the fourth day of July in 1804, America's Independence Day celebration included,
among other things, the birth of one of the first great American novelists,
Nathaniel Hawthorne. Born in Salem, Massachusetts, he is the author of
many memorable novels, including The Scarlet Letter (1850) and The House of Seven Gables (1851).
He was a leading player, along with long-time literary rival
Herman Melville, in the burgeoning American
Hawthorne came from a family of
stanch Puritans. One of his ancestors was a witchcraft judge during the Salem trials
nearly two centuries earlier. His father was a sailor and died at sea
when young Hawthorne was only four. After her husband's death, his mother
became a recluse, rarely leaving the house.
learned from her what he called the "cursed habits of solitude." He
once wrote to his friend, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, "I have locked myself
in a dungeon and I can't find the key to get out." When he did venture
out of the house, he took long walks by himself. He loved to climb the
steeple of Christ Church and look down on the town beneath him.
Writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Herman Melville,
and Hawthorne looked not only to the Puritan origins of American history,
but also to Puritan styles of rhetoric to create a distinctive American
"Not to be deficient in this particular, the author has provided
himself with a moral - the truth, namely, that the wrongdoing of one
generation lives into the successive ones." - from The House of Seven Gables, 1851
In 1842, Hawthorne became friends with followers of
Concord's transcendentalist movement, which included Ralph Waldo Emerson,
Henry David Thoreau, and Bronson Alcott. Although he generally
mistrusted intellectuals and artists, Hawthorne married
transcendentalist Sophia Peabody in 1842. They settled in Concord. But a
growing family and mounting debts eventually forced them to return to Salem,
where Hawthorne took a position in 1846 as surveyor of the Port of Salem,
where he worked for three years.
When Hawthorne's mother died
in 1849, the author wrote in his diary that her death
was "the darkest hour I ever lived." Shortly after, he began work
on his novel, The Scarlet Letter (1850), about a Puritan woman named
Hester Prynne who is forced to wear the letter "A" on her chest to signify
for all that she is an adulteress. The novel was a huge success, and
Hawthorne became a literary celebrity, although he remained shy and
reclusive. The influence of the novel is apparent in Henry James' The Portrait of a Lady (1881), Kate Chopin's The Awakening (1899), and William
Faulkner's As I Lay Dying (1930).
Nathaniel Hawthorne, who once
wrote, "Easy reading is damned hard writing," died in 1864.
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