Authors: Nathaniel Hawthorne

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

American novelist and short-story writer

July 4, 1804

Salem, Massachusetts

May 19, 1864

Plymouth, New Hampshire


Nathaniel Hawthorne, one of the greatest of all American fiction writers, was descended from William Hathorne (the w was added by Nathaniel himself while he was in college), who came to Massachusetts Bay from England with John Winthrop in 1630 and as a magistrate ordered the whipping of a Quaker woman in Salem. William’s son John was one of the three judges who presided over the Salem witch trials in 1692. These men were important figures in the early history of the Massachusetts Bay Colony; they were also guilty of great crimes. The family fortunes had declined since those early days—Nathaniel’s father was a ship captain who died in a distant port when the boy was only four years old—and Nathaniel, who was sensitively aware of this inheritance, often wondered whether the decline was a punishment for the sins of his (as he called them) “sable-cloaked, steeple-crowned progenitors.” {$I[AN]9810001500} {$I[A]Hawthorne, Nathaniel} {$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Hawthorne, Nathaniel} {$I[tim]1804;Hawthorne, Nathaniel}

Nathaniel Hawthorne

(Library of Congress)

After his graduation in 1825 from Bowdoin College (where poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, a lifelong friend, was a classmate), Hawthorne returned to his mother’s house in Salem. There, after the publication of an immature “college novel,” Fanshawe, in 1828, he settled down to hard application to the craft of fiction. He read much, wrote much, and destroyed much of what he wrote. The result was the appearance in the periodical press of many remarkable stories (or “tales,” as he preferred to call them), which he published anonymously at first. He collected many of these tales in book form in 1837 under the title Twice-Told Tales, the first work to bear the author’s name on the title page. His publications having brought him very little money, Hawthorne took employment in the Boston Custom House from 1839 to 1840, and in 1841 he joined the socialist community at Brook Farm, where he stayed about six months. Meanwhile, he had met and fallen in love with Sophia Peabody, and she with him. After their marriage on July 9, 1842, they went to live in the “Old Manse” in Concord, Massachusetts. The story of their three years there, as recorded in Hawthorne’s American Notebooks and his essay “The Old Manse,” is one of the most charming of marital idylls.

Hawthorne continued to write more tales, and in 1846 he brought out a second collection, Mosses from an Old Manse. His success still consisting more of esteem than of money, he took a post in the Salem Custom House in 1846—a post that, being a good Democrat, he received from the Democratic administration of James K. Polk and from which, being not without political enemies in his local precinct, he was ousted in 1849 by the Whig administration of Zachary Taylor. Though greatly angered at the time, Hawthorne later saw the loss of his job as a blessing in disguise: In the gloom of this seeming misfortune, he sat down to write The Scarlet Letter. This novel, or “romance,” as he preferred to call this and his other longer fictions, proved to be his greatest book, and it made him famous.

For a year and a half following the publication of The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne lived in the Berkshires, near Lenox, where he wrote The House of the Seven Gables, published in 1851, and enjoyed the stimulating friendship of Herman Melville, whose novel Moby Dick, published in the same year, was dedicated to Hawthorne. Returning to eastern Massachusetts (he always preferred the ocean to the mountains), he wrote at West Newton The Blithedale Romance, based in part upon his Brook Farm experience and published in 1852. In 1853, he went with his wife and three children Una, Julian, and Rose to Liverpool, England, where he served four years as United States consul, a comparatively lucrative post to which he had been appointed by President Franklin Pierce, whose devoted friendship went back to their college days together at Bowdoin. The Hawthornes were in Italy from 1858 to 1859. In 1860, shortly after the publication of The Marble Faun (which was based upon Italian experiences and appeared first in England as Transformation), they returned to “The Wayside,” in Concord, where Hawthorne spent the remaining four years of his life. These were years of sadness, frustration, and failing health. He managed to bring out a fine collection of essays about England, Our Old Home, but the old skill at fiction-writing seemed to have deserted him. His death occurred while, accompanied by the faithful Pierce, he was on a recuperative journey to the White Mountains. His wife, who lived seven years longer, devoted her widowhood to the publication of her husband’s journals.

Hawthorne was a symbolic writer whose greatness seems to grow with the passing years. Discerning critics and readers seem tireless in discovering “layers” of meanings in his fiction. Hawthorne’s work is seen as a criticism of life, a weighing of conflicting forces, a dramatization of the dilemmas and ambiguities which beset the human condition. His attitude toward life can be called Puritan, but more properly it is broadly Christian in that he is concerned always with the conflict between good and evil, and the consequences to humankind which flow from Original Sin.

In his greatest book, The Scarlet Letter, the Puritan minister Arthur Dimmesdale has committed adultery with Hester Prynne. Arthur is conscience-stricken, while Hester, a symbol of emancipation, at times feels that she has not sinned. “What we did,” she says to Dimmesdale in the forest, “had a consecration of its own.” The tension is tautly drawn between the Puritan, or Christian, respect for law and conscience and the Romantic insistence on the supremacy of the private impulse. Hester is sympathetically treated, and the Romantic position—that is, the glorification of individual desire—is allowed its full weight, so much so that many readers have believed that to be the theme of the story. The resolution of tension is brought about, however, not by Hester’s plan of elopement but by Arthur’s confession of guilt before his assembled parishioners and by Hester’s return to Boston after her daughter Pearl grows up, so that Hester may continue her penance. The resolution is Christian in the sense that Arthur, after a long, agonizing conflict within himself, surrenders his own will to a higher authority, and Hester ultimately makes a similar choice.

Hawthorne everywhere is concerned with moral problems which are also personality problems. The blemish on Georgiana’s cheek in the story “The Birthmark” is a fascinating symbol of human imperfection. In The House of the Seven Gables, the author deals with the problem of heredity; in The Blithedale Romance, with the problem of reform; in The Marble Faun, with the problem of good and evil. In the last-named novel, Kenyon asks, “Is sin, then, like sorrow, an element of human education, through which we struggle to a higher and purer state than we could otherwise have attained? Did Adam fall, that we might ultimately rise to a loftier paradise than his?” The answers in Hawthorne to questions like these are never categorical. Rather, he is content to describe both sides of the human coin: the heroic and the ignoble, the unselfish and the selfish, the angelic and the diabolic. Hawthorne is a realist in the sense that he holds up a mirror to fallible humanity. It is for this reason, as well as because of his meticulous craftsmanship, that his work continues to attract a growing audience of thoughtful readers.

Author Works Long Fiction: Fanshawe: A Tale, 1828 The Scarlet Letter, 1850 The House of the Seven Gables, 1851 The Blithedale Romance, 1852 The Marble Faun, 1860 Septimius Felton, 1872 (fragment) The Dolliver Romance, 1876 (fragment) The Ancestral Footstep, 1883 (fragment) Doctor Grimshawe’s Secret, 1883 (fragment) Short Fiction: Twice-Told Tales, 1837, expanded 1842 Mosses from an Old Manse, 1846 The Snow-Image, and Other Twice-Told Tales, 1851 Nonfiction: Life of Franklin Pierce, 1852 Our Old Home, 1863 Selected Letters of Nathaniel Hawthorne, 2002 (Joel Myerson, editor) Children’s/Young Adult Literature: Grandfather’s Chair, 1841 Biographical Stories for Children, 1842 True Stories from History and Biography, 1851 A Wonder-Book for Boys and Girls, 1852 Tanglewood Tales for Boys and Girls, 1853 Edited Text: Peter Parley’s Universal History, 1837 Miscellaneous: Complete Works, 1850–82 (13 volumes) The Complete Writings of Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1900 (22 volumes) The Centenary Edition of the Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1962–97 (23 volumes) Bibliography Argersinger, Jana L., and Leland S. Person, eds. Hawthorne and Melville: Writing a Relationship. Athens: Georgia University, 2008. Fourteen essays that focus on the relationship that the two authors shared during the time that Melville was writing Moby Dick. The essays also discuss how each writer affected the other’s work. Essential for anyone interested in either writer. Bunge, Nancy. Nathaniel Hawthorne: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1993. Discusses Hawthorne’s major short stories in three categories: isolation and community, artists and scientists, and perspective, humility, and joy. Includes excerpts from Hawthorne’s journals, letters, and prefaces; also includes excerpts on Hawthorne from Herman Melville, Edgar Allan Poe, Henry James, and several contemporary critics. Charvat, William, et al., eds. The Centenary Edition of the Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1962–97. This continuing multivolume edition of Hawthorne’s works will, when complete, contain the entire canon. Somewhat unevenly accomplished by a variety of editors, the volumes contain a considerable amount of textual apparatus as well as biographical and critical information. Volumes 9, 10, and 11 give the texts of all known Hawthorne short stories and sketches. Doubleday, Neal Frank. Hawthorne’s Early Tales: A Critical Study. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1972. Doubleday focuses on what he calls “the development of Hawthorne’s literary habit,” including Hawthorne’s literary theory and the materials from which he fashioned the stories of his twenties and early thirties. The index, while consisting chiefly of proper names and titles, includes some features of Hawthorne’s work (“ambiguity,” “irony,” and the like). Fogle, Richard Harter. Hawthorne’s Fiction: The Light and the Dark. Rev. ed. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1964. One of the first critics to write full analytical essays about the short stories, Fogle examines eight stories in detail as well as the four mature novels. He sees Hawthorne’s fiction as both clear (“light”) and complex (“dark”). He is particularly adept, although perhaps overly ingenious, in explicating Hawthorne’s symbolism. Keil, James C. “Hawthorne’s ‘Young Goodman Brown’: Early Nineteenth-Century and Puritan Constructions of Gender.” The New England Quarterly 69 (March, 1996): 33–55. Argues that Hawthorne places his story in the seventeenth century to explore the nexus of past and present in the attitudes of New Englanders toward theology, morality, and sexuality. Points out that clear boundaries between male and female, public and private, and work and home were thresholds across which nineteenth century Americans often passed. Kelsey, Angela M. “Mrs. Wakefield’s Gaze: Femininity and Dominance in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ‘Wakefield.’” ATQ, n.s. 8 (March, 1994): 17–31. In this feminist reading of Hawthorne’s story, Kelsey argues that Mrs. Wakefield finds ways to escape and exceed the economy of the male gaze, first by appropriating the look for herself, then by refusing to die, and finally by denying her husband her gaze. Mackenzie, Manfred. “Hawthorne’s ‘Roger Malvin’s Burial’: A Postcolonial Reading.” New Literary History 27 (Summer, 1996): 459–472. Argues that the story is postcolonial fiction in which Hawthorne writes the emerging American nation and recalls European colonial culture; claims that Hawthorne rehearses the colonialist past in order to concentrate and effectively “expel” its inherent violence. McKee, Kathryn B. “’A Small Heap of Glittering Fragments’: Hawthorne’s Discontent with the Short Story Form.” ATQ, n.s. 8 (June, 1994): 137–147. Claims that Hawthorne’s “Artist of the Beautiful” and “Downe’s Wooden Image” are examples of his dissatisfaction with the short story as a form; argues that the fragile articles at the center of the tales mirror the limitations Hawthorne saw in the short-story genre. Mellow, James R. Nathaniel Hawthorne and His Times. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1980. In this substantial, readable, and illustrated biography, Mellow provides a number of insights into Hawthorne’s fiction. Refreshingly, the author presents Sophia Hawthorne not only as the prudish, protective wife of the Hawthorne legend but also as a woman with an artistic sensibility and talent of her own. Mellow’s book is a good introduction to a very interesting man. Suitable for the student and the general reader. Miller, Edward Havilland. Salem Is My Dwelling Place: A Life of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1991. A large biography of more than six hundred pages, illustrated with more than fifty photographs and drawings. Miller has been able to draw on more manuscripts of family members and Hawthorne associates than did his predecessors and also developed his subject’s family life in more detail. He offers interpretations of many of the short stories. Moore, Margaret B. The Salem World of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1998. Margaret Moore explores the relationship between Salem, Massachusetts, and its most famous resident, author Nathaniel Hawthorne. Newberry, Frederick. “’The Artist of the Beautiful’: Crossing the Transcendent Divide in Hawthorne’s Fiction.” Nineteenth-Century Literature 50 (June, 1995): 78-96. Argues that the butterfly’s appearance is Hawthorne’s endorsement of the transcendent power of imagination over nineteenth century empiricism. Newman, Lea Bertani Vozar. A Reader’s Guide to the Short Stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1979. For each of fifty-four stories, this valuable guide furnishes a chapter with four sections: publication history; circumstances of composition, sources, and influences; relationship with other Hawthorne works; and interpretations and criticism. The discussions are arranged alphabetically by title and keyed to a bibliography of more than five hundred secondary sources. Pennell, Melissa McFarland. Student Companion to Nathaniel Hawthorne. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999. Includes bibliographical references and an index. Scharnhorst, Gary. The Critical Response to Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter.” New York: Greenwood Press, 1992. Includes chapters on the novel’s background and composition history, on the contemporary American reception, on the early British reception, on the growth of Hawthorne’s reputation after his death, on modern criticism, and on The Scarlet Letter on stage and screen. Swope, Richard. “Approaching the Threshold(s) in Postmodern Detective Fiction: Hawthorne’s ‘Wakefield’ and Other Missing Persons.” Critique 39 (Spring, 1998): 207–227. Discusses “Wakefield” as a literary ancestor of “metaphysical” detective fiction, a postmodern genre that combines fiction with literary theory. “Wakefield” raises many of the questions about language, subjectivity, and urban spaces that surround postmodernism. Thompson, G. R. The Art of Authorial Presence: Hawthorne’s Provincial Tales. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1993. Argues that for Hawthorne the art of telling a story depends on a carefully created fiction of an authorial presence. Examines Hawthorne’s narrative strategies for creating this presence by using contemporary narrative theory. Analyzes a small number of early Hawthorne stories and the criticism that has amassed about Hawthorne’s fiction. Von Frank, Albert J., ed. Critical Essays on Hawthorne’s Short Stories. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1991. Divided into nineteenth- and twentieth-century commentary, with a section of new essays, an introduction, and a chronology of the tales. Waggoner, Hyatt. Hawthorne: A Critical Study. Rev. ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1963. Waggoner is acute in his tracing of patterns of imagery in Hawthorne’s fiction. This book is both a clear exposition and an incentive to plumb Hawthorne more deeply—virtues that have impelled some readers to challenge Waggoner’s interpretations. For Waggoner, intuition, rather than biographical data, is the better tool to bring to the study of fiction. Wineapple, Brenda. Hawthorne: A Life. New York: Knopf, 2003. An analysis of Hawthorne’s often contradictory life that proposes that many of Hawthorne’s stories are autobiographical.

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