Nathaniel Hawthorne was born on July 4, 1804. His ancestors had been prominent Puritans. One of these was William Hathorne, a colonial magistrate who was known for his persecution of the Quakers. William's son, John Hathorne, was one of the judges who presided over the Salem witchcraft trials in 1692.
Hawthorne's father, a ship captain, died in Surinam when Hawthorne was 4 years old. His family went to live with his mother's relatives, who recognized his literary talent when he was very young and sent him to private school, and then on to Bowdoin College, in Maine. There, among his classmates were Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and future president of the U.S., Franklin Pierce.
In 1825, after his graduation, Hawthorne went home to live with his mother's family, retreated to an attic room, and wrote for the next 12 years.
In 1836, he moved to Boston and edited The American Magazine of Useful and Entertaining Knowledge, at a salary of $500 per year. The following year, 1837, the publication of Twice-Told Tales established his literary reputation (Poe's review of this book was glowing), but didn't make him a wealthy man.
In 1839, he began a political appointment as an officer in the Boston Custom House. The same year, he became engaged to Sophia Peabody. He lived at the Brook Farm commune for seven months, but left there: the communal life did not suit his personality, and there was too much manual labor and not enough time to write.
In 1842, he married Sophia and they settled in the Old Manse in Concord, Massachusetts, where among his friend and neighbors were Emerson, Thoreau, and Bronson Alcott. There, he wrote Mosses From an Old Manse (1846). But he still needed a stable income, so he took another government position as surveyor in the Salem Custom House. When the new Whig Administration took over, he was fired, along with a number of other Democrats.
Unemployed and with a family to support, he began work on his next novel, The Scarlet Letter. It was published in 1850, and his literary reputation was instantly secured. The popularity of the book made his financial position more stable, as well, and he moved his family to Lenox, Massachusetts, where his new neighbor and friend was Herman Melville, who was just finishing his own masterpiece, Moby-Dick (1851).
In 1851, Hawthorne published another novel, The House of the Seven Gables, and a volume of short stories, The Snow-Image. In 1852, he published The Blithedale Romance, several children's books, and The Life of Franklin Pierce, a campaign biography for his old friend, who was running for president.
When Pierce was elected, he repaid his old friend by making him U.S. Consul to Liverpool, England. Hawthorne served in this post from 1853-1857. He peformed his duties conscientously and competently, but didn't particularly enjoy them. When that job ended, he travelled to Italy, where he and his wife and 3 children lived for the next two years. There, he became friends with Robert Browning, the poet, and began writing his last novel, The Marble Faun.
Hawthorne returned to the United States on June 27, 1860, and settled in Concord. While on a journey to the White Mountains with Franklin Pierce, he died in Plymouth, New Hampshire on May 19, 1864. He was buried on May 23, 1864, in the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord.
Certain themes recur in most of Hawthorne's work. One of these is a concern with the American past as it still affected his own generation (he was the one who added the "w" to "Hathorne"). Like the Transcendentalists, he affirmed the value of imagination and emotions and emphasized the perils of the intellect; yet he was not a Transcendentalist. He saw a narrow separation between good and evil, and was not at all certain that human nature was good. He writes over and over in his stories of hidden or visible "stains" which reveal an inner corruption. He hated the hypocrisy of hidden sin, but believed that every human heart held such secrets.
The Scarlet Letter measures the historical, religious, literary, and emotional distance between Puritan New England and Transcendentalist New England. It is the first American psychological novel, with its exploration of the conscience, guilt, awareness of sin, and the contradictory impulses of the heart. Its preface, "The Custom-House," introduces the themes of separation and contradiction: in it, we are given a narrator who is drawn to a belief in Transcendental goodness and hope, but is still caught in Puritan guilt and original sin. He struggles to balance his subjective imagination with the needs of the community and the "real" world.
The novel itself is filled with symbolism, but it is not allegorical or simple: the symbols allow for many interpretations.
Of the novel, Henry James wrote, "The publication of The Scarlet Letter was in the Unietd States a literary event of the first importance. The book was the finest piece of imaginative writing yet put forth in the country. There was a consciousness of this in the welcome that was given it--a satisfaction in the idea of America having produced a novel that belonged to literature, and to the forefront of it...The best of it was that the thing was absolutely American; it belonged to the soil, to the air; it came out of the very heart of New England."
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Some of the information in this lecture derives from:
1. Eds. George McMichael, et al. Anthology of American Literature, Vol. 1
2. Eds. George and Barbara Perkins. The American Tradition in Literature.
3. Richard Ruland and Malcolm Bradbury. From Puritanism to Postmodernism.
4. Kathryn Harrison, "Introduction to the Scarlet Letter" in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter.Modern Library Classics, 2000.
5. Ed. Leland S. Person. The Scarlet Letter and Other Writings. Norton Critical Edition.
6. Brenda Wineapple. Hawthorne: A Life.
--The mural on this page is called "Rural Highway." It's the mural painted for the Middleport, N.Y. Post Office by Marianne Appel in 1941. More information about this mural can be found at Western New York Heritage Press.
--During the Depression in the 1930s and early 1940s, the U.S. government commissioned a number of murals for post offices across the United States. Many of these were quite amazing. To read more about them, CLICK HERE.