Biography  |  Bibliography  |  Articles  |  Quotes  |  Links  

Nathaniel Hawthorne - Biography

Nathaniel Hawthorne (July 4, 1804 – May 19, 1864) was an American writer. Hawthorne was born in Salem, Massachusetts to a family with a long New England history. The original name of the family was Hathorne, he added a 'w' to distinguish himself from the history which included John Hathorne, a prominent judge in the Salem witch trials of 1692-3. The Hathorne legacy was one of strict Puritanism which Hawthorne grappled with in his stories and novels, The Scarlet Letter perhaps being the most well-known. While Hawthorne was certainly a part of the American Transcendentalists, living in close proximity to Ralph Waldo Emerson during a a few periods of his life, participating in the communal Brook Farm and being friendly with Oliver Wendell Homes Sr and Herman Melville; Hawthorne (and his wife Sophia) were reclusive and rather solitary. On occasion of his funeral Emerson wrote, "I thought there was a tragic element in the event, that might be more fully rendered,—in the painful solitude of the man, which, I suppose, could no longer be endured, & he died of it."

In 1808, when Hawthorne was four his father, a sea-captain, died of yellow fever in Suriname and Hawthorne's upbringing was left up to his mother. His uncle, Robert Manning, helped to finance his college education at Bowdoin College, a choice which Hawthorne protested greatly and at seventeen is quoted as already knowing his vocation, “I do not want to be a doctor and live by men's diseases, nor a minister to live by their sins, nor a lawyer and live by their quarrels. So, I don't see that there is anything left for me but to be and author." In this sentiment there is already the direction which Hawthorne's writing would follow; one of encountering those aspects of humanity (diseases, sins and quarrels) through a lens which would bring them into a focus highlighting their ambiguities and the conflict of man within their paradoxes.

Hawthorne, although not entirely interested in higher education, enrolled at Bowdoin College in 1821. During his college years, Hawthorne met friends he would keep throughout his life including poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, future naval commander Horatio Bridge and future president Franklin Pierce. He didn't study for any particular profession although he studied the classics, mathematics, philosophy, composition and natural science. He didn't much care for schooling even though he was an avid reader and writer and it is interesting to note that his instruction in modern literature and history was slim. He was an average student, graduating in 1825.

After graduation, Hawthorne spent time at his mother's home in Salem. From his journals it is apparent that he spent much of his time reading and writing. His inquiries at the Salem Athenaeum, the local library, led him to his ancestral roots and he read much about his Puritan past supplementing his family's influence in the colonies with reading by such developmental American writers as William Bradford, John Winthrop and Cotton Mather. During this time he also wrote many short stories although when his first try at getting a collection published failed he gave them to the fire. His first novel, Fanshawe, was published in 1828 anonymously, but it did not receive much attention. He persevered in his intent on being a writer and slowly began to get another collection of short stories published although not in one publication. Eventually, his schoolmate Horatio Bridge convinced him to publish under his own name and without Hawthorne's knowledge put up money to guarantee any losses with the publisher, Samuel G. Goodrich. Twice-Told Tales was a success, gathering a few favorable reviews one from his friend Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Twice-Told Tales was published in 1837, twelve years from Hawthorne's graduation from college. Since he lived with his mother, income was not terribly pressing although he had spent a short time editing the American Magazine of Useful and Entertaining Knowledge before abandoning the position since it interfered with his writing. In 1839 he accepted a position at the Boston Custom House weighing and gauging salt and coal. The previous year he had met Sophia Peabody, the two of them were matched in solitary and retiring dispositions and very much in love, and being separated was difficult for them both. In 1841, Hawthorne resigned his position, deciding to participate in the Transcendentalist movement's experimental Brook Farm where he felt he would be able to make enough money to marry Sophia (it was also where he met Margaret Fuller who may or may not have been inspiration for his later novel, The Blithedale Romance). After a year, however, he decided it wasn't quite for him writing, “It is my opinion that a man's soul may be buried under a dung heap or in a furrow of the field just as well as under a pile of money." In 1842 he and Sophia were married at her parent's home in Boston.

Once married, the young couple moved to Concord, Massachusetts and rented the Old Manse from Ralph Waldo Emerson. Embedded in the literary circle and Transcendental movement, the Hawthorne’s lived quite the social life for their reclusive natures. Sophia took more to the ideas of transcendentalism while Nathaniel felt that there was a darkness and gloom that was overlooked by the Transcendetalist. Hawthorne continued to write short stories for publication and in 1842 reissued an edition of Twice-Told Tales and in 1846 published Mosses from an Old Manse, the book that would inspired Herman Melville to write a glowing review in 1850 that acknowledged the importance of recognizing guilt, evil and mystery in humanity writing that Hawthorne's dark side was “shrouded in blackness, ten times black."

The income from publishing short stories still left much to be desired and the couple moved in with Hawthorne's mother in Salem in 1845. Hawthorne took up a job at the Salem Custom House but since Boston had taken much of the seaport business from Salem, Hawthorne was left with time to accept the position of secretary of the Salem Lyceum which hosted speakers as well as spend time with his dear wife and burgeoning family. In 1848, Zachary Taylor won the presidency and with it, Hawthorne lost his job (which was given as a part of the Democratic Party, Taylor's presidency left the Whigs in charge and Hawthorne without a job). The following year he experienced the loss of his mother, but it was also the year that Hawthorne found a worn letter “A" in the attic of the old home and with it came the inspiration to write his arguably most famous novel, The Scarlet Letter. The story of adulteress Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale was self-described by Hawthorne as a “hell-fired story" and he writes about reading it to Sophia that "It broke her heart and sent her to bed with a grievous headache, which I look upon as a triumphant success." The Scarlet Letter was one of the first mass-produced books in the United States upon its release in 1850 and it gathered much praise and criticism for the novels supposed morbidity.

After finishing The Scarlet Letter, the Hawthorne's moved into a farmhouse in Lenox, Massachusetts. It was during this productive year and a half that Hawthorne was able to write The House of the Seven Gables and to establish his friendship with Herman Melville. Herman Melville had begun his writing of Moby Dick and consequently dedicated his masterpiece to Hawthorne. The rural life didn't sit too well with Hawthorne, however, who favored being close to the sea and the city and in 1851, the family (now with three children in tow) moved back to Concord where they resided in the Alcott's Hillside, which the Hawthorne's renamed Wayside. It was at this point that Hawthorne penned his thinly veiled critique of Brook Farm, The Blithedale Romance, published the next year.

During the writing of what Hawthorne termed his “romances," since they sided with the Romantic movement in literature and sought to explore the human condition, he also wrote stories for children based on Greek myths. He also wrote a campaign biography for his college friend, Franklin Pierce and upon Pierce's election to the presidency, Hawthorne was appointed to a position in England that was similar to his previous custom house positions. While in Europe, the Hawthorne's were able to travel and it was the year spent in Rome that inspired his novel The Marble Faun, published in 1860. After seven years, the family returned to Wayside and Hawthorne continued to write small pieces and in his journal although his health was beginning to fade. He refused to see a doctor and became increasingly weak and depressed. In 1864, he went on a trip with President Pierce regardless of his deteriorating health and it was on the way to Pierce's home in new Hampshire that Hawthorne passed away in the night.

Nathaniel Hawthorne was an American Writer. (July 4, 1804 – May 19, 1864)