Why is Nathaniel Hawthorne considered a Romantic?
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Hawthorne is America's first great classic authors, from all perspectives—that of his 19th-century contemporaries and of today as well. Henry James considered The Scarlet Letter to be the first major work of the New World, worthy of entering the ranks of European literature, and posterity has agreed. Yet Hawthorne is strangely against the times. His relentless obsession with the sins of the past, those of his own ancestors in the Salem witch trials, and those of the young republic, stands in strong contrast to the cheery optimism and progressivist thinking of Jacksonian America. Hawthorne's collection of Twice-Told Tales (1837) shows us a writer wrestling with the image of America, determined to reveal the ironies and ambiguities of the Puritan "errand in the wilderness," the pious manner in which New England chose to view itself. In The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne bequeaths to us the richest image we have of the Puritan mind, a mind obsessed with spiritual salvation as it coexists with human happiness and the life of the community. Yet this retrospective look into the past is inextricably of its own mid-19th-century moment: concerned with political dissent, with the failure of Revolution in Europe, with the problematic role of a strong woman in a repressive culture. Hawthorne's book captures, as no other American text does, the high political drama of freedom and revolt, somewhat in the Romantic landscape, but it highlights even more powerfully the processes of interpretation and analysis, the ways by which we read the heart and come to knowledge.
Nathaniel Hawthorne is actually considered by critics at large to be a "Dark Romantic" rather than a Romantic, though of course it is recognised that this fits into the wider definition of Romanticism, though with subtle differences. Hawthorne, in some ways like "Young Goodman Brown," was a very handsome man with a loving wife. He earned great respect when he was middle-aged because of his writings. However, he became increasingly dissatisfied, remote and disappointing to his friends. It was as if his dark insights into the human heart had cast gloom into his own. His fiction, which has survived the changing tastes of many generations and is more admired today than when it was written, is fuelled by an awareness of the guilt that accompanies a Puritan conscience. This shadow of guilt appears to have darkened Hawthorne's life.
This, in a sense, helps us understand the meaning of the phrase "Dark Romantic," for Dark Romantics were concerned with the conflict between good and evil in all of us and focused on our capacity for evil and our inner sin.
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