Nathaniel Hawthorne Biography
Nathaniel Hawthorne decided to become a writer after graduating from college, but he had to take a number of “regular” jobs during his lifetime to make ends meet. He feared his time in the labor force might compromise his writing ability, but in fact, toil seems to have stimulated his authorship. His work environment during a stint as measurer in the Boston Customhouse is described in the preface to The Scarlet Letter, and his time spent working on an experimental farm resulted in the novel The Blithedale Romance. Despite years laboring at jobs other than those that involved his pen, Hawthorne managed to marry, raise three children, and, most important to the literary world, create a treasury of novels, histories, and story collections before he died at age sixty.
Facts and Trivia
- Hawthorne’s great-grandfather was a magistrate during the 1692 Salem witch trials; he was instrumental in decrying the guilt of a number of victims.
- Among Hawthorne’s many illustrious classmates at Bowdoin College were the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and future president Franklin Pierce.
- The author’s last name was originally spelled “Hathorne.” He changed it after graduating from college so that the spelling would more closely match the pronunciation.
- Hawthorne was friends with a number of Transcendentalists, including Emerson and Thoreau, though he never fully embraced their views. But that didn’t create any bad blood. Emerson was a pallbearer at Hawthorne’s funeral.
- Herman Melville dedicated his great novel Moby-Dick to Hawthorne, his good friend.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1902
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.
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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, Roger Chillingworth. Sadly, Chillingworth is a learned man to whom the implications of his uncharitable obsession with revenge are absolutely clear. The inescapable conflict between nature and civilization stands out tragically in The Scarlet Letter: Hester and Chillingworth are united in marriage, a civil institution, but it is a marriage without true feeling for Hester, whereas the passion between Hester and Dimmesdale is deep and natural yet adulterous and unsanctioned. The outcome is tragic for all three of them.
In The House of the Seven Gables (1851), Hawthorne returns to the Puritan past and works out another fable of the effects of sin, this time in the form of a hereditary curse. The story of the Pyncheons is a fable of guilt and expiation, of the impossibility of escaping the past. Hawthorne thought it a greater novel than The Scarlet Letter.
During his residence at the Old Manse in Concord, Hawthorne had formed close friendships with his Transcendentalist neighbors, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, William Ellery Channing, and Bronson Alcott. (The Old Manse had been built by Emerson’s grandfather.) Yet Hawthorne’s sensibilities were too burdened by a sense of sin for him to accept the optimism and idealism expressed by these thinkers. Furthermore, his experience at Brook Farm had made him distrust the ideals expressed in the notion of intellectuals living together communally. In The Blithedale Romance (1852), he satirized many of the goals and values of Utopian thinkers. The novel is exceptionally acute in its perceptions of human psychology and is a measure of the distance between the student of Puritanism and the sin in the human heart and the Transcendentalists with their lofty vision of human possibilities.
Hawthorne also published in 1852 The Life of Franklin Pierce. This campaign biography of his Bowdoin classmate led to Hawthorne’s appointment as United States consul in Liverpool, a post he held from 1853 to 1857. He left Liverpool to live in Italy for three years, an experience that culminated in The Marble Faun (1860). This novel made him one of the first American writers to treat the experiences of his countrymen in Europe, a theme developed by such later writers as Henry James, William Dean Howells, and Ernest Hemingway.
When he came home to the United States, Hawthorne bought a home in Concord, which he named The Wayside. After his death four years later while on a tour in Plymouth, New Hampshire, he was buried in Concord. By the time of his death he had earned a considerable reputation for his romances.
After the success of The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne had lived for three years in Lenox, Massachusetts, in the Berkshire Mountains, and had there established a close friendship with his literary neighbor, Herman Melville. Melville had been one of the first to recognize Hawthorne’s unique powers as a writer, and in a famous review—written anonymously—he had praised Hawthorne’s “great power of blackness.” Hawthorne’s influence certainly became one of the influences on Melville’s own masterpiece, Moby Dick: Or, The Whale (1851).
Melville was responding to Hawthorne’s skill in portraying imaginatively the mysteries of the human spirit. Hawthorne’s preferred approach to his fictions was through symbolism and allegory, a technique that locates his plots on the ambiguous dividing line between the real and the imaginary. Some critics, such as Poe and Henry James, faulted him for the indirectness of his method in such cloudy parables as “The Minister’s Black Veil” and “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” and Hawthorne himself admitted that “I am not quite sure that I entirely comprehend my own meaning in some of these blasted allegories.” His propensity for unfolding man’s struggle with sin in these romances prompted Melville to comment on Hawthorne’s “Calvinistic sense of Innate Depravity and Original Sin, from whose visitations, in some shape or other, no deeply thinking mind is always and wholly free.” Another great writer, D. H. Lawrence, saw in Hawthorne a genius for perceiving the most “disagreeable” secrets in man’s soul and presenting them in clever extended tropes and figures.
As an American writing in the nineteenth century, Hawthorne faced the problem of where to find his materials in a country short in a history of manners and morals. James Fenimore Cooper’s solution was the frontier, Melville’s the sea, and Poe’s the psyche. For Hawthorne, the answer lay in the Puritan past and its theology rich in moral and spiritual complexity. When Young Goodman Brown goes into the dark forest and is hosted by the Devil to a Black Mass, he comes to know evil in his soul. When Robin searches for his kinsman, Major Molineux, in the nighttime town, he experiences his own introduction to the dark side of man’s nature. In such stories of initiation and experience as these, Hawthorne shaped in fiction a superb body of moral philosophy that is unequaled in the dark stream of American literature.
Crews, Frederick C. The Sins of the Fathers: Hawthorne’s Psychological Themes. New York: Oxford University Press, 1966. A sensitive analysis of the psychological implications of Hawthorne’s fiction. Especially perceptive in its explication of Hawthorne’s sense of the past. Suggestive chapter entitled “Hawthorne, Freud, and Literary Value.”
Gerber, John C., ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of “The Scarlet Letter.” Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1968. A useful collection of analyses of Hawthorne’s masterpiece. Divided into essays on “Background,” “Form,” “Technique,” and “Interpretations.”
Gross, Seymour L., ed. A “Scarlet Letter” Handbook. San Francisco: Wadsworth Publishing Co., 1960. An especially useful work for beginning students, including an introduction, a generous collection of critical excerpts, topics and questions for discussion, and a selected bibliography of criticism.
Hawthorne, Julian. Hawthorne and His Circle. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1903. Reprint. New York: Archon Books, 1968. A reprint of the 1903 book by Hawthorne’s son. Rich source of intimate recollections.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The American Notebooks. Edited by Randall Stewart. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1932. The notebooks Hawthorne kept intermittently from 1837 to 1853. Excellently edited with discussions of Hawthorne’s character types, his adaptations of the notebooks in his fiction, and his recurrent themes. Indispensable for all students of Hawthorne.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The English Notebooks. Edited by Randall Stewart. New York: Russell and Russell, 1962. The notebooks Hawthorne kept while United States consul in Liverpool between 1853 and 1857.
Mellow, James R. Nathaniel Hawthorne in His Times. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1980. A detailed biography that portrays Hawthorne in relation to his contemporaries.
Newman, Lea Bertani Vozar. A Reader’s Guide to the Short Stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Boston: G. K. Hall and Co., 1979. Extremely helpful guide to the short stories, spelling out for each story its publication history, circumstances of composition, sources, influences, and relationship to other works by Hawthorne. Includes summaries of interpretations and criticism.
Stewart, Randall. Nathaniel Hawthorne: A Biography. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1948. A skillful interpretation of Hawthorne by an excellent scholar. Very well written.
Wineapple, Brenda. Hawthorne: A Life. New York: Knopf, 2003. An analysis of Hawthorne’s often contradictory life that proposes that many of Hawthorne’s stories are autobiographical.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 244
Nathaniel Hawthorne was born in Salem, Massachusetts, on July 4, 1804. He attended Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine (1821-1824), and at this time began writing short stories for magazines, including some of them in his first collection, Twice Told Tales (1837). Although he is sometimes considered by critics as an “antitranscendentalist” because of his preoccupation with evil, the dangers of sexuality, and the hypocrisy of human beings, he did live for one year at the experimental transcendentalist community Brook Farm along with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Although his work does not celebrate nature as theirs does, it often does use it as a vehicle to explore issues of art and human behavior. Hawthorne married painter and transcendentalist Sophia Peabody in 1842, about six months before the publication of “The Birthmark,” causing some critics to link his treatment of sexuality in that story to his personal discomfort with his relationship with his new wife. Hawthorne and his wife moved to The Old Manse in Concord, Massachusetts. He named his second collection of short stories, which includes “The Birthmark,” after this house. His work was not at first clearly understood by all critics, but the publication of The Scarlet Letter in 1850 established Hawthorne as an important American writer. He is now regarded as one of the most influential authors of the nineteenth century. Hawthorne died on May 19, 1864, and was buried in the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord among other writers of his generation, including Emerson and Thoreau.