Who is Nathaniel Hawthorne?

Niki Foster

Nathaniel Hawthorne was a 19th century American author of novels and short stories. He was the main figure of the Anti-transcendentalist movement, which objected to the claim of Transcendentalists like Henry David Thoreau that man is inherently good. Hawthorne's work often deals with the idea that sin is inherent in man and unavoidable. He makes heavy use of allegory, and many of his stories can be read as having a moral lesson — often that no one can escape their sinful nature and that all should consequently practice tolerance.

Nathaniel Hawthorne was born in Salem, Massachusetts on July 4, 1804.
Nathaniel Hawthorne was born in Salem, Massachusetts on July 4, 1804.

He was born in Salem, Massachusetts on 4 July 1804. Hawthorne's ancestor, John Hathorne, presided over the Salem witchcraft trials and was the only judge who did not later repent of his actions. It has been speculated that guilt over this fact prompted the gloomy philosophy in much of Nathaniel Hawthorne's writing. He also may have added the w to his surname in order to distance himself from his relative. He lost his father, also named Nathaniel, to yellow fever at the age of four.

Hawthorne is often included as part of the American literary canon.
Hawthorne is often included as part of the American literary canon.

Nathaniel Hawthorne was educated at Bowdoin College, where he became lifelong friends with poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and future US president Franklin Pierce. Hawthorne devoted much of his time to writing and published his first book of short stories, Twice-Told Tales, in 1837. This volume contained many of his most famous stories, including "Dr. Heidegger's Experiment" and "The Minister's Black Veil."

Hawthorne became engaged to painter Sophia Peabody in 1838, and the couple joined a Transcendentalist utopian society known as Brook Farm in 1841. However, the author did not enjoy the experience, and they left the community the same year. In 1842, they married and moved to the Old Manse, a home in Concord, Massachusetts, built by the father of Transcendentalist writer Ralph Waldo Emerson. During the three years that the couple spent at the Old Manse, Hawthorne worked on his second book of short stories, Mosses from an Old Manse (1846). In 1847, he and his wife moved to a different home in Concord, called the Wayside.

In 1846, Hawthorne gained a post at the Salem Custom House, but lost his job as a result of his political affiliation just two years later, when the Whig party gained control of the presidency. Luckily, his writing career benefited, and his most well-known novel, The Scarlet Letter, was published in 1850. The House of the Seven Gables was published the next year, and The Blithedale Romance appeared in 1852.

The next year, 1853, Franklin Pierce was sworn in as president of the United States, and Hawthorne, who had written Pierce's campaign biography, was once again employed, this time as the US consul in Liverpool. When his post ended in 1857, he traveled Europe with his wife and three children. In 1860, they returned to the Wayside, and Hawthorne published his final novel, The Marble Faun, the same year. His health began declining rapidly for unknown reasons, and he died on 19 May 1864 in New Hampshire, where he was traveling with Franklin Pierce. The writer is buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord.

Nathaniel Hawthorne's stories have been frequently anthologized since his death and are among the staples of 19th century horror fiction. The Scarlet Letter, one of the first American Gothic novels, has been immensely popular since its publication and was adapted for film multiple times, first in 1917. Hawthorne is also noted for being the first writer to experiment with alternative history in fiction. He inspired other writers, including Herman Melville, and has a well-deserved place in the American literary canon.

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Discussion Comments


What makes Hawthorne significant?


Hawthorne lived in incredible life full of unruled passion and fresh perspectives. Is it really true that his hatred for and disappointment in his ancestors molded him into such an excellent writer?


@dega2010: John Hathorne was Nathaniel Hawthorne’s great grandfather and a justice of the peace, as well as a county judge. John Hathorne was convinced the devil could use witches to undermine the church and do people harm. This is what started the hunt for witches and the start of the Salem Witch Trials.

Many innocent people were put to death and brought shame to the Hathorne name. Nathaniel wanted to distance himself from his great grandfather, so he added a “w” to his name.


How were John Hathorne and Nathaniel Hawthorne related?


Hawthorne was a puritan.


Did Nathaniel Hawthorne have any beliefs? Or was he believed to merely be a critic of other religions.

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