Nathaniel Hawthorne ( 1804-1864)
The Hawthorne Children
Born in Salem, Massachusetts on July 4, 1804, Nathaniel Hawthorne came from an old Puritan family: one of his ancestors was a stern judge at the infamous Salem Witch trials in the 1690's. Hawthorne was aware of the familial connection and added the "w" to his last name to differentiate himself from his ancestor. For most of his adult life, Hawthorne was preoccupied with the history of Puritan New England and set many of his stories in the New England of the Seventeenth Century. His stories and novels deal with issues of sin, guilt, pride and punishment. His works are carefully structured and deal with psychological issues. Hawthorne probed the depths of human character. He did not believe in the concept of predestination which was held by his Puritan ancestors. He often used complex allegory and symbolism --much if it missed by the modern reader. Many of his early stories, such as his "Twice-Told Tales" are enriched by Hawthorne's deep understanding of the history of Puritan New England. Indeed, at least one modern critic has written extensively about Hawthorne's use of history --the story "The May-Pole of Merry Mount" is a good example as it is based on an actual incident in Puritan New England.
Hawthorne's father was a sea captain who died in 1808 while on a voyage. His mother was aided in raising her children by well- to- do relatives. While a boy, Hawthorne lived in Maine--an experience he enjoyed. His prosperous uncles insisted he attend college. He graduated from Bowdoin College in 1825, one of his life long friends and classmates was Franklin Pierce, the 14th President of the United States. Another friend, Horatio Bridge, subsidized the publication of "Twice-Told Tales" in 1837. After college, Hawthorne returned to his mother's Salem home, where he wrote and developed his artistic vision. He lived there from 1825 to 1837. While not a recluse, he did not work in the conventional sense. These years should be seen as his literary apprenticeship, a time when he learned how to write his unique stories. In the late 1830's he met and fell in love with Sophia Peabody. Hawthorne realized that income from his books was not enough to support a future family, so he went to work at the Boston Custom House. For a time ( part of 1841) he lived at Brook Farm. He finally married Sophia in 1842. The marriage was a happy one, producing three children. After his marriage, Hawthorne and his wife moved to the"Old Manse" in Concord, where they lived happily for several years. Still writing excellent stories ( e.g. "Roger Malvin's Burial," "Young Goodman Brown") but needing more income for his growing family, in 1846 Hawthorne became surveyor of the Salem customhouse. He was dismissed from that position because of political reasons, but he had already begun writing "The Scarlet Letter," now regarded as his masterpiece. The story of Hester Prynne and her adulterous affair with minister Arthur Dimmesdale is a story of guilt, love, punishment and shame. Hawthorne's careful structure of the novel and his insights into human personality are intensified by his use of symbols and thoughtful use of words to create mood and tone. In 1850, Hawthorne moved to Lenox where he wrote "The House of the Seven Gables" and became friends with Herman Melville. He also wrote books for boys and girls and yet another novel-"The Blithedale Romance." He wrote a campaign biography for his friend and eventual president, Franklin Pierce. He was rewarded for that work with a consulship in England, a post he held until 1857. He and his family then lived in Italy for three years. In 1860, Hawthorne returned to the United States. The Civil War deeply distressed him and slowly his health and creative powers began to wane. He was unable to finish books he started. He grew weaker, much to the distress of his wife and friends. On May 18, while on a trip with his friend, Pierce, to Plymouth, New Hampshire Hawthorne died in his sleep. Some believe he knew he was dying ( perhaps from stomach cancer) and that he made the trip to spare his wife the sorrow of witnessing his last days. He, Sophia and one of their daughters are buried together in Concord's Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.