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THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES
In our late teens, many of us have to make career decisions. Will we prepare to be engineers, ballet dancers, composers, professional athletes, fashion designers? Nathaniel Hawthorne at age 17 was at that very crossroads of his life.
In a letter to his mother, written in 1821, Hawthorne ruled out joining the clergy ("Oh, no, mother, I was not born to vegetate forever in one place and to live and die as calm and tranquil as a puddle of water"). Becoming a lawyer didn't seem to be a wise choice either ("...one half of them are in a state of actual starvation"). And as to medicine, Hawthorne could not contemplate making a living "by the diseases and infirmities of my fellow creatures." Instead, he tentatively suggested, "What do you think of my becoming an author and relying for support upon my pen?"
We don't know how his mother responded, but the millions of readers who have enjoyed Hawthorne's work are pleased, no doubt, that he pursued his goal, ultimately taking his place as one of the leading figures in all of American literature. In addition, Hawthorne is seen today as a writer of great influence on subsequent generations of storytellers. The effect of Hawthorne's creation of isolated and withdrawn characters, and his probing of the psychology that led to their alienation, may now be seen in the novels of such various writers as Henry James, William Faulkner, Albert Camus, and Robert Penn Warren.
Nathaniel Hawthorne was born in 1804 in Salem, Massachusetts, a city already infamous in American history for its campaign in the 1690s against "witches." In The House of the Seven Gables, Hawthorne uses references to Salem witchcraft in his examination of the forces that motivated some of the characters in his novel.
Young Hawthorne had a slight limp that hindered him enough to keep him from engaging in sports, and so he turned to reading- showing a special fondness for William Shakespeare, the English poet John Milton, and the novels of the French writer and philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau. This interest in literature later led to his rejection of other possible professions in favor of becoming a full-time writer.
After graduating from Bowdoin College, in Maine, at the age of twenty-one, Hawthorne returned to Salem, and for the next twelve years he lived there in relative seclusion. He had made a personal commitment to the literary life and spent that famous hibernation time developing his craft. Hawthorne had no regrets about investing that much time in honing his skills: "If I had sooner made my escape into the world, I should have grown hard and rough... and my heart might have become callous by rude encounters with the multitude. But living in solitude till the fullness of time was come, I still kept the dew of youth with the freshness of my heart."
Hawthorne was drawn out of his long isolation when he fell in love with Sophia Amelia Peabody, of Salem. Before they were married in 1842, he spent six months at Brook Farm, a commune outside Boston that attracted people who were in search of a utopian society. There he talked with such intellectuals as Henry David Thoreau (both men had a great deal in common since they enjoyed solitude and simplicity) and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Brook Farm was just one expression of the liberal spirit of the times. Under Emerson, The Transcendentalist Movement tried to change the way people thought about themselves. The Transcendentalists believed that people are basically good and ultimately perfectible. They believed communion with nature, reading literary classics, and studying Eastern religions were important elements in elevating the human condition. Thoreau, also a Transcendentalist, chronicled his own experiment in returning to nature at Walden Pond.
Following his marriage, it became important for Hawthorne to earn a living. He used political influence to get a job as the surveyor for the port of Salem, but lost his position in the Customs House there when the Democrats were voted out of power in 1849. At the time, the mood in America was generally liberal and optimistic. Railroads and the telegraph reached widely, effectively shrinking the size of the country. Momentum was building in the Abolitionist movement to free the slaves. People looked to the future with excitement.
Hawthorne, however, was preoccupied with the past. In one way, at least, he was closer to the Puritans in spirit. Instead of believing that man was perfectible, he felt that evil would exist as long as the human heart existed. And so it was difficult for him to share in the expectations of a "new" world when what he saw was the past visiting its sins upon the present.
In 1850, Hawthorne's classic tale of sin and retribution, The Scarlet Letter, was published and met with great success. The story of Hester Prynne, the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, and Roger Chillingworth was set in the gloomy atmosphere of Puritan New England and was embellished with dark, psychological overtones. The vision of the haunted young Hester on the scaffold with the scarlet "A"- standing for adulteress- on her breast is among the most memorable portraits in all literature.
When Hawthorne began to write The House of the Seven Gables the following year, he was already an acclaimed writer. Unlike The Scarlet Letter, which is about events in the seventeenth century, The House of the Seven Gables is set in Hawthorne's own era, in 1850. But its main theme is how the past weighs on the present. Hawthorne's ancestor, John Hathorne (Nathaniel added the "w" to his last name), had been one of three judges in the notorious Salem witchcraft trials in 1692, and Hawthorne may have been trying to rid his family of that shame when, at the beginning of The House of the Seven Gables, he wrote so eloquently of that terrible time.
About his own work, Hawthorne said, "The House of the Seven Gables, in my opinion, is better than The Scarlet Letter but I should not wonder if I had refined upon the principal character a little too much for the public appreciation; nor if the romance of the book should be found somewhat at odds with the humble and familiar scenery in which I invested it."
The poet James Russell Lowell called The House of the Seven Gables "the most valuable contribution to New England history that has been made," and Sophia Hawthorne, in a letter to her mother, said about the novel, "How you will enjoy the book, its depth of wisdom, its high tone, the flowers of Paradise scattered over all the dark places."
The House of the Seven Gables had been written in the Berkshire Mountains where the Hawthornes had a home in Lenox, Massachusetts. While there, Hawthorne was visited by an admirer, Herman Melville, who lived in nearby Pittsfield and was writing Moby-Dick at that time. Melville thought so much of his shy friend that he dedicated Moby-Dick to Hawthorne.
Melville was greatly impressed with The House of the Seven Gables, telling Hawthorne that he "spent almost an hour in each separate gable." And Henry James, a consummate writer himself, honored Hawthorne as "the first great writer of the tradition of psychological, subjective fiction in American literature." James added that Hawthorne "had a cat-like faculty of seeing in the dark," referring to Hawthorne's genius for illuminating the dark corners of those people who lead lives of quiet desperation.
Others who came to see Hawthorne often remarked about his physical attractiveness. The British novelist Anthony Trollope called him "the handsomest of all Yankees," and Julia Ward Howe, the author of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," described him in this manner: "The beauty of his countenance was remarkable. Crayon portraits and photographs preserve the fine outline of his head and face but fail to give his vivid coloring and varying expression. His eyes, fringed with dark lashes, gleamed like tremulous sapphires."
With The Blithedale Romance in 1852, a novel about his Brook Farm experiences, a very prolific period in Hawthorne's life came to an end. He had produced three novels in three years and was regarded as an important literary figure. When his college friend Franklin Pierce was elected President of the United States in 1852, Hawthorne was rewarded with an appointment as U.S. consul in Liverpool, England. It enabled him to travel on the European continent and to fill his notebooks with material for future short stories and novels. But he had written himself out, it seemed, because none of his later stories came up to the level of his earlier classics such as "The Great Stone Face," "Rappacini's Daughter," and "Young Goodman Brown." His last novel, The Marble Faun, written in 1860, lacked the power of his great books.
Hawthorne died quietly in 1864, just before his sixtieth birthday. Sophia and their three children survived him. Hawthorne left us a small treasury of significant and entertaining works, and an enduring reputation. One of his critics, Hyatt Waggoner, rightly pointed out that "few 19th century American writers seem so likely to reward rereading as Hawthorne."
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