Who Was Nathaniel Hawthorne?
Nathaniel Hawthorne was an American short story writer and novelist. His short stories include "My Kinsman, Major Molineux" (1832), "Roger Malvin's Burial" (1832), "Young Goodman Brown" (1835) and the collection Twice-Told Tales. He is best known for his novels The Scarlet Letter (1850) and The House of the Seven Gables (1851). His use of allegory and symbolism make Hawthorne one of the most studied writers.
Family Heritage and Early Life
Born on July 4, 1804, in Salem Massachusetts, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s life was steeped in the Puritan legacy. An early ancestor, William Hathorne, first emigrated from England to America in 1630 and settled in Salem, Massachusetts, where he became a judge known for his harsh sentencing. William’s son, John Hathorne, was one of three judges during the Salem Witch Trials in the 1690s. Hawthorne later added a “w” to his name to distance himself from this side of the family.
Hawthorne was the only son of Nathaniel and Elizabeth Clark Hathorne (Manning). His father, a sea captain, died in 1808 of yellow fever while at sea. The family was left with meager financial support and moved in with Elizabeth’s wealthy brothers. A leg injury at an early age left Hawthrone immobile for several months during which time he developed a voracious appetite for reading and set his sights on becoming a writer.
With the aid of his wealthy uncles, young Hawthorne attended Bowdoin College from 1821 to 1825. There he met and befriended Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and future president Franklin Pierce. By his own admission, he was a negligent student with little appetite for study.
Short Stories and Collections
While attending college, Hawthorne missed his mother and two sisters terribly and upon graduation, returned home for a 12-year stay. During this time, he began to write with purpose and soon found his “voice” self-publishing several stories, among them "The Hollow of the Three Hills" and "An Old Woman’s Tale." By 1832, he had written "My Kinsman, Major Molineux" and "Roger Malvin’s Burial," two of his greatest tales and in 1837, Twice Told Tales. Though his writing brought him some notoriety, it didn’t provide a dependable income and for a time he worked for the Boston Custom House weighing and gaging salt and coal.
Budding Success and Marriage
Hawthorne ended his self-imposed seclusion at home about the same time he met Sophia Peabody, a painter, illustrator and transcendentalist. During their courtship, Hawthorne spent some time at the Brook Farm community where he got to know Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. He didn’t find transcendentalism to his favor but living in the commune allowed him to save money for his impending marriage to Sophia. After a long courtship, partially prolonged by Sophia’s poor health, the couple was married on July 9, 1842. They quickly settled in Concord, Massachusetts, and rented Old Manse, owned by Emerson. In 1844, the first of their three children was born.
'The Scarlet Letter'
With mounting debt and a growing family, Hawthorne moved to Salem. A life-long Democrat, political connections helped him land a job as a surveyor in the Salem Custom House in 1846, providing his family some needed financial security. However, when Whig President Zachary Taylor was elected, Hawthorne lost his appointment due to political favoritism. The dismissal turned into a blessing giving him time to write his masterpiece, The Scarlet Letter, the story of two lovers who clashed with the Puritan moral law. The book was one of the first mass-produced publications in the United States and its wide distribution made Hawthorne famous.
Never feeling comfortable living in Salem, Hawthorne was determined to take his family out of the town’s Puritan trappings. They moved to Red House in Lenox, Massachusetts, where he formed a close friendship with Moby Dick author Herman Melville. During this time, Hawthorne enjoyed his most productive period as a writer publishing The House of the Seven Gables, Blithedale Romance and Tanglewood Tales.
During the 1852 election, Hawthorne wrote a campaign biography for his college friend Pierce. When Pierce was elected president, he appointed Hawthorne an American Consul to Britain as a reward. The Hawthorne’s stayed in England from 1853-1857. This period served as inspiration for Hawthorne’s novel Our Old Home.
After serving as consul, Hawthorne took his family on an extended vacation to Italy and then back to England. In 1860, he finished his last novel The Marble Faun. That same year Hawthorne moved his family back to the United States and took permanent residence at The Wayside in Concord, Massachusetts.
After 1860, it was becoming apparent that Hawthorne was moving past his prime. Striving to rekindle his earlier productivity, he found little success. Drafts were mostly incoherent and left unfinished. Some even showed signs of psychic regression. His health began to fail and he seemed to age considerably, hair turning white and experiencing slowness of thought. For months, he refused to seek medical help and died in his sleep on May 19, 1864, in Plymouth, New Hampshire.
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