Article abstract: With a series of short stories and novels which bring to life New England’s Puritan past, Hawthorne achieved one of the most distinguished literary careers of the nineteenth century.
Nathaniel Hawthorne was born July 4, 1804, in Salem, Massachusetts. His great-great-grandfather, John Hathorne, was one of the three judges in the Salem witchcraft trials in 1692; his father, Nathaniel Hathorne, was a sea captain who died in Dutch Guinea when Nathaniel was four years old. Hawthorne added the “w” to his name when he was a young man. Hawthorne’s mother, née Elizabeth Manning, came from a Massachusetts family prominent in business. Her brother, Robert Manning, was a well-known pomologist who assumed much of the responsibility for Hawthorne’s care after the death of his father.
Hawthorne spent much of his adolescence in Raymond, Maine, where his Manning uncles owned property, and attended Bowdoin College in nearby Brunswick. He was a Bowdoin classmate of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Franklin Pierce (who would later become President of the United States). As a student, Hawthorne was adept in Latin and English, but was disciplined for gambling and faulty chapel attendance. He was a handsome young man of slender build, with dark hair and eyes. Although quiet, he had a reputation for conviviality and joining friends in clubs and outdoor sports.
Hawthorne took his degree in 1825—he stood eighteenth in a class of thirty-eight—and spent the next twelve years in Salem, where he read extensively and taught himself to write. The product of these twelve years was the indifferent novel Fanshawe: A Tale (1828) and more than forty stories and sketches, including such well-known pieces as “The Gentle Boy,” “Roger Malvin’s Burial,” and “My Kinsman, Major Molineux.” It was a rewarding apprenticeship in terms of his artistic accomplishment, and although it did not bring him much immediate fame or income, the publication of Twice-Told Tales in 1837 successfully launched his career.
In 1838, Hawthorne fell in love with Sophia Peabody of Boston, whom he married in 1842. During their courtship, he spent two years working at the Boston Custom House, and he joined the utopian community at Brook Farm for several months. Both of these experiences later proved fruitful for him as a writer. Hawthorne took his bride to live in the Old Manse in Concord, and there began a life as a happy and devoted husband and father of three children.
A second edition of Twice-Told Tales appeared in 1842, and in 1846, the year he left the Old Manse, Hawthorne published Mosses from an Old Manse. With these volumes, he began to receive high critical recognition. Edgar Allan Poe praised the second edition of Twice-Told Tales in a review that has become famous for its perceptive commentary on Hawthorne’s “invention, creation, imagination, originality.” When he left the Old Manse, Hawthorne was a mature artist, ready to write the novels for which he became famous.
With the help of influential friends, Hawthorne received in 1846 an appointment as surveyor of the Salem Custom House. He was dismissed from this position in 1849, a victim of the political spoils system, and then wrote his greatest work, The Scarlet Letter (1850). In the introduction to The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne settled what he perceived as some old injustices at the customhouse and invented the fiction of having found his story in an old manuscript in the customhouse.
In The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne develops his most powerful theme of the hardening of the heart in what he called the Unpardonable Sin. This theme, essentially an expansion of Saint Paul’s admonition in I Corinthians 13 to practice charity, is dramatized in miniature in “Ethan Brand: A Chapter from an Abortive Romance” (1850). Ethan Brand has sought knowledge tirelessly, searching for the Unpardonable Sin, and when he learns that in his quest he has allowed his heart to atrophy, he realizes that he has found the answer in himself: The Unpardonable Sin is the cultivation of the intellect at the expense of one’s humanity.
Thus, the Unpardonable Sin in The Scarlet Letter is not the very human adultery of Hester Prynne and the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, a sin that takes place before the novel opens and which results in Hester’s scarlet letter “A” that she has to wear on her bosom, but the relentless, unforgiving persecution of Dimmesdale by Hester’s cuckolded husband,...
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