Nathaniel Hawthorne

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(Gothic Literature)

Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804 - 1864)

American novelist, short story writer, and essayist.

Hawthorne is an acknowledged master of American fiction. His novel The Scarlet Letter (1850) is one of the most-read classics of American literature, and several of his short stories are ranked as masterpieces of the genre. Hawthorne's works reflect his dark vision of human nature, as he frequently portrays Puritanism as an expression of humanity's potential for cruelty, obsession, and intolerance. His strange, haunting tales of guilt, isolation, and death betray his fascination with the macabre even as they plumb the depths of human psychology and moral responsibility. With Edgar Allan Poe, Hawthorne was instrumental in the evolution of American Gothic fiction, moving away from sensationalism to focus on the aesthetic and emotional response to horror and dissecting the mental processes of his characters. His highly allegorical works use Gothic conventions to explore questions about human actions and their consequences and the effects of sin on the human psyche. Gothic elements are seen in his most important works, from the short story "Young Goodman Brown" (1835) to The Scarlet Letter to his last completed novel, The Marble Faun (1860). All these works are highly symbolic, challenging moral fantasies that are chilling in their dark assessment of the human character. The Gothic world Hawthorne created in his fiction—with its his gloomy settings, concern with death, and explorations of the demonic—is central to his moral and thematic purposes as it allowed him a wider fictive realm through which he could tell the dark truths about the world as he perceived it.


Born in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1804, Hawthorne was descended from a line of staunch Puritans that included William Hathorne (Hawthorne himself added the "w" to the family name), an ardent defender of the faith who participated in the persecution of Quakers during the seventeenth century, and his son John Hathorne, a presiding judge at the infamous Salem witch trials. This melancholy heritage was augmented by the premature death of Hawthorne's father, which left the four-year-old Nathaniel in the care of his grief-stricken and reclusive mother. Spending much time alone during his childhood, Hawthorne developed an intensely introspective nature and eventually came to believe that the misfortunes of his immediate family were the result of divine retribution for the sins of his ancestors.

An avid reader with an affinity for the works of John Bunyan and Edmund Spenser, Hawthorne began to write while attending Bowdoin College, where he met Franklin Pierce and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. After graduation, Hawthorne returned to his mother's home in Salem where he passed a twelve-year literary apprenticeship, occasionally publishing unsigned tales in journals but more often than not destroying his work. He published a novel, Fanshawe: A Tale (1828), but later withdrew it from circulation and burned...

(The entire section is 18,623 words.)