Nathaniel Hawthorne


A picture of the author Nathaniel Hawthorne

Nathaniel Hawthorne, born on July 4, 1804 in Salem, Massachusetts, was an American short story writer and romance novelist. He is best known for his short stories and two widely read novels; The Scarlet Letter (mid-March 1850) and The House of Seven Gables (1851). Along with Herman Melville and Edgar Allan Poe, much of Hawthorne's work belongs to the sub-genre of Dark Romanticism; which is distinguished by an emphasis on human fallibility that gives rise to lapses in judgement that allow even good men and women to drift toward sin and self-destruction, and also tends to draw attention to the unintended consequences and complications that arise from well-intended efforts at social reform.

A contemporary of fellow transcendalists Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Louisa May Alcott, Hawthorne was part of this prominent circle of Massachusetts writers and philosophers. He was a founding member of Brook Farm, a utopian experiment in communal living -- though he is not portrayed as a deep believer in its ideals and later fictionalized the experience in his novel The Blithedale Romance (1852). His work was often set in colonial New England and is heavily weighted with the moral complexity of his Puritan background (and perhaps the deeds of his ancestors in those communities).

The Scarlet Letter was one of the first mass-produced novels in America and became an instant best seller, selling over 2,500 in the first two weeks. It was praised for its sentimentality and moral purity by the likes of D. H. Lawrence, who said that there could be no more perfect work of the American imagination.

Edgar Allan Poe, a fellow author in the romantic movement and influential literary critic wrote negative reviews of Hawthorne's stories. Poe did not admire stories that were allegorical and moral in nature so his criticism was in form. Though even he begrudgingly acknowledged that Hawthorne's style "is like purity itself." Hawthorne's highest regarded short stories include My Kinsman, Major Molineaux (1832), Young Goodman Brown (1835), and Feathertop (1852). His later writings reflect his increasing disdain for the Transcendentalist Movement.

Now I am going to break from my biographical narrative to add a personal note. After a lifetime of reading, Nathaniel Hawthorne has emerged as one of my absolute favorite authors of all time. If you are not having fun while reading Hawthorne you are doing it wrong! For instance, "My Kinsman, Major Molineaux" is a comic short story and should be enjoyed as such (it does have a "tragic" ending). It's the story of a young "hayseed" on his first visit to the "big city" and he suffers the embarrassments one would expect and few extras thrown in for good measure. On one level it could inspire a Monty Python skit. I think there is a secret to understanding and appreciating Hawthorne's body of work. And I will share that with you. But be warned; he is not a cheap date! The price of admission is that one must read and study over the introductory chapter to The Scarlet Letter, The Custom-House. Then read the Preface to the Second Edition and then -- sorry -- read The Custom-House again. As much as it will not feel like it at the time, if you are a high school student, and your English teacher has asked you to specifically read The Custom-House, it's because he or she loves you and cares about your education (which as Twain famously pointed out, should not be confused with your schooling). You will know that your truly understand those two introductory chapters when you realize the Nathaniel Hawthorne was a mid-1850s Bad Ass who explicitly, purposely, and repeatedly "stuck it to the man", even after, heck especially after they asked him to stop! I also do not think you can properly understand The Scarlet Letter without understanding The Custom-House (and marking the sins of Hawthorne's forefathers). I assure you, the effort is worth the reward. [And I do offer belated apologies to my sophomore English teacher for my essay entitled, "Why I Hate English Class," which I tendered like a smart-aleck after my first bout with The Custom-House.]

For the record, Hawthorne died in his sleep in 1864 during a tour of the White Mountains in Plymouth, New Hampshire, and he was educated at one of my favorite small universities, Bowdoin College, where he was a student from 1821-1824.