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Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1804 - 1864), short-story writer and novelist, was one of the foremost nineteenth century writers in America. He was born on July 4, 1804, in Salem Massachusetts as Nathaniel Hathorne. He likely later added a "w" to avoid the association with one of his ancestors, Judge Hathorne. His Puritan ancestors were the first settlers in the state and included two prominent judges, one of whom was active in the persecution of Quakers in the 1630's and the other (Judge Hathorne) played a role in the infamous Salem witch trials. By Hawthorne's time, the family had retired from public eminence.
Both his father and grandfather were captains of merchant ships. Hawthorne was a quiet, meditative child and a good student. In 1821 he attended Bowdoin College in Maine, and some aspects of his student career there suggested that his habits of solitude were temporarily modified. His classmates were generally of the view that he was aloof. He graduated in 1825 with a class that included the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Franklin Pierce. Pierce would later become President of the United States.
Hawthorne was an active writer and published at his own expense a novel called Fanshawe in 1828. He quickly felt that it was not up to his quality and attempted to remove all of the copies. For the next several years he created many impressive works such as, An Old Woman's Tale, The Hollow of the Three Hills, My Kinsman, Major Molineux, Roger Malvin's Burial, and Young Goodman Brown. In 1837, Hawthorne published his first commercial book, Twice Told Tales with little financial gain.
In 1839 he obtained a position as an inspector at the Boston Custom House, weighing and measuring the goods shipped in and out of the harbor. Distracted from doing any substantive literary work, Hawthorne was glad to be relieved of his job when the administration changed in 1844. Hawthorne moved to Brook Farm Institute of Agriculture and Education, a communal experiment founded by a group of writers and thinkers associated with the Transcendentalist circle. There he intended to establish a "mode of life, which shall combine enchantment of poetry with the facts of daily experience". He left after eight months and married Sophia Peabody. They took up residence at Concord at the old Manse, a house built by Ralph Waldo Emerson's grandfather. He was greatly influenced by the atmosphere of the house.
In 1849, Hawthorne published his greatest work The Scarlet Letter. In its first week of publication, it sold 4,000 copies. In the spring of 1850, he moved to Lennox, Massachusetts, where he began writing The House of the Seven Gables. It was more varied in tone and less somber than The Scarlet Letter. In 1851, he wrote The Snow Image and Other Twice Told Tales. From Lenox, Hawthorne moved to Newport, where he wrote The Blithedale Romance (1852), a book that satirized the pretensions and delusions of social reformers.
Hawthorne was appointed as Consul to England from 1853 to 1857. He was dissatisfied with the job and moved to Italy where he wrote his last complete novel, The Marble Faun, (1857). He took ill in the spring of 1864, and died at Plymouth in New Hampshire on May 19, 1864. His body was taken to Concord, Massachusetts and buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.
For his novels, Hawthorne drew on Puritan orthodox thought to examine the individual and collective consciousness under the pressures of anguish and suffering. He sought to dramatize such themes as sin, guilt and retribution. His writing is marked by introspective depth and an urge to get inside the character he created.
The Scarlet Letter is set in seventeenth century New England, and Hawthorne successfully depicts the Puritanism that was found there. Puritanism actually began in England and was aimed at purging the Church of its ostentation and corruption. The prevalent amorality in society also became the object of attack by the Puritans who insisted on orthodoxy and strict rules of living.
In America, Puritanism was spread by the early English settlers, the Pilgrim fathers who left England to avoid religious oppression. Settling down in New England, they gradually formed colonies and began implementing puritanical rules. Apart from religious orthodoxy, they also insisted that the state follow the laws laid down by the church. The extreme narrow- mindedness, even restricting church membership, led to some reform movements, one of them led by Anne Hutchinson, who was mentioned in the novel.
Hawthorne attempts to give a genuine picture of the times by presenting a realistic setting and real puritanical philosophies. He also includes actual historical figures like Governor Bellingham, Governor Winthrop, Mr. John Wilson, and Mistress Hibbins, who are treated as fictional characters. The introduction of these historical figures, along with the presentation of Puritanical society and beliefs, and the reference to witches, witchcraft and superstitious beliefs, lends authenticity to the narrative without making The Scarlet Letter a historical novel.