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FREE Barron's Booknotes-The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne-Free Notes
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THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES

It was a brash, bustling, energetic country in which Hawthorne grew up and carved out his writing career. The covered wagons were rolling West, with signs that bravely declared "California or bust!" The first passenger railroad opened, and the trains went huffing and puffing along at the (then) incredible speed of 20 miles an hour. Jackson was elected president, throwing the conservative statesmen out of office and ushering in the age of democracy and the common man.

It was an age between wars, when America, having beaten England for the second time-in the War of 1812- was flexing its adolescent muscles. Hope was in the air, and also a feeling of impatience with the imported, second-hand, European way of doing things. "Down with the past" might have been the slogan of the time. Americans sensed a fresh, creative task at hand in the building of a new country. It was a task that called for strong backs, clear eyes, and open minds.

There were experiments in living going on to match the experiments in politics and technology. Starry-eyed intellectuals gathered outside Boston to thrive on a vegetarian diet at Alcott's Fruitlands. Thoreau conducted his own private experiments in a life close to nature at Walden Pond. Horace Mann planned to change the world by changing education.

Where was Hawthorne while all this excitement was going on? In his bedroom in Salem, reading a book. You get the distinct feeling about this man that, so far as the great adventures of his time were concerned, he simply wasn't paying attention. Hawthorne was gazing intelligently off in another direction. Most of his generation looked expectantly toward the future. Hawthorne kept his eyes on the past.


He was an introvert, almost a recluse, this native son of Salem, Massachusetts. After graduating from Bowdoin College, he spent close to twelve years at home in his room, reading and learning his writer's craft. For subject matter, he turned not to life but to books and to his own family history. When he was a boy, his Puritan ancestors had haunted his imagination. And now, he read voraciously about early New England history, fleshing out his childhood dreams.

Perhaps Hawthorne read so much about the Puritans that their concerns became his. More likely, his reading struck a chord in him that was already familiar. Hawthorne thought about sin. He thought about guilt. He thought about the dark side of the soul. He pondered questions that few other men of his time thought or cared about-questions like: What happens to people who nurse a secret sin throughout their lives? Or, is it true that the evil taint of a crime lingers forever on the soul?

Hawthorne had a wide, unconventional streak in his soul, and he didn't like it. Some part of him was always at war with the recluse and pessimist in himself.

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FREE Barron's Booknotes-The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne-Free Notes
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