Study Guide

The American Notebooks

by Nathaniel Hawthorne

The American Notebooks Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

In The American Notebooks Nathaniel Hawthorne reviews such topics as isolation, sin, the degeneration of families, and the subjugation of one person to another, common themes in his work. Hawthorne was one of the originators of the American short-story form, and he was a leading novelist of nineteenth century American letters. He began the observations, story ideas, and character sketches that make up The American Notebooks in 1835, when he was an unknown college graduate living in isolation in Salem, Massachusetts. The last entry of the notebooks is that of June, 1853, by which time Hawthorne had traveled in the northeastern United States and had married and had children. By then Hawthorne had also published his most successful works. The American Notebooks shows Hawthorne’s development as a writer; as such, it is an invaluable contribution to an understanding of his literary development. Some of the collection’s entries contain ideas that are important in his most famous fictional works.

The American Notebooks follows chronological order, tracing Hawthorne’s development over a period of eighteen years. The individual entries, however, are quite random in their makeup and contain adages, animal folklore, and biblical references that captivated Hawthorne. Observations of people whom he saw in the streets of nineteenth century Salem, Boston, and North Adams, Massachusetts, are mixed with flights of fancy that occurred to Hawthorne as he labored at his writing. Quotations from early eighteenth century newspapers and church books chronicle Hawthorne’s lifelong interest in New England history. In this sense, the notebooks provide not only a glimpse of Hawthorne’s close observation as a writer but also a picture of New England in the early-to-mid-nineteenth century.

The production of his novels, essays, and tales took up much of the winter months in Hawthorne’s adult life; the notebook entries were made mainly during the summer months as he traveled to and from Boston, out to western Massachusetts, and through the towns of Maine. The freer time of summer may account for the relatively unfocused form of the notebooks; however, the unfocused form shows the creative imagination of Hawthorne at work.

When he began The American Notebooks, Hawthorne was a recent graduate of Bowdoin College. He confounded his family by returning to the family home in Salem to use his time to read and practice the craft of writing. These early entries show Hawthorne at work on descriptions of long nature walks; these entries reflect his sadness, preoccupations, and fantasies. A particular entry notes an idea for a story—never to be produced—of “the fantasy of a man taking his life by instalments, instead of at one payment,—say the years of life alternately with ten years of suspended animation.” This was an odd but fitting idea for an artist who would later write novels that fused the fantastic with the mundane and the real. The early entries also hint at the major themes that Hawthorne would actively explore for all of his writing life. He records entries on decaying, degenerate families, and he makes notes on the evil in every human heart. He also plants the seeds for future fiction on the diseases of the soul.

By July, 1837, however, the notebooks begin to tell a different story. Hawthorne went on an extended summer visit to Horatio Bridge, a Bowdoin College classmate who lived in bachelor’s quarters in Augusta, Maine. In these early entries, Hawthorne records his walks through the streets of Augusta and his visits to the Irish and Nova Scotian shantytowns with his friend Bridge. Hawthorne makes detailed observations of the houses with sod roofs and an Irishwoman washing her clothes in a river. Hawthorne was still an unknown author with one book, Twice-Told Tales (1837), to his credit when he wrote the long descriptive passages of fishing for sturgeon, drinking...

(The entire section is 1618 words.)

The American Notebooks Bibliography (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Further Reading

Bell, Millicent, ed. Hawthorne and the Real: Bicentennial Essays. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2005. Collection of essays, commemorating the bicentennial of Hawthorne’s birth, that explore his connection to the “real” world and how he expressed this relationship in his writing. Includes discussions of Hawthorne and politics, slavery, feminism, and moral responsibility.

Hawthorne, Julian. Hawthorne and His Circle. New York: Harper & Row, 1903. Reminiscences and notes by his son on the times recounted in The American Notebooks. An illuminating second look at the individuals and ideas chronicled by Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Heart of Hawthorne’s Journals. Edited by Newton Arvin. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1929. Contains entries in Hawthorne’s journals that extend beyond the time period of The American Notebooks. Notes Hawthorne’s journal observations up to his time in England in 1866.

Matthiessen, F. O. American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman. New York: Oxford University Press, 1941. Critical interpretation of the mid-nineteenth century and Hawthorne’s place in it. The treatment of Hawthorne and his relation to American fiction is of particular merit for the reader of The American Notebooks.

Mellow, James R. Nathaniel Hawthorne in His Times. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1980. A complex and comprehensive investigation into Hawthorne’s development as a major writer of nineteenth century America. Essential to an understanding of the historical context behind The American Notebooks.

Person, Leland S. The Cambridge Introduction to Nathaniel Hawthorne. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. An accessible introduction to the author’s life and works designed for students and general readers. It places Hawthorne within the context of the political and philosophical developments of his times and provides a brief survey of Hawthorne scholarship.

Stewart, Randall, ed. The American Notebooks. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1932. Examines Hawthorne’s notebooks as they appear in manuscript form in the Pierpont Morgan Library. Points out the recurrent themes and character types in Hawthorne’s notebooks. Offers extensive historical notes on persons and places discussed in the notebooks.

Wineapple, Brenda. Hawthorne: A Life. New York: Knopf, 2003. A meticulously researched, evenhanded analysis of Hawthorne’s often contradictory life proposing that much of Hawthorne’s fiction was autobiographical. Includes more than one hundred pages of notes, a bibliography, and an index.