salem witch trials of 1692–93.
Born in 1641, John inherited the privileges of an elite Salem family. During his lifetime he was a prosperous landowner, merchant, and judge. In 1684 he was appointed chief magistrate of the local court system, a position that gave him the principal role in questioning defendants during the witch trials eight years later. Transcriptions of the trials show that Hathorne presumed all accused persons to be guilty until proven innocent, so he used aggressive tactics to force them into making confessions. As an advocate of spectral (spirit) evidence, he accepted fantastical testimony as fact; therefore, the only way a suspect could avoid execution was to confess to the crime of witchcraft. Hathorne exploited the theatrical nature of the trials by calling upon supposedly bewitched (cast under a spell) girls as witnesses to confront accused witches in court, a move that doomed several people when the girls fell into fits. His bullying led many innocent people to Gallows Hill. Despite his role in the ordeal, Hathorne never expressed any remorse. Unlike his colleague Samuel Sewall (see biography and primary source entries), for instance, Hathorne did not make a public apology. Hathorne lived to an advanced age, enjoying great wealth and the respect of the community. This contradiction and Hathorne's involvement in the trials later haunted Nathaniel Hawthorne, providing the reason for the theme of inherited guilt in the author's works.
thus developed the concept of an ancestral curse. In his tales he sought to emphasize the importance of the heart and the potential calamity of over-reliance on rational thinking (ideas based on reason), which leads to destructive intellectual pride.
Hawthorne is widely regarded as the father of the American novel, a form of literature in which characters and plot are developed in a series of interrelated events. In his first published story, "The Hollow of the Three Hills" (1830), he explored guilt and sin and included a witch in his plot. Many of his other stories addressed these same themes, often incorporating witches or an encounter with the occult (conjuring of supernatural forces). In "Young Goodman Brown" (see primary source entry) an upright Puritan man becomes permanently disillusioned with the world after he sees his wife participating in a witches' Sabbath in the forest.
The Scarlet Letter is the most widely read of Hawthorne's works. Set in seventeenth-century Salem, the novel explores the issues of forbidden pleasure and sin. Puritan officials have forced the main character, Hester Prynne, to wear a red letter "A" as a sign that she committed adultery (had sexual relations with a man who was not her husband) after she had a baby daughter out of wedlock (without being married). Hester's struggle becomes even more painful when her husband, who has taken the false name of Roger Chilling-worth, returns to Salem after an absence of several years. Learning that Hester's lover is a Puritan minister named Arthur Dimmesdale, he forces Dimmesdale to make a public confession. As the story unfolds, Hawthorne shows that Hester's surrender to passion is less troubling than the sins committed by the Puritans, who are represented by Chillingsworth and Dimmesdale. For instance, Chillingsworth is self-righteous and vindictive, while Dimmesdale is tortured by guilt and shame. Hester is eventually able to rise above adversity because she is true to the natural human spirit, but the two men ruin their lives by accepting repressive Puritan moral codes.
Literary scholars note that The Scarlet Letter and Hawthorne's other tales continue to appeal to modern readers because the author vividly depicted the era of the witch-hunts and the Salem trials. Yet his work also transcends the troubling legacy of America's Puritan past by providing an imaginative testing ground for the human struggle with the forces of evil.
For Further Reading
Encyclopedia of World Biography, Gale, 1998.
Erlich, Gloria. Family Themes and Hawthorne's Fiction: The Tenacious Web. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1986.
The Hawthorne Treasury: Complete Novels and Selected Tales of Nathaniel Hawthorne. New York: Modern Library, 1999.
Miller, Edwin Haviland. Salem Is My Dwelling Place: A Life of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Iowa City, Iowa: University of Iowa Press, 1991.
The Scarlet Letter. Boston: WBGH, 1998. Available on videocassette recording.s
Born: July 4, 1804
Died: May 19, 1864
Plymouth, New Hampshire
The work of American fiction writer Nathaniel Hawthorne was based on the history of his Puritan ancestors and the New England of his own day. Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables are classics of American literature.
Nathaniel Hawthorne was born in Salem, Massachusetts, on July 4, 1804, into the sixth generation of his Salem family. His ancestors included businessmen, judges, and seamen—all Puritans, a strict religious discipline. Two aspects of his background especially affected his imagination and writing career. The Hathornes (Nathaniel added the "w" to the name) had been involved in religious persecution (intense harassment) with their first American ancestor, William. Another ancestor, John Hathorne, was one of the three judges at the seventeenth-century Salem witchcraft trials, where dozens of people were accused of, and later executed for, being "witches."
Nathaniel's father, a sea captain, died in 1808, leaving his wife and three children dependent on relatives. Nathaniel, the only son, spent his early years in Salem and in Maine. A leg injury forced Hawthorne to remain immobile for a considerable period, during which he developed an exceptional taste for reading and thinking. His childhood was calm, a little isolated but far from unhappy, especially since as a handsome and attractive only son he was idolized by his mother and his two sisters.
With the aid of his wealthy uncles, Hawthorne attended Bowdoin College from 1821 to 1825. Among his classmates were poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882), and future U.S. president Franklin Pierce (1804–1869). At Bowdoin, Hawthorne read widely and received solid instruction in English composition and the classics, particularly in Latin. His refusal to participate in public speaking prevented his achievement of an outstanding academic record, but he was in good standing. On one occasion he was fined 50 cents for gambling at cards, but his behavior was not otherwise singled out for official disapproval. Though small and isolated, the Bowdoin of the 1820s was an unusually good college, and Hawthorne undoubtedly profited from his formal education. He also made loyal friends.
Years in seclusion
Returning from Bowdoin, Hawthorne spent the years 1825 to 1837 in his mother's Salem household. Later he looked back upon these years as a period of dreamlike isolation and solitude, spent in a haunted room. During these "solitary years" he learned to write tales and sketches that are still unique.
Recent biographers have shown that this period of Hawthorne's life was less lonely than he remembered it to be. In truth, he did have social engagements, played cards, and went to the theatre. Nevertheless, he consistently remembered these twelve years as a strange, dark dream, though his view of the influence of these years varied.
Writing short stories
Most of Hawthorne's early stories were published anonymously (without an author's name) in magazines and giftbooks. In 1837 the publication of Twice-Told Tales somewhat lifted this spell of darkness. After Twice-Told Tales he added two later collections, Mosses from an Old Manse (1846) and The Snow-Image (1851), along with Grandfather's Chair (1841), a history of New England for children. Hawthorne's short stories came slowly but steadily into critical favor, and the best of them have become American classics.
By his own account it was Hawthorne's love of his Salem neighbor Sophia Peabody that brought him from his "haunted chamber" out into the world. His books were far from profitable enough to support a wife and family, so in 1838 he went to work in the Boston Custom House and then spent part of 1841 in the famous Brook Farm community in hopes of finding a pleasant and economical home for Sophia and himself.
Hawthorne and Sophia, whom he finally married in 1842, resorted not to Brook Farm but to the Old Manse in Concord, Massachusetts, where they spent several years of happiness in as much quiet living as they could achieve. Concord was home to Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882), Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862), and Ellery Channing (1780–1842), and Hawthorne was in frequent contact with these important thinkers, though he did not take to their philosophical lifestyles.
Writing the novels
Facing the world once more, Hawthorne obtained in 1846 the position of surveyor (one who maps out new lands) in the Salem Custom House, but was relieved of this position in 1848 because of his political ties. His dismissal, however, turned out to be a blessing, since it gave him time in which to write his greatest success, The Scarlet Letter.
The period 1850 to 1853 was Hawthorne's most productive, as he wrote The House of the Seven Gables and The Blithedale Romance, along with A Wonder Book (1852) and Tanglewood Tales (1853). During 1850 the Hawthornes lived at the Red House in Lenox in the Berkshire Hills, and Hawthorne formed a memorable friendship with novelist Herman Melville (1819–1912). The association was more important to Melville than to Hawthorne, since Melville was fifteen years younger and the much more impressionable (easily influenced) of the two men. It left its mark in dedication of his Moby-Dick, and in some wonderful letters.
In 1852 Franklin Pierce was elected president of the United States, and Hawthorne, who wrote his campaign biography, was appointed to the important overseas post of American consul (advisor) at Liverpool, England. He served in this post from 1853 to 1857. These English years resulted in Our Old Home (1863), a volume drawn from the since-published "English Note-Books."
In 1857 the Hawthornes left England for Italy, where they spent their time primarily in Rome and Florence. They returned to England, where Hawthorne finished his last and longest complete novel, The Marble Faun (1860). They finally returned to the United States, after an absence of seven years, and took up residence in their first permanent home, The Wayside, at Concord.
Although he had always been an exceptionally active man, Hawthorne's health began to fail him. Since he refused to submit to any thorough medical examination, the details of his declining health remain mysterious. Hawthorne died on May 19, 1864. He had set off for the New Hampshire hills with Franklin Pierce, an activity he had always enjoyed, hoping to regain his health. But he died the second night in Plymouth, New Hampshire, presumably in his sleep.
Hawthorne once said that New England was enough to fill his heart, yet he sought the broader experience of Europe. Modest in expectations, he had nonetheless desired to live fully. Hawthorne's life and writings present a complex puzzle. A born writer, he suffered the difficulties of his profession in early-nineteenth-century America, an environment unfriendly to artists.
For More Information
Bloom, Harold, ed. Nathaniel Hawthorne. New York: Chelsea House, 1986.
Mellow, James R. Nathaniel Hawthorne in His Times. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1980. Reprint, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.
Miller, Edward Haviland. Salem Is My Dwelling Place. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1991.
From "Young Goodman Brown" (1835)
Reprinted in The American Tradition in Literature in 1974
Edited by Sculley Bradley and others
"Young Goodman Brown," a short story by nineteenth-century American fiction writer Nathaniel Hawthorne (see biography entry), was based on the history of his Puritan ancestors and the New England of his own day. Hawthorne documented Puritan hypocrisy in many of his stories (which he called "tales"), such as The Scarlet Letter (1850) and The House of Seven Gables (1851). One of his best-known tales is "Young Goodman Brown"(1835), which tells the story of a young, devout Puritan named Goodman Brown. One evening he leaves his wife, Faith, at home in Salem while he takes a walk in the woods. Disappointed to learn that others have been on the path before him, he happens upon a witches' sabbath, where he is shocked to see his own wife. Sick at heart, he returns to Salem the next morning. He has been changed from a happy and youthful man to a confused and bitter man, who goes to his grave convinced that the world is full of sinners.
The following excerpt is the conclusion of "Young Goodman Brown." It opens just after Brown has seen Faith, and he is still upset and shocked from the experience. He cannot decide whether it was a dream or reality. (Hawthorne frequently used actual historical figures in his stories; notice that here he mentions Goodie Cloyse, who was Sarah Cloyce, one of the condemned witches in the Salem trials.)
Things to remember while reading "Young Goodman Brown":
- Nathaniel Hawthorne was born over one hundred years after the end of the Salem, Massachusetts, witch craze.
- Hawthorne's ancestors had an especially strong impact on his imagination and on his name (Nathaniel added the "w" to his last name in order to separate himself from the evil acts of his ancestors). William Hathorne settled in Boston in the 1630s and was involved in the persecution of Quakers (members of the Society of Friends). William's son John was one of the chief judges in the Salem witchcraft trials (see Chapters 3 and 4).
From "Young Goodman Brown"
"Faith! Faith!" cried the husband [Goodman Brown], "look up to heaven, and resist the wicked one."
Whether Faith obeyed he knew not. Hardly had he spoken when he found himself amid calm night andsolitude , listening to a roar of the wind which died heavily away through the forest. He staggered against the rock, and felt it chill and damp; while a hanging twig, that had been all on fire, besprinkled his cheek with the coldest dew.
solitude: to be alone
meditate: to think about
sermon: a religious speech given as part of a worship service
venerable: regarded with respect
anathema: the rejection of something because it is believed to be cursed
The next morning young Goodman Brown came slowly into the street of Salem village, staring around him like a bewildered man. The good old minister was taking a walk along the graveyard to get an appetite for breakfast andmeditate hissermon, andbestowed a blessing, as he passed, on Goodman Brown. He shrank from thevenerable saint as if to avoidanathema. Old Deacon Gookin was atdomestic worship, and the holy words of his prayer were heard through the open window. "What God doth the wizard pray to?"quoth Goodman Brown. Goody Cloyse [Sarah Cloyce], that excellent old Christian, stood in the early sunshine at her ownlattice ,catechizing a little girl who had brought her a pint of morning's milk. Goodman Brown snatched away the child as from the grasp of thefiend himself. Turning the corner by the meeting house, he spied the head of Faith, with the pink ribbons, gazing anxiously forth, and bursting into such joy at sight of him that she skipped along the street and almost kissed her husband before the whole village. But Goodman Brown looked sternly and sadly into her face and passed on without a greeting.
Had Goodman Brown fallen asleep in the forest and only dreamed a wild dream of a witch-meeting?
Be it so if you will; but, alas! It was a dream of evilomen for young Goodman Brown. A stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not desperate man did he become from the night of that fearful dream. On the Sabbath day, when the congregation were singing a holypsalm, he could not listen because ananthem of sin rushed loudly upon his ear and drowned all the blessed strain. When the minister spoke from thepulpit with power andfervid eloquence , and, with his hand on the open Bible, of the sacred truths of our religion, and of saint-like lives and triumphant deaths, and of future bliss or misery unutterable, then did Goodman Brown turn pale, dreading lest the roof should thunder down upon the grayblasphemer and his hearers. Often, awaking suddenly at midnight, he shrank from the bosom of Faith; and at morning or eventide, when the family knelt down at prayer, he scowled and muttered to himself, and gazed sternly at his wife, and turned away. And when he had lived long, and was borne to his grave a hoary corpse, followed by Faith, an aged woman, and children and grandchildren, a goodly procession, besides neighbors not a few, they carved no hopeful verse upon his tombstone, for his dying hour was gloom.
catechizing: giving religious instruction
omen: an occurrence believed to predict a future event
psalm: (pronounced SALM) a sacred song or poem used in worship
anthem: a long song or hymn
pulpit: an elevated platform used in preaching or conducting worship service
blasphemer: one who seems not to care about rules and morals
What happened next . . .
Hawthorne went on to write The Scarlet Letter, which is the most widely read of his literary works. In 1852 Hawthorne was appointed overseas U.S. consul (official government representative) at Liverpool, England, where he served from 1853 to 1857. Upon returning to the United States in 1860, he and his wife settled into their first real home at Concord. After a mysterious illness, and refusing to take medical attention, in 1864 Hawthorne died in his sleep. Before his death he had started writing four new books, none of which was ever completed.
Did you know . . .
- Nathaniel Hawthorne believed that what one generation of a family did came back to haunt later generations. He believed it so strongly that it even showed up in one of his books, The House of the Seven Gables (which also happens to be a house in what used to be Salem Village): "the wrongdoing of one generation lives into the successive ones."
For Further Study
Bradley, Sculley, and others, ed. The American Tradition in Literature. New York: Gossett and Dunlap, 1974.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. Young Goodman Brown. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
The Hawthorne Treasury: Complete Novels and Selected Tales of Nathaniel Hawthorne. New York: Modern Library, 1999.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel (1804-1864)
Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864)
Accomplishments. Nathaniel Hawthorne specialized in short tales and longer romances. While publishing many short stories and sketches in various periodicals, Hawthorne published one short novel, Fanshawe (1828), and two collections of tales—Twice-Told Tales (1837) and Mosses from an Old Manse (1846)—before publishing the romances for which he is best known: The Scarlet Letter (1850), The House of the Seven Gables (1851), and The Blithedale Romance (1852). He continued to publish collections of his tales, publishing The Snow-Image and Other Twice-Told Tales in 1851, A Wonder-Book for Girls and Boys in 1852, and Tanglewood Tales for Girls and Boys in 1853. He published his last romance, The Marble Faun, in 1860. In addition to his fiction writing Hawthorne published the collection True Stories from History and Biography in 1851 and a political biography of his college friend and presidential hopeful, Franklin Pierce, in 1852.
Earning a Living. An 1825 graduate of Bowdoin College, Hawthorne struggled with the decision of which profession to enter. Hawthorne knew from childhood that he wanted to be a writer, but he also needed to make a living and found it hard to do both. As he wrote to his sister in 1820, “No Man can be a Poet & a Book-keeper at the same time.” Hawthorne ended up holding several government positions, from 1839 to 1840 as measurer of salt and coal at the Boston Customs House, from 1846 to 1849 as surveyor at the Salem Customs House, and from 1853 to 1857 as a consul in England. He found this work mind-numbing and believed that his writing suffered from it, but since his writing brought him only periods of security rather than a secure livelihood, he had no choice. The tension between the poet and the bookkeeper appeared in many of his works, often in essays such as “The Customs-House” (which introduces The Scarlet Letter ), where Hawthorne addressed readers directly to explain his theories of literary creation. Hawthorne’s tendency to disparage his own work in such pieces revealed not only his personal insecurity but also a more general concern about the validity of anyone trying to earn his living through fiction writing.
Sunshine and Shadows. Hawthorne’s preference for the short tale and for the romance was the result of his fascination with ambiguous symbolism and hidden darknesses. Hawthorne deliberately characterized his novel-length works as romances rather than novels because the form of the romance, as popularized by Sir Walter Scott and James Fenimore Cooper, allowed the author considerable leeway with historical materials, flexibility that would not be permitted by strict historical writing or by the format of the novel, which tended to operate in “real” rather than an imagined or distant time and to illustrate or replicate realistic events. By characterizing The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables as historical romances, Hawthorne was able to interpret New England’s Puritan history in a way that made larger points about contemporary American society; in The Blithedale Romance Hawthorne invented a fictional utopian community (drawn in part from his brief stay at Brook Farm) to comment generally on the reform movement.
Personal Life. Although friendly with several members of the Transcendentalist Club and sympathetic to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s interest in symbolic language, Hawthorne remained on the farthest fringes of this group Personally a shy and reserved man, Hawthorne married Sophia Peabody in 1842 and by doing so married into one of Salem’s most prominent families. His own family was considerably less demonstrative than hers; he found it painful and embarrassing to inform his family of his engagement, and no member of his family attended the wedding. Hawthorne died in 1864.
James R. Mellow, Nathaniel Hawthorne in His Times (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1980).