Last reviewed: June 2018
American novelist and short-story writer
July 4, 1804
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.” Nathaniel Hawthorne
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.