illustrated portrait of American author Nathaniel Hawthorne

Nathaniel Hawthorne

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How does Nathaniel Hawthorne's frequent focus on the past relate to the emergence of new American literature?

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After Hawthorne graduated from college he spent a long period in seclusion working on his writing. He had decided to become a freelance writer. He was to be one of the first such independent, self-supporting American writers because most popular writers were English and most reading material continued to be imported from England. Hawthorne was handicapped by the fact that America was such a raw country that there seemed to be little to write about that would interest American readers and certainly not European readers. Readers tended to be interested in the leisure class and their lifestyle and problems. Hawthorne decided to write about the American past, such as it was, because that was all there was to write about. He managed to attract an audience with books like The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables mainly because he was such an excellent writer. He continues to be read today because of his craftsmanship and impeccable style. He dealt with the Puritans and the early colonists because they provided the best material America had to offer an American freelance writer. Henry James (an American writer who moved to Europe and became a British subject because he felt his native land was too primitive for an artist) was a great admirer of Hawthorne. James said in a short  monograph on the New England author that Hawthorne was not as interested in morality and hidden human wickedness as his novels and stories might suggest; rather, Hawthorne thought, correctly, that they made interesting reading material.

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