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 every available copy. Many of Hawthorne's early pieces appeared in The Token, an annual anthology published by Samuel Goodrich, during the early 1830s. Goodrich played a major role in the development of the young author's career, naming him editor of the American Magazine of Useful and Entertaining Knowledge in 1836 and arranging for the publication of his first collection of short stories, Twice-Told Tales (1837), one year later. Twice-Told Tales contains historical sketches and stories displaying the dark themes and skillful technique that would characterize his later work. Although lavishly praised by critics, the volume sold poorly, and an enlarged edition issued in 1842 fared no better. This pattern of critical appreciation and public neglect continued throughout Hawthorne's literary career, and he was forced to occupy a series of minor governmental posts in order to supplement the meager income from his writings.
Soon after the publication of Twice-Told Tales, Hawthorne became engaged to Sophia Peabody, a neighbor who had admired his work. Hoping to find a permanent home for himself and Sophia, Hawthorne joined Brook Farm in 1841. An experimental utopian community outside of Boston, Brook Farm was intended to be an agricultural cooperative that would provide its members—through the principle of shared labor—with a living while allowing them leisure for artistic and literary pursuits. The community was founded by the literary critic and social reformer George Ripley, and various prominent authors expressed interest in the scheme, including Margaret Fuller, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Theodore Parker, and Orestes Brownson. Hawthorne's enthusiasm for the venture quickly wore off, however. He left after six months, convinced that intellectual endeavor was incompatible with hard physical exertion. Although his literary efforts at Brook Farm proved a failure, Hawthorne kept careful records of his time there in his journals and letters; these later informed the plot, physical settings, and characters of The Blithedale Romance (1852).
In July of 1842, Hawthorne married Peabody, and the couple moved into a large house in Concord, Massachusetts, known locally as the "Old Manse." There Hawthorne wrote many of the pieces included in his next collection of stories and sketches, Mosses from an Old Manse (1846). He worked in the Salem customhouse from 1846 to 1849, when he was fired because of a change in political administrations. After his dismissal, in an intense outpouring of creative effort, he wrote The Scarlet Letter in just four months. The book was an immediate success, and Hawthorne soon followed with a number of others, including two important novels, The House of the Seven Gables (1851) and The Blithedale Romance, as well as a volume of short pieces, The Snow-Image, and Other Tales (1851). The years 1850–1852 were Hawthorne's most intensely productive period. After this time, he had great difficulty writing any more fiction. His position as United States consul at Liverpool from 1853 to 1857 left him with enough free time to write, but during that period he could only fill up his notebooks with jottings from his travels in Europe. In 1860 he did manage to finish one last novel, The Marble Faun, which was drawn from his tour of Italy, but the remaining years of his life were marked by a frustrating series of false starts. His unfinished manuscripts were periodically interrupted by marginal notes asking, "What meaning?" Hawthorne died on May 19, 1864 in Plymouth, New Hampshire, at the age of fifty-nine.
Hawthorne's stories written shortly after he graduated from college indicate his early interest in the occult and the supernatural. "The Hollow of the Three Hills" (1830) and "An Old Woman's Tale" (1830), for example, use Gothic devices and contain witches and burial grounds. They display as well Hawthorne's concern with questions of religion and morality, sin and guilt. Stories written just a few years later and published in the 1837 volume Twice-Told Tales, such as "Roger Malvin's Burial," "The Minister's Black Veil," and "The May-Pole of Merry Mount," illustrate Hawthorne's mastery of the technique of the symbolic tale, as they present deeply felt moral and psychological concerns in a highly evocative fictional form. Other important fabular tales in Twice-Told Tales include "The Prophetic Pictures," in which a painter captures the fates as well as the faces of his subjects; "Dr. Heidegger's Experiment," about an elixir of life; and "Legends of the Province-House," which features three rationalized ghost stories.
Mosses from an Old Manse is often regarded as Hawthorne's best collection of short stories. It features "Young Goodman Brown," regarded as perhaps Hawthorne's greatest work of Gothic fiction, which expresses the darkest and most universal truths about human nature with particular simplicity and intensity. In the story, Young Goodman Brown goes into the forest one night for an admittedly evil purpose, leaving behind his young wife, Faith. There he meets the devil and, in a gradual series of revelations, learns that everyone in his world—including his minister, the pious old woman who taught him his catechism, all the elders of his church, even his father and mother—has gone into the forest before him, and has met with the devil. He returns to the village a changed man: stern, sad, darkly meditative, and distrustful; he has lost all faith in the human race and he spends a gloomy life cut off from the chain of humanity. Other tales of psychological horror in Mosses from an Old Manse include "The Birthmark," about a scientist who tries to erase a slight flaw in his wife's complexion and obliterates her entirely; "Rappaccini's Daughter," in which a young student falls in love with a girl raised in a garden of poisons; and "Ethan Brand," about the unpardonable sin which a laborer-turned-showman claims to have discovered after a long search.
Gothic elements and devices abound in Hawthorne's longer fiction as well. The Scarlet Letter, which treats the cruel and unusual punishment of an adulteress, begins with the discovery of a dusty manuscript found in a garret from which the narrator learns the story he recounts. The House of the Seven Gables is a Gothic romance in which a monstrous house infects and corrupts all who live in it. Hawthorne's last completed novel, The Marble Faun, is a symbolic romance as well as a story of a murder and a parable of the Fall of Man. In these works, as in his shorter fiction, Hawthorne uses gothicism to create a sense of mood and place in which to explore the somber truths about human nature, morality, and the struggles of the human soul.
Critics have long acknowledged Hawthorne to be among the United States' most important writers. He projected profound moral concerns on a distinctly American background and sought to interpret the spiritual history of a nation. He is regarded as one of the architects of the modern short story and an important figure in the development of Gothic American fiction. His portrayal of the protagonists in The Scarlet Letter set the standard for psychological realism for generations of writers. Through his depiction of the consequences of Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale's adulterous union, Hawthorne explored the historical, social, theological, and emotional ramifications of sin, concealment, and guilt. In this novel as in his other fiction, he used gothicism as a vehicle to investigate the dark side of the human soul, not terrifying readers but horrifying them with clinical depictions of the inner workings of his characters' minds. Critics who have investigated Hawthorne's Gothic vision have focused on the Gothic influences on his work, his use of particular Gothic devices for symbolic purposes, the thematic importance of horror in his fiction, and his concern with sin and evil. They have also paid particular attention to the relationship between religion and the fantastic in Hawthorne's work and to his use of the supernatural to explore the psychological and social effects of guilty knowledge.