illustrated portrait of American author Nathaniel Hawthorne

Nathaniel Hawthorne

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How was Nathaniel Hawthorne connected to the Salem Witch Trials?

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Hawthorne wasn't just related to the judge of the Salem witch trials, but also to some of the trials' victims, such as John Proctor, and accusers such as Sarah Phelps. Much of Hawthorne's writing—The Scarlet Letter leaps to mind—can be seen as a way of dealing with the inherited guilt he clearly felt over his ancestors' involvement in such a dark chapter of American history. (It's no accident that sin and guilt are common themes in Hawthorne's work.)

It must have seemed to Nathaniel that his family name was cursed as a result of his ancestors' involvement in the Salem witch trials (even after he added a "w" to Hathorne). And so he sought to break that curse by showing how little he had in common with his unpleasant ancestors. In writing so many novels and stories in which innocent people are persecuted by overbearing Puritan authority figures, Hawthorne was distancing himself from the sins of his forebears, hoping to make a clean break with his family's dark history.

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Nathaniel Hawthorne's most direct link to the Salem Witch Trials was a family one.  His great-great-grandfather, John Hathorne, was a judge during the trials.  Hawthorne considered the Salem Witch Trials to be one of the greatest tragedies and most humiliating moments in American history, and he was ashamed of his ancestor as a result.  In order to differentiate himself from John Hathorne, Nathaniel added the "w" to his last name.

We can see Hawthorne's attempts to work through the sense of guilt he felt as a descendant of a man responsible for the senseless deaths of nineteen people, and the incarceration of a great many more, including a small child of four, Dorcas Good, who experienced an extreme mental break, as a result of her time in jail, a break from which she never recovered (she'd confessed in order to be with her mother after her mother had been accused).  Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables deals directly with the subject of ancestral guilt and whether or not such guilt, when left unaddressed, continues to follow one's descendants.

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