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Although Nathaniel Hawthorne called himself ”the obscurest man in American letters,” his achievements in fiction, both as short-story writer and novelist, are too great to ignore. Even though fame was slow to come and the financial rewards remained relatively thin throughout his career, Hawthorne claimed a central place in American letters, becoming, in time, an influential force in the artistic development of such writers as Herman Melville, Henry James, William Dean Howells, William Faulkner, and Flannery O’Connor.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Early Literary Experiences
Born July 4, 1804, in Salem, Massachusetts, Nathaniel Hawthorne (who added Nathaniel Hawthorne Hawthorne, Nathaniel, photograph. Source unknown. a ”W” to the family name) was the middle child of Nathaniel and Elizabeth Manning Hathorne, descendants of Puritan settlers in the Salem area. His father, captain of a ship, died in 1808 in Surinam (Dutch Guiana), and his mother raised the family with the help of relatives. Nathaniel’s early education was at home, owing to a leg injury from playing ball. This injury helped to fashion his personality: he became an assiduous reader of such authors as John Bunyan and William Shakespeare, and acquired, as he later lamented, his ”cursed habits of solitude.” While preparing for college he launched a newspaper, The Spectator, imitating the famous British journal of the same name written by Richard Steele and Joseph Addison and served as writer, editor, printer, and publisher. This short-lived (1711-1712) project had to be produced in his spare time because he served as both secretary and bookkeeper in his uncle’s stagecoach office and pressed forward with his preparatory studies. This experience in the workaday world revealed something important to him, as he told his sister Ebe: ”No man can be a Poet and a Book Keeper at the same time.”
In 1821, Hawthorne enrolled in Bowdoin College, in Maine, where his friends included the poet Henry Wads-worth Longfellow. Knowing that he would have to take up some profession, Hawthorne rejected the church as a calling but seriously considered becoming a writer, producing some short stories and the beginnings of a romance novel, Fanshawe, during this period. He returned to his family in Salem in 1825 and completed the romance begun at Bowdoin. He offered Fanshawe to publishers, but finding no one interested, he printed it at his own expense in 1828. Later, Hawthorne came to be so ashamed of the book that he tried to round up and destroy every copy; he was so closemouthed about its appearance that not even his wife knew he had published the work.
His failed novel behind him, Hawthorne now attempted to make his mark as a writer of tales and sketches that would epitomize New England. After attempts at bundling his stories into books to sell to publishers turned up nothing, he began publishing them individually in the Salem Gazette and other publications. These tales, such as ”Young Goodman Brown,” which appeared first in The New-England Magazine in 1835, stake out Hawthorne’s fictional territory: his consuming interest in the nation’s history, particularly the Puritan past; his exploration of the psychological and emotional factors underlying human behavior; his eagerness to understand the power and politics of sexuality; his probing of sin, concealment, guilt, penance, and redemption; and his willingness to entertain and dramatize different points of view on social, political, cultural, and religious questions.
”Young Goodman Brown” grapples with the past of Hawthorne’s hometown, Salem, the site of the infamous witch trials of 1692. Set in the period just preceding the trials, the tale centers around a young bridegroom who determines to investigate rumors of occult activity in his community and winds up witnessing, or believing he has witnessed, his pastor, his wife, Faith, and his fellow churchmen about to take part in a witches’ Sabbath. The discovery shakes his faith and his senses loose from their foundations; though he recovers from the incident, his confidence in his community is permanently broken. The psychological ambiguity of the story—did he see, or only believe he saw?—illuminates the tragic inevitability of the real-life Salem witch hunt, during which the participants’ sense of reality became, under social pressure, easily distorted and resulted in the deaths by hanging of fourteen of the accused.
The Writing Life
Hawthorne spent the ten years after college writing, submitting, receiving rejection notices, and, in moments of frustration, burning manuscripts. A temporary break in his routine came in January 1836, when he became editor of The American Magazine of Useful and Entertaining Knowledge, located in Boston. He and his sister Elizabeth wrote most of the copy. By June, the publisher had gone bankrupt, and Hawthorne returned to Salem. He wrote to his friend and fellow writer Longfellow, ”I have secluded myself from society; and yet I never meant any such thing. …I have made a captive of myself and put me in a dungeon; and now I cannot find the key to let myself out.” He wanted his tales ”to open an intercourse with the world,” as he suggested in his preface to the 1851 re-publication of Twice-Told
Tales, and they did: the original publication of Twice-Told Tales in 1837 caught the attention of his neighbor, the publisher and bookseller Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, who reviewed the book enthusiastically and promoted it with such friends as Ralph Waldo Emerson. In absorbing Hawthorne into her social circle, Peabody brought him together with her sister Sophia, his future wife.
Hawthorne’s association with the Peabodys introduced rapid change. He began publishing a series of history books for children, published by Peabody, and then won a political appointment in the Boston Customs House, which he hoped would afford him the income to marry Sophia but proved to be dusty, stifling work that did little to advance his goal. In 1841, he set his sights on a utopian experiment in communal living at nearby Brook Farm in West Roxbury; he invested in the project, but stayed only half a year, his creativity at a low thanks to the hog-tending and stable-mucking that were his regular chores. Instead, he married Sophia in July 1842 and moved with her to Concord, Massachusetts, where they occupied the Old Manse, the home of Emerson’s grandfather. He was able to write and she to paint, and their social world was populated with such literary figures as Henry David Thoreau, Emerson, Bronson Alcott (father of Louisa May Alcott), and Margaret Fuller. This was Hawthorne’s most productive period; in the three years he lived at the Old Manse, he wrote twenty sketches and tales, including ”The Birth-Mark” (1843) and ”Rappaccini’s Daughter” (1844). The Hawthornes also welcomed a daughter, Una, in 1844.
Unable to make ends meet in Concord, Hawthorne returned to Salem, where his son Julian was born shortly after. He took another political appointment at the Salem Custom House, which occupied his mornings but left him some free time to write. The 1848 election of President Zachary Taylor, a member of the Whig party, meant that Democratic appointees could simply be replaced; though Hawthorne’s literary and political friends argued for his continued support, he was dismissed after Taylor took office in 1849.
Revisiting Romance, this Time with Success
Rocked by the death of his beloved mother soon afterward, and living on savings, Hawthorne turned with force and intensity to his most famous work: The Scarlet Letter (1852), a return to the Puritan past that had so absorbed him in the earliest stages of his writing career. The Scarlet Letter chronicles the social and emotional experience of two lovers who have produced a child out of wedlock: forced to wear a large red ”A” on her breast, signifying ”Adulterer,” Hester Prynne is publicly punished by her community with a mean-spirited, intolerant rigor, while the father of her child, whose identity she refuses to reveal, suffers the internal torment of intense guilt and the secret manipulations of Hester’s husband, who suspects the truth. The competing yet also complementary powers of concealment and revelation drive the story and give shape to the characters in their suffering. The Scarlet Letter won instant praise but failed to bring in funds sufficient for the Hawthornes to remain in Salem. They found more economical quarters in the Berkshires, at Stockbridge, celebrated for its summer colony of intellectuals and writers.
Once the family settled in, Hawthorne enjoyed another extremely productive period, writing The House of the Seven Gables (1851) and adding a preface to a new edition of Twice-Told Tales (1851), among other projects. This flurry of creativity enabled him, for the first time, to meet the family’s expenses. Although his move to Stockbridge would be a permanent farewell to a town he had grown to dislike, his mind was drawn back to Salem, the setting of The House of the Seven Gables, whose villain, Judge Pyncheon, was based on the enemy who had him dismissed from the Custom House, Charles Wentworth Upham. The novel is something of a lament over the burden of inheritance and family history but unlike The Scarlet Letter it ends happily.
It was while composing The House of the Seven Gables that Hawthorne met Herman Melville; their relationship was to have an important effect on literary history. It was Hawthorne who inspired Melville, a greatly underappreciated writer in his lifetime, to rewrite Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (1851). He dedicated the novel to Hawthorne.
Though the family’s time in Stockbridge was relatively happy and productive—and included the birth of another daughter, Rose—the Hawthornes longed to return to Concord, and by 1852 had bought the home of their friend Bronson Alcott. In this period of transition, Hawthorne began The Blithedale Romance (1852), based on his experiences with communal living at Brook Farm before his marriage. Though he dubbed the story a “romance,” the work could easily pass as a novel of ideas or social criticism. It is anchored in the troubles of a rapidly industrializing America and weighs the day’s issues, particularly the women’s rights question that had risen to national prominence in the 1840s, led by such figures as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.
Getting Involved with Politics
In 1852, politics reentered Hawthorne’s life. His friend Franklin Pierce won the Democratic presidential nomination, and Hawthorne rushed to write a biography that was to be used in the campaign. He was paid only $300 for the project and received no royalties, considering the book a favor for a friend. The gesture was to be turned to Hawthorne’s advantage: he requested, and was granted, an appointment as Consul in Liverpool, England. This would allow him the income to repair his home in Concord and take his wife on a long-promised Italian tour. He continued to write and publish while plans for his appointment were fnalized, and the family set sail on July 6, 1853. While literature fell into the background during his time in England, Hawthorne actively kept a journal, recording his impressions of English life and English people, which he later mined for his articles and stories. In 1858, the
Hawthorne family embarked on their tour of Italy, visiting galleries, spending time with communities of expatriate Americans, and observing the wonders of the art world. This experience inspired The Marble Faun (1860), about three artists and their faun-like aristocratic Italian friend; the past and present of Italy, where the novel is set, is woven into the narrative, which Hawthorne completed upon returning to England.
After nearly seven years away, the Hawthornes returned to Concord in 1860. Though he continued to write, Hawthorne never published another novel during his life. (His children brought out a number ofhis works, culled from journals, in the years and decades after his death.) The American Civil War (1861-1865) sparked a new energy, however, and in 1862, Hawthorne spent a month in Washington, D.C., visiting his friends in government. These visits led to a long piece in The Atlantic Monthly titled ”Chiefly About War Matters,” in which he is at times critical of Abraham Lincoln and the actions of the North. This and other essays were collected in the volume Our Old Home (1863), which Hawthorne dedicated to his old friend Franklin Pierce, now considered a traitor to the North’s cause. Hawthorne’s circle of acquaintance was largely offended and even outraged by the gesture.
Unbeknownst to him, Hawthorne was suffering from stomach cancer when in 1864 he embarked on a trip south, hoping the warmer climates might do him good. He made it only as far south as Philadelphia when his traveling companion, his publisher William D. Tick-nor, took sick and died. Hawthorne returned to Boston to spend some time with Franklin Pierce. The two men traveled on to New Hampshire, where Hawthorne’s condition worsened. Sometime in the early morning hours of May 19, 1864, Hawthorne died in his sleep.
Works in Literary Context
The American Renaissance
The decades before the Civil War saw a flowering of literary activity in America. Such works as Walt Whitman’s poetry collection Leaves of Grass (1855), Herman Melville’s novel Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (1851), the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe, and the philosophical works of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau along with Hawthorne’s stories and novels represent the best of this movement, referred to as the American Renaissance and sometimes as American Romanticism (not to be confused with British Romanticism, which peaked a generation earlier). While some of Hawthorne’s early work took some inspiration from the Scottish novelist Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832), his allegiance was really to the uniquely American focus on the individual which was being celebrated by the other writers of the American Renaissance. Until this period, the literary culture of America looked mostly to Europe as the source of its culture and its traditions. The American themes that were to be taken up in the mid-nineteenth century—nature, the pioneer spirit, the striving of the individual—required a reorientation of literary identity. The writers of this movement began looking to America’s past and to the details of its culture and its landscape for their inspiration, seeing America as a rich source of characters and themes.
Works in Critical Context
The Scarlet Letter
Reviewers were prepared to take any work of Hawthorne’s seriously and often to pass from the book being reviewed into an assessment of his total work. Two aspects of The Scarlet Letter drew special comment: the personal and political elements in ”The Custom House,” the essay that opens the novel, and the moral question some reviewers saw in the introduction of Hester as a character and the failure to provide for her the punishment normally to be expected. Those who did not wish to plead the cause of Salem against the author, as a rule, found ”The Custom House” a delightful sketch. Even those who attacked the romance on moral or theological grounds, as did Orestes Brownson, were ready to grant Hawthorne’s power and artistry. While Hawthorne’s contemporaries undoubtedly found the novel powerful, it is in more recent years that the book has mounted the heights of critical attention. Today’s critics reading the novel see layers of social and psychological complexity, with critic Olivia Gatti Taylor, for instance, fascinated with Hawthorne’s exploration of the ”effects of sin upon the human consciousness.”
The Blithedale Romance
Though The Scarlet Letter has made the largest impact of all of Hawthorne’s works, his novel The Blithedale Romance (1852) garnered more critical attention in Hawthorne’s day. Critic Edwin Percy Whipple, to whom Hawthorne had sent a draft asking for advice about the work, praised it highly, stating that it
seems to us the most perfect in execution of any of Hawthorne’s works, and as a work of art, hardly equaled by anything this country has produced…. The romance, also, has more thought than any of its predecessors; it is literally crammed with the results of the most delicate and searching observation of life, manners and character, and of the most piercing imaginative analysis of motives and tendencies; yet nothing seems labored.
A generation later, novelist Henry James wrote, ”The finest thing in The Blithedale Romance is the character of Zenobia, which I have said elsewhere strikes me as the nearest approach that Hawthorne has made to the complete creation of a person.”
- Bell, Michael Davitt. Hawthorne and the Historical Romance of New England. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1971.
- Bell, Millicent. Hawthorne’s View of the Artist. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1962. Hawthorne, Julian.
- Hawthorne and His Circle.New York: Harpers, 1903.
- Matthiessen, F. O. American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman. New York: Oxford University Press, 1941.
- Ponder, Idol and Melinda, eds. Hawthorne and Women: Engendering and Expanding the Hawthorne Tradition. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999.
- Waggoner, Hyatt H. Hawthorne: A Critical Study. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1955.
- Turner, Arlin. Nathaniel Hawthorne in His Times. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.
- Adams, Richard P. ”Hawthorne’s Provincial Tales.” New England Quarterly 30 (March 1957): 39-57.
- Cox, James M. ”The Scarlet Letter: Through the Old Manse and the Custom House.” Virginia Quarterly Review 51 (1975): 432-47.
- Gatti Taylor, Olivia. ”Cultural Confessions: Penance and Penitence in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and The Marble Faun.” Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature, Winter 2005.
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