Nathaniel Hawthorne’s works established him as one of the most unique authors of the 19th century. With works such as The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne not only entertained his audience, he made them look at their own life and compare it to 17th century Puritan New England. He also brought readers to the realization of how harsh and difficult the period of American History was. Hawthorne’s unique style of writing and his ability to probe deep into the human conscience made him one of Early America’s most greatly admired authors.
The Hawthornes had already left their legacy with the town of Salem leaving Nathaniel Hawthorne a long rich history of ancestry in the town. In 1630, William Hawthorne made the Journey to the New World with John Winthrop, the first governor of Massachusetts. Two of Hawthorne’s relatives who were directly involved with the Salem witch trials, also left their mark on the town. Hawthorne carried a direct relation to Judge Hathorne himself, being the primary cause of Hawthorne later adding a “w” to his name. Another of his relatives, Phillip English, was accused of witchcraft. These events definitely affected Hawthorne, even after the name change. Even as a grown man he used to say he could “still hear the ghosts in the old houses of Salem…” (Manley 23).
His father was occupied with a Salem shipping company. His occupation frequently took him away on voyages delivering spices and silks. One day, he returned to Salem to find his wife had given birth to a new son. He had been born on the 4th of July in 1804 and was given the name Nathaniel. His father loved Nathaniel, affectionately called “Nath,” dearly, but could not spend much time with him because of his job. One fateful day, he was assigned to captain a ship on a voyage to Suriname, in South America. A few weeks later, Hawthorne received the devastating news that the rampaging Yellow Fever had put an end to his father’s life. Although Hawthorne was greatly saddened by his father’s death, it did not have the distinguishing affect on his life that it did on his mother’s. She became withdrawn almost to the extent of reclusive. The rest of her life was lived in a state of melancholy. Hawthorne loathed to be in close proximity to his mother. He spent a large portion of childhood at the wharves in Salem, watching the schooners come in bringing silks and spices. Hawthorne’s life reflected his great love of the ocean, which probably originated at the now famous wharves.
At the age of nine, one of the most significant events in Hawthorne’s life occurred. The typical New England boy, Hawthorne was very physically active and athletic. One fateful day, while Hawthorne was playing ball, he injured his foot. Not only was his foot damaged, but it grew together improperly and created a problem which would ail him for the rest of his life.
After his accident, Hawthorne was confined to his bed because he had lost mobility. During this time, Hawthorne read many books that would became his favorites, and also have an impact on his writing. These books included Pilgrim’s Progress, by Bunyan, and Faerie Queen, by Spenser. He also enjoyed reading Shakespeare. When the condition of his leg improved, he put on small plays for his sister, who also admired Shakespeare.
At this point in his life, Hawthorne became mildly reclusive because he had been accustomed to sitting inside reading all day due to the fact that he could not walk properly. He mostly confined himself to his room where he began writing. Hawthorne “founded” a hand-printed magazine, The Spectator, which include some of Hawthorne’s early literature. He filled his magazine with some of his personal humor. His most amiable times were spent in his “Printing Office” working on his magazine. This appears to be the first time Hawthorne became seriously interested in writing.
As Hawthorne’s became older, he began to make plans to attend college. The College his Uncle chose was Bowdoin College. The first class at Bowdoin College consisted of seven members. His Uncle, who paid his expenses, chose this simplistic and ancient college. Its classes were modeled after Harvard’s with a strong emphasis on Latin, Greek, and moral character (Hoeltje 53-54). During his attendance there, Hawthorne became friends with two of his soon to be illustrious classmates, Franklin Pierce and Henry David Thoreau.
When Hawthorne returned from college, he decided to pursue writing further. His Uncle became incensed that he had paid for Hawthorne’s education, yet Hawthorne had ignored his requests for him to go into the stagecoach business. His mother shared his Uncles anger due to the fact that Hawthorne no longer pitied his mother in her state of continual grief.
As Hawthorne matured, he would produce many manuscripts. His first manuscript was Seven Tales of My Native Land. Many publishers rejected the Novel. Eventually, someone finally agreed to publish the novel. The man delayed so long in publishing the work that Hawthorne, in a fit of rage, burned the manuscript. This was a major setback for Hawthorne, but it would not last long. Throughout his life, whenever he found a copy of the printed book, he would burn it.
In his first years upon returning from college, Hawthorne produced a romance novel called Fanshawe. The novel was about a girl who is attending “Harley College” who is so beautiful that two men fall in love with her. Fanshawe is taking a walk in the woods when he observes someone trying to kidnap the girl. He foils the kidnapper’s plans, but refuses all rewards and dies a young man. The kidnapper marries the girl.
His next manuscript, printed in 1826, was Twice Told Tales, which became a very popular book. Edgar Allen Poe became a well-known advocate of the book. He thought Hawthorne to be a pure writer and said that his tone was very effective. His only complaint about the book was a discrepancy with the title. He felt Twice Told Tales was an improper name for the novel because he felt the tales in the book “would be told more than a thousand times over” (Online). Henry W. Longfellow also loved the book and said of it “Live ever sweet book” (Manley 80).
As Hawthorne continued to age, he looked at the prospect or marrying someone. The Peabodys had been friends with the Hawthornes for years. Hawthorne began to make frequent visits to the girls of the household. Although Elizabeth Peabody took a great interest in Hawthorne, he was truly in love with her sister Sophia. Sophia was somewhat of an invalid. When Hawthorne first came to visit, she remained upstairs in her room. Eventually, Sophia also fell in love with Hawthorne. They would take long walks by the wharves and eventually they knew they were both in love.
Hawthorne became increasingly excited at the prospect of marriage. He decided they should live in a utopian type community called “Brook Farm.” Snow and other bad weather constantly plagued the farm and Hawthorne decided this environment was too unstable to raise a family in. They were married the next June. They spent their honeymoon in Concorde at “The Old Manse,” the former home of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Sophia and Hawthorne quickly fell in love with its beauty and scenery.
While at the Old Manse, Hawthorne published a novel based on his experiences at Brook Farm. The narrator of the tale, Miles Cloverdale, symbolizes the same skeptical overseer at Brook Farm. Many other characters in the book are based on acquaintances at Brook farm (Cohen 67).
Hawthorn’s first child, a daughter, was born in 1844. Hawthorne named her “Una” after the heroine of Faerie Queen, the book he loved so much as a child. Near the same time, Sophia’s sister, husband of the great educator Horace Mann, also gave birth to a child. It was a joyous time for both families.
While at The Old Manse, Hawthorne enjoyed the friendship of two other authors, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Hawthorne, Sophia, Thoreau, and Emerson frequently took ice-skating expeditions down the frozen Concorde River. They also went for long walks in the forest and listened to Emerson and Thoreau with their naturalistic skills. These would prove to be long and lasting friendships for Hawthorne.
Later, Hawthorne left Concorde to return back to Salem. He took a position at the Salem Customs House as a surveyor. Although he did not particularly delight in his position, he enjoyed the prestige it brought to his family. Whenever possible, Hawthorne would take time off of his job to stroll down the wharves and watch the ships as he did as a child. Hawthorne was a staunch Democrat and when in 1848 Zachary Taylor was elected president, the Whigs of Salem signed a petition demanding his removal from the office. After this Hawthorne returned to writing.
Hawthorne was extremely resentful at his removal from his position at the Customs House. After leaving the Customs House, Hawthorne published the novel The Scarlet Letter. In the introduction to the novel, Hawthorne dedicated two paragraphs to express his contempt of the town of Salem. Although this angered many Salemites, the book became very popular, even with many Salemites. According to John Clendenning, “The novel is controlled by a single idea – the suffering that results from sin”(114). In the book, Hawthorne reveals that in Puritan New England, a sinner was not necessarily physically isolated, but socially isolated. This isolation led to the suffering of Hester Prynne. This romance can be easily felt by its audience as well as understood. We sympathize with Hester Prynne although she has committed a crime. Such was the power of Hawthorne’s work.
Finally, Hawthorne had had enough of Salem. He packed his bags and moved to Lenox, Massachusetts. The citizens of Salem that had not resented him after The Scarlet Letter’s publishing despised him now. He hated the town so much that when he left he stated, “I am now a citizen of somewhere else” (Manley 136).
In Lenox, Hawthorne published another novel called The House of the Seven Gables. Hawthorne had trouble writing this novel because, unlike The Scarlet Letter, it had to be written in different tones (Miller 109). E.P. Whipple greatly admired the novel. He thought the former part of the book was much better than the latter, however. He felt that the latter parts of the book did not have the same force and precision of the earlier parts (Crowley 147).
Hawthorne also used this novel to express his hatred of Salem, especially that of Senator Charles W. Upham, who had played a large part in his removal for the Customs House. He modeled the villain of the novel after the character of Upham. He was true to his word when he threatened to “spike Upham with his pen”(Wood 14). In the publishing of the novel, Hawthorne encountered another problem. The Pyncheon family in the novel had an entirely fictional basis, yet after the publishing an actual Salemite family of Pyncheons turned up demanding Hawthorne change the name in the book. Hawthorne wrote his publisher Fields: “I wonder when, if ever, and how soon, I shall get a just estimate of how many jackasses there are in this ridiculous world” (Wood 104).
In 1850, while Hawthorne was on a picnic, he met a man named Herman Melville. Both had read each other’s writings and done favorable reviews on them. In the course of the meeting, a thunderstorm came up forcing them to take shelter. During this time, they became better acquainted. As they became good friends, Melville would frequently ride to Hawthorne’s to visit him or they would take walks and discuss each other’s works. In 1851, Melville published Moby Dick and dedicated it to Hawthorne because of his love for the sea.
Once again Hawthorne decided it was time to move on. He packed up again and moved back to Concorde. He purchased the deed to a house he called “The Wayside,” which was the former home of Louisa May Alcott.
In March of 1853, Pierce appointed Hawthorne as Consul to Liverpool, England. At first Hawthorne was dismayed at the prospect of such a long sea voyage to England. But he would not be downhearted for long; his son sad that slightly later in the voyage he became at ease with the sea. During the voyage his health seemed to improve along with his disposition.
When they reached London, they found their hotel boring and drab, however, the children found delight in a fish tank in the basement which contained turtles. Later they moved to a hotel often frequented by sea captains whom Hawthorne frequently conversed with. There he met a man named Henry Bright who wrote of Hawthorne a parody of “Song of Hiawatha” called “Song of Consul Hawthorne.” Later he would meet Elizabeth Barrette Browning and her husband Robert with whom he would become good friends.
While in England, Hawthorne made several visits to his favorite English author’s homes such as Shakespeare, Byron, and Wordsworth. He was especially inspired by Byron’s home where he fell in love with the Greek-influenced gardens. He also visited the home of Sir Walter Scott in Scotland. Later Hawthorne would publish “The English Book,” an account of his literary pilgrimage. Later he would also publish “Our Old Home,” a tale of his consulship to Liverpool.
The family then decided to visit other European countries. The visited France for a short time, but Hawthorne hated it and left for Italy immediately. For Una’s 13th birthday, the family decided to take her along The Appian Way in Rome where they visited ancient statues and tombs. Hawthorne had been experiencing mild depression, but as he ventured through The Way, his spirits lifted. He became fascinated with the statues, but was especially partial to the statue of a marble faun. Later he would write a book, The Marble Faun, based upon it. The book was much different from any of his other works. Said Nina Baym, “It’s point of view is more unorthodox…and it’s anguish more extreme, than in any of the other romances” (Bloom 99).
Finally, Hawthorne decided to return to his home to Connecticut. On the voyage home, Hawthorne met Harriet Beecher Stowe. He found her dull and boring because she was constantly rambling about the evils of slavery as portrayed in her monumental book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Hawthorne arrived in America at a time of dismay and confusion in the nation’s history. John Brown, a native of Massachusetts, had been convicted of treason and hung. His old friend in the senate, Charles Sumner, had been beaten with a cane because of his views. Soon the nation entered into the Civil War. At this time, many northerners turned away from Hawthorne because of his relationship with Pierce, a staunch copperhead. But Sophia used her skills as a painter to paint artwork, which was auctioned off with the proceeds going to support the Union troops. Soon people realized Hawthorne was not a copperhead himself.
In 1864, while riding in a carriage in foul weather, Hawthorne’s publisher placed his coat around the sick Hawthorne. Hawthorne was grateful, but soon after, his publisher died of pneumonia because of it. Hawthorne never forgave himself for this, and his condition continued to worsen. He was sucked into a state of depression. Although his life had been a huge success, he could not shake feelings of fatigue, disappointment, and failure. Sophia hoped that seeing Franklin Pierce again would revive him. By the time he had reached Hawthorne’s house, his condition had worsened further. During the night, Franklin periodically checked on his friend. He continued this vigil until when between 3 and 4 in the morning, he found his dearest friend and most avid supporter had passed on.
Sophia and her daughters adorned the Concorde church with flowers for the funeral. In attendance were Ralph Emerson, Louisa May Alcott, Percival Lowell, John Whittier, and Henry Longfellow. The old preacher James Freeman, who had not seen Hawthorne since he married him and Sophia, performed the ceremony. Longfellow wrote an elegy which was read at the funeral. Hawthorne would always be remembered by his large circle of companions as a great author, but more importantly, as a loyal friend.
Although Hawthorne became a huge success story as a writer, he often complained that his boring life provided no material for him to write about. However, Hawthorne endured many internal conflicts, which were depicted in his novels (Crews World Book CD-ROM). These internal conflicts which Hawthorne portrayed on paper made people think about how cruel life really can be. With his own unique Romantic-Realist style, Hawthorne captivated readers, and will continue to do so for years to come.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Modern Critical Views: Nathaniel Hawthorne. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1980.
Clendenning, John. “Hawthorne, Nathaniel.” World Book Encyclopedia. 1998.
Cohen, B. Bernard. The Recognition of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Ann arbor, Michigan: Michigan University Press, 1969.
Crews, Fredrick. “Hawthorne, Nathaniel.” Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia. 1993. CD-ROM
Crowley, J. Donald. Hawthorne: The Critical Heritage. New York: Barnes & Noble, Inc., 1970.
Eldritch Press. Nathaniel Hawthorne. (Online) Available http://eldred.ne.mediaone.net/nh/hawthorne.html. Febuary 18, 1999.
Hoeltje, Hubert H. Inward Sky: The mind and Heart of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1962.
Manley, Seon. Nathaniel Hawthorne: Captain of the Imagination. New York: The Vanguard Press, Inc., 1968.
Miller, Edwin. Salem Is My Dwelling Place: A Life of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Iowa City, Iowa: University of Iowa Press, 1991.
Wood, James. The Unpardonable Sin: The Life of Nathaniel Hawthorne. New York: Random House, Inc., 1970.