Nathaniel Hawthorne illustrated in an 1870 publication
|July 4, 1804
Salem, Massachusetts, United States
|May 19, 1864
Plymouth, New Hampshire, United States
|Novelist, short story writer
Nathaniel Hawthorne (born Nathaniel Hathorne; July 4, 1804 - May 19, 1864) was a 19th century American novelist and short story writer. He is seen as a key figure in the development of American literature for his tales of the nation's colonial history.
Nathaniel Hawthorne was born on July 4, 1804 in Salem, Massachusetts, where his birthplace is now a house museum. William Hathorne who arrived in 1630 from England as a Puritan was the first of Hawthorne's decendents to arrive in the colonies. William Hathorne's son John Hathorne was one of the judges who oversaw the Salem Witch Trials. (Having learned about this, the author added the "w" to his surname in his early twenties.) Hawthorne's father, Nathaniel Hathorne, Sr., was a sea captain who died in 1808 of yellow fever when Hawthorne was only four years old. Nathaniel spent three years of his youth, secluded from the world by his mother, in Raymond, Maine on the shores of Sebago Lake. He described this period as the happiest time of his life, but also when he acquired the habit of solitude.
Hawthorne attended Bowdoin College in Maine at the expense of his uncle from 1821–1824, befriending classmates Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and future president Franklin Pierce. There, he joined the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity. Until the publication of his Twice-Told Tales in 1837, Hawthorne wrote in the comparative obscurity of what he called his "owl's nest" in the family home. As he looked back on this period of his life, he wrote: "I have not lived, but only dreamed about living."  And yet it was this period of brooding and writing that had formed, as Malcolm Cowley was to describe it, "the central fact in Hawthorne's career," his "term of apprenticeship" that would eventually result in the "richly meditated fiction."
Hawthorne was hired in 1839 as a weigher and gauger at the Boston Custom House. He had become engaged in the previous year to the illustrator and transcendentalist Sophia Peabody. Seeking a possible home for himself and Sophia, he joined the transcendentalist utopian community at Brook Farm in 1841; later that year, however, he left when he became dissatisfied with the experiment. (His Brook Farm adventure would prove an inspiration for his novel The Blithedale Romance.) He married Sophia in 1842; they moved to The Old Manse in Concord, Massachusetts, where they lived for three years. There he wrote most of the tales collected in Mosses from an Old Manse. Hawthorne and his wife then moved to The Wayside, previously a home of the Alcotts. Their neighbors in Concord included Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.
Like Hawthorne, Sophia was a reclusive person. She was, in fact, bedridden with headaches until her sister introduced her to Hawthorne, after which her headaches seem to have abated, some say because of the love she had for Hawthorne. The Hawthornes enjoyed a long marriage, often taking walks in the park, and Sophia was greatly enamored of her husband's work. In one of her journals, she writes: "I am always so dazzled and bewildered with the richness, the depth, the... jewels of beauty in his productions that I am always looking forward to a second reading where I can ponder and muse and fully take in the miraculous wealth of thoughts."
In 1846 Hawthorne was appointed surveyor (determining the quantity and value of imported goods) at the Salem Custom House. Like his earlier appointment to the custom house in Boston, this employment was vulnerable to the politics of the spoils system. He lost this job due to the change of administration in Washington after the presidential election of 1848.
Hawthorne's career as a novelist was boosted by The Scarlet Letter in 1850, whose preface refers to his three year tenure in the Custom House at Salem. The House of the Seven Gables (1851) and The Blithedale Romance (1852) followed in quick succession.
In 1852 he wrote the campaign biography of his old friend Franklin Pierce. With Pierce's election as president, Hawthorne was rewarded in 1853 with the position of United States consul in Liverpool. In 1857, his appointment ended and the Hawthorne family toured France and Italy. They returned to The Wayside in 1860 and that year saw the publication of The Marble Faun. Failing health (which biographer Edward Miller speculates was stomach cancer) sadly prevented him from completing several more romances. Hawthorne died in his sleep on May 19, 1864 in Plymouth, New Hampshire while on a tour of the White Mountains with Pierce. He lies buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Concord, Massachusetts. In June 2006, his wife Sophia and daughter Una were interred in plots adjacent to his.
Nathaniel and Sophia Hawthorne had three children: Una, Julian, and Rose. Una was a victim of mental illness, causing her to die young. Julian moved out west, served a jail term for embezzlement, and wrote a book about his father. Rose married George Parsons Lathrop. They became Roman Catholics and, after George's death, Rose became a Dominican nun. She founded the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne to care for victims of incurable cancer.
Hawthorne is best-known today for his many short stories (he called them "tales") and his four major romances written between 1850 and 1860: The Scarlet Letter (1850), The House of the Seven Gables (1851), The Blithedale Romance (1852) and The Marble Faun (1860). Another novel-length romance, Fanshawe was published anonymously in 1828.
Before publishing his first collection of tales in 1837, Hawthorne wrote scores of short stories and sketches, publishing them anonymously or pseudonymously in periodicals such as The New England Magazine and The United States Magazine and Democratic Review. (The editor of the Democratic Review, John L. O'Sullivan, was a close friend of Hawthorne's.) Only after collecting a number of his short stories into the two-volume Twice-Told Tales in 1837 did Hawthorne begin to attach his name to his works.
Hawthorne's work belongs to Romanticism, an artistic and intellectual movement characterized by an emphasis on individual freedom from social conventions or political restraints, on human imagination, and on nature in a typically idealized form. Romantic literature rebelled against the formalism of 18th century reason.
Much of Hawthorne's work is set in colonial New England, and many of his short stories have been read as moral allegories influenced by his Puritan background. Ethan Brand (1850) tells the story of a lime-burner who sets off to find the Unpardonable Sin, and in doing so, commits it. One of Hawthorne's most famous tales, The Birth-Mark (1843), concerns a young doctor who removes a birthmark from his wife's face, an operation which kills her. Hawthorne based parts of this story on the penny press novels he loved to read. Other well-known tales include Rappaccini's Daughter (1844), My Kinsman, Major Molineux (1832), The Minister's Black Veil (1836), and Young Goodman Brown (1835). The Maypole of Merrymount (1836) recounts an encounter between the Puritans and the forces of anarchy and hedonism. A Wonder-Book for Girls and Boys (1852) and Tanglewood Tales (1853) were re-tellings for children of some Greek myths, from which was named the Tanglewood estate and music venue.
Hawthorne is also considered among the first to experiment with alternate history as literary form. His 1845 short story "P.'s Correspondence" (a part of "Mosses from an Old Manse") is the first known complete English language alternate history and among the most early in any language. The story's protagonist is considered "a madman" due to his perceiving an alternative 1845 in which long-dead historical and literary figures are still alive; these delusions feature the poets Burns, Byron, Shelley, and Keats, the actor Edmund Kean, the British politician George Canning and even Napoleon Bonaparte.
Recent criticism has focused on Hawthorne's narrative voice, treating it as a self-conscious rhetorical construction, not to be conflated with Hawthorne's own voice. Such an approach complicates the long-dominant tradition of regarding Hawthorne as a gloomy, guilt-ridden moralist.
Hawthorne enjoyed a brief but intense friendship with American novelist Herman Melville beginning on August 5, 1850, when the two authors met at a picnic hosted by a mutual friend. Melville had just read Hawthorne's short story collection Mosses from an Old Manse, which Melville later praised in a famous review, "Hawthorne and His Mosses." Melville's letters to Hawthorne provide insight into the composition of Moby-Dick, which Melville dedicated to Hawthorne "in appreciation for his genius". Hawthorne's letters to Melville do not survive.
Edgar Allan Poe wrote important, though largely unflattering reviews of both Twice-Told Tales and Mosses from an Old Manse, mostly due to Poe's own contempt of allegory, moral tales, and his chronic accusations of plagiarism. However, even Poe admitted, "The style of Hawthorne is purity itself. His tone is singularly effective--wild, plaintive, thoughtful, and in full accordance with his themes." He concluded that, "we look upon him as one of the few men of indisputable genius to whom our country has as yet given birth."