Nathaniel Hawthorne

Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864). Nathaniel Hawthorne was born in Salem, Massachusetts on July 4th, 1804. Hawthorne participated in the political and literary circles of his time, contributing both comfort and controversy to his contemporaries. As a staunch Democrat, Hawthorne assisted the American government with its duties towards the public; in fact, one of his school friends was Franklin Pierce, one of the presidents of the United States. The two men often conversed on political issues such as the rise of early feminism and the slave problem in the South. When he pursued his literary inclinations, he published over 100 short stories and five novels. His short story collections include Twice Told Tales (1837), Mosses from an Old Manse (1846), The Snow –Image and Other Twice-Told Tales (1851), A Wonder Book for Girls and Boys (1852), and Tanglewood Tales for Girls and Boys (1853). His novels include Fanshawe (1828), The Scarlet Letter (1850), The House of the Seven Gables (1851), The Blithedale Romance (1852), and The Marble Faun (1860). His focus on the past of the American nation, especially the Puritan era, his delving into the social and psychological forces underlying human behavior, his reliance on symbols to convey rich and ambivalent value to his stories and romances, his insistence on finding and understanding the sources of humanity ‘s darker side, and his exploration of such themes as isolation, monomania, guilt, concealment, social reform, and redemption not only created a following among aspiring writers but also brought him into the nation’s classrooms, where The Scarlet Letter, to name only his most famous work, still holds a firm place: more than eighty editions of it are available in formats ranging from textbooks, casebooks, and paperbacks to audio cassettes and CD-ROMs (Idol).

            Hawthorne grew up with his mother, Elizabeth Hathorne, and his two sisters, Elizabeth and Louisa. His father played a short role in his life, for he died in 1808 in Surinam (Dutch Guiana) of yellow fever (Idol). This tragedy forced Hawthorne’s mother to search for a stable financial foundation for her family. Traveling in America, the Hawthornes finally settled to live near relatives. Young Nathaniel experienced a foot injury as he grew older, one that gave him no choice but to stay indoors. During this time he developed a love for literature, being inspired by such writers as John Bunyan and Sir Walter Scott. So many of his hours were devoted to his books that he decided to become a writer himself. One of his earliest jobs consisted in working for a nearby book company.

            In order to be closer to his mother and sisters, in 1821, Hawthorne chose to attend the frontier college of Bowdoin, where he met some lifelong friends including Franklin Pierce, Horatio Bridge, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Jonathan Cilley (Idol).  Preceding his graduation, his mother and sisters had returned to Salem, where he now joined them in 1825, spending the decade that followed in a “dismal and squalid chamber” in his pursuit of literary fame. Completing the romance begun at Bowdoin, he offered Fanshawe to publishers; finding no one interested, he printed it at his own expense (Idol). The short novel centers on the story of a pale youth and loyal college student, Fanshawe, who falls in love with a beautiful woman named Ellen. Ellen, given into the hands of Dr. Melmouth from her father overseas, spends her time with Edward Walcutt, another college student attracted to the lady. Together, they form a sort of romantic triangle. One day, Ellen is abducted by a mysterious man named Butler, from the assistance of Hugh Crombie, a tavern owner supposedly penitent from his turbulent past as an alcoholic. Fanshawe searches for Ellen with Dr. Melmouth and Edward, but soon abandons both men. He discovers Ellen and Butler in a secluded forest grove and rescues the lost damsel. Yet despite his heroics, Fanshawe refuses to be with Ellen, believing himself to be unworthy of her love. In Hawthorne’s view, women seem to be gaining leverage over their once domineering husbands, an idea that will later influence his later novels. Though Dr. Melmouth is the head of his household, Mrs. Melmouth often matches him in power simply with her forceful personality and common sense. Despite its intriguing themes though, the novel didn’t gain Hawthorne any literary success, a harsh fact which infuriated him.

            Hawthorne was hired into the Custom House in Salem, Massachusetts after he had married and had several kids. This place allowed him to engage in political affairs. The Custom House hosted retired war veterans from both the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. It was here that he discovered a historical document referring to a woman condemned in Salem for adultery. Based on his findings, Hawthorne constructed a fictional account of the story: his most famous work, The Scarlet Letter. The novel takes place in late seventeenth century New England. Hester Prynne is condemned for committing adultery by a Puritan community. As punishment, she wears a scarlet letter A on her breast as a token of her shame. She raises the child conceived from the adultery, Pearl. Arthur Dimmesdale, a pastor and Hester’s secret partner, suffers from his guilt in secret, partly due to the psychological manipulation of Hester’s husband, the scientist Roger Chillingworth. Hester becomes a kind of symbol of the struggling female in a male dominated society; more so, she resembles the Romantic notion of the alienated individual, a person who can longer accept what her community dictates as the standard of existence. It wasn’t until the twentieth century when literary scholars, in the wake of women’s liberation ushered by writers such as Virginia Woolf, gave Hawthorne’s book critical attention in regards to gender roles.

            The House of the Seven Gables was written a year after Hawthorne’s masterpiece. The novel concerns itself with issues such as the effects of the sins of past generations upon the present one, how history influences the here and now. The house has a disturbing history; Matthew Maule, rightful owner of the home, was executed by a stern magistrate named Mr. Pyncheon. Maule swears a curse on the Pyncheons before his death, a curse that seems to ring true when Mr. Pyncheon dies mysteriously in the house. Many years later, a recluse related to the Pyncheons, Hepzibah, lives all alone in the house of the seven gables with her brother, Clifford, a man falsely accused of a crime by the honorable Judge Pyncheon, and Phoebe, a bright, loving cousin of Hepzibah who spreads her charm all over the home. One night, after attempting to gain information from Clifford as to a supposed secret inheritance in the house, Judge Pyncheon dies from mysterious circumstances. Yet his passing brings about a certain “charm-lifter;” the house no longer seems accursed from Maule’s omen. Hepzibah, Phoebe, and Clifford are able to move on with their lives in happiness.

            In 1841, Hawthorne settled with some people on Brook Farm, a private area dedicated to a utopian ideal of socialism. The few months he lived there proved disappointing, since his creativity fell to nil as he tended hogs and mucked out stables (Idol). Nevertheless, The Blithedale Romance, published in 1852, drew from the events in Brook Farm. A first person narrator recounts his stay in a private farm with Zenobia, a beautiful, princess like woman, Priscilla, a shy, mysterious sister to Zenobia, and an unrealistic, idealistic philanthropist named Hollingsworth (whose name rhymes with “Chillingworth,” representing the link between both men losing their rationale to their own personal ideas). The book centers on how their stay together ultimately fails and the conspiracies that arise when the narrator learns the secret lives of each of his friends. In the case of the turbulent relationship between Zenobia and Hollingsworth, Hawthorne once again draws attention to the plight of the nineteenth century female.

            It wasn’t until 1860 when Hawthorne’s last novel, The Marble Faun, appeared. The work was inspired by Hawthorne’s excursions into the artistic world of Italy with his wife. The novel takes place in Italy and deals with a murder scene that sets the events of the plot into motion.  His principal themes are guilt, concealment, transformation, forgiveness, and redemption. These themes become intertwined in the relations and actions of four young acquaintances–Hilda and Miriam Schaefer, aspiring painters; Kenyon, a sculptor; and Donatello, the scion of an aristocratic Italian family (Idol).

            At the end of his life, Hawthorne suffered from personal tragedies. His wife and a few of his children had already died, and Hawthorne’s own health remained in jeopardy. He attempted to write a few more novels before his death without success. The Civil War began defining the nation in 1860. In contrast to supporters of the abolitionist movement such as Harriet Beecher Stowe, Henry David Thoreau, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, Hawthorne heavily disagreed with the necessity of the war. In his eyes, the Civil War was nothing more than a greedy attempt from the North to take control of the South and exploit it economically. Slavery may have still been a factor in the war, but it was most certainly not the chief cause of Lincoln’s decisions regarding the Confederacy. This view made Hawthorne quite unpopular for a time.

            Nathaniel Hawthorne died on May 18th, 1864 in Franklin Pierce’s house. He had arrived at Pierce’s home after unsuccessfully traveling the country as a sick man. His funeral was held at Sleepy Hollow, where he was buried. Among the people who attended his funeral were Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.



John L., Jr. “Nathaniel Hawthorne.” The American Renaissance in New England: Second Series. Ed. Wesley T. Mott. Detroit: Gale Group, 2000. Literature Resource Center. Web. 21 Jan. 2014. Vol. 223.




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