Nathaniel Hawthorne

November 6, 2012 2:13 pm
Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864), American novelist, whose works are deeply concerned with the ethical problems of sin, punishment, and atonement. Hawthorne’s exploration of these themes was related to the sense of guilt he felt about the roles of his ancestors in the 17th-century persecution of Quakers (see Friends, Society of) and in the 1692 witchcraft trials of Salem, Massachusetts.

Born in Salem, Massachusetts, into an old Puritan family, Hawthorne graduated from Bowdoin College in 1825. He subsequently returned to his Salem home, living in semi-seclusion and writing. His work received little public recognition, however, and Hawthorne attempted to destroy all copies of his first novel, Fanshawe (1828), which he had published at his own expense. During this period he also contributed articles and short stories to periodicals. Several of the stories were published in Twice-Told Tales (1837), which, although not a financial success, established Hawthorne as a leading writer. These early works are largely historical sketches and symbolic and allegorical tales (see Allegory) dealing with moral conflicts and the effects of Puritanism on colonial New England.
Unable to earn a living by literary work, in 1839 Hawthorne took a job as weigher in the Boston, Massachusetts, customhouse. Two years later he returned to writing and produced a series of sketches of New England history for children, Grandfather’s Chair: A History for Youth(1841). In 1841 he also joined the communal society at Brook Farm near Boston, hoping to be able to live in such comfort that he could marry and still have time to devote to his writing. The demands of the farm were too great, however; Hawthorne was unable to continue his writing while doing farm chores, and after less than a year he withdrew from the community. In 1842 he married Sophia Amelia Peabody of Salem and settled in Concord, Massachusetts, in a house called the Old Manse. During the four years he lived in Concord, Hawthorne wrote a number of tales that were later published as Mosses from an Old Manse (1846). They include “Roger Malvin’s Burial,””Rappaccini’s Daughter,” and “Young Goodman Brown,” tales in which Hawthorne’s preoccupation with the effects of pride, guilt, sin, and secrecy are combined with a continued emphasis on symbolism and allegory.
To survive, Hawthorne returned to government service in 1846 as surveyor of the Salem customhouse. In 1849 he was dismissed because of a change in political administration. By then he had already begun writing The Scarlet Letter (1850), a novel about the adulterous Puritan Hester Prynne, who loyally refuses to reveal the name of her partner. Regarded as his masterpiece and as one of the classics of American literature, The Scarlet Letter reveals both Hawthorne’s superb craftsmanship and the powerful psychological insight with which he probed guilt and anxiety in the human soul.
In 1850 Hawthorne moved to Lenox, Massachusetts, where he enjoyed the friendship of the novelist Herman Melville, an admirer of Hawthorne’s work. At Lenox, Hawthorne wrote The House of the Seven Gables(1851), in which he traced the decadence of Puritanism in an old New England family, and A Wonder Book for Girls and Boys (1852) and Tanglewood Tales for Girls and Boys (1853), which retold classical legends. During a short stay in West Newton, Massachusetts, he produced The Snow-Image and Other Twice-Told Tales (1852), which show his continuing preoccupation with the themes of guilt and pride, and The Blithedale Romance (1852), a novel inspired by his life at Brook Farm.
In 1852 Hawthorne returned to Concord, where he wrote a campaign biography of his college friend Franklin Pierce. After Pierce’s election to the United States presidency, he rewarded Hawthorne with the consulship at Liverpool, England, a post Hawthorne held until 1857. In 1858 and 1859 Hawthorne lived in Italy, collecting material for his heavily symbolic novel The Marble Faun (1860).
In 1860, on the eve of the American Civil War, Hawthorne returned to the United States. His political isolation is indicated in his dedication of Our Old Home (1863) to Pierce, who had become highly unpopular because of his support of the Southern slave owners. Hawthorne’s posthumously published works include the unfinished novels Septimius Felton (1872), The Dolliver Romance (1876), Dr. Grimshawe’s Secret (1883), and The Ancestral Footsteps (1883) and his American Notebooks (1868), English Notebooks (1870), and French and Italian Notebooks (1871).
With modern psychological insight Hawthorne probed the secret motivations in human behavior and the guilt and anxiety that he believed resulted from all sins against humanity, especially those of pride. In his preoccupation with sin he followed the tradition of his Puritan ancestors, but in his concept of the consequences of sin—as either punishment due to lack of humility and overwhelming pride, or regeneration by love and atonement—he deviated radically from the idea of predestination held by his forebears. Hawthorne characterized most of his books as romances, a category of literature not as strictly bound to realistic detail as novels. This freed him to manipulate the atmospheres of his scenes and the actions of his characters in order to represent symbolically the passions, emotions, and anxieties of his characters and to expose “the truth of the human heart” that he believed lies hidden beneath mundane daily life. Hawthorne’s emphasis on allegory and symbolism often makes his characters seem shadowy and unreal, but his best characters reveal the emotional and intellectual ambivalence he felt to be inseparable from the Puritan heritage of America.
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