The work of American fiction writer Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) was based on the history of his Puritan ancestors and the New England of his own day but, in its "power of blackness, " has universal significance.
Nathaniel Hawthorne was born in Salem, Mass., on July 4, 1804, into the sixth generation of his Salem family. His ancestors included Puritan magnates, judges, and seamen. Two aspects of his heritage were especially to affect his imagination. The Hathornes (Nathaniel added the "w" to the name) had been involved in religious persecution with their first American forebear, William, and John Hathorne was one of the three judges at the 17th-century Salem witchcraft trials. Further, the family had over the generations gradually declined from its early prominence and prosperity into relative obscurity and indigence. Thus the Pyncheons and the Maules of Hawthorne's Salem novel The House of the Seven Gables represent the two different faces of his ancestors, and his feelings about his birthplace were mixed. With deep and unbreakable ties to Salem, he nevertheless found its physical and cultural environment as chilly as its prevalent east wind.
Early Life and Education
Nathaniel's father, a sea captain, died in 1808, leaving his wife and three children dependent on relatives. Nathaniel, the only son, spent his early years in Salem and in Maine. A leg injury immobilized the boy for a considerable period, during which he developed an exceptional taste for reading and contemplation. His childhood was calm, a little isolated but far from unhappy, especially since as a handsome and attractive only son he was idolized by his mother and his two sisters.
With the aid of his prosperous maternal uncles, the Mannings, Hawthorne attended Bowdoin College from 1821 to 1825, when he graduated. Among his classmates were poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow; Franklin Pierce, the future president of the United States, who was to be at his friend's deathbed; and Horatio Bridge, who was to subsidize the publication of Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales in 1837. At Bowdoin, Hawthorne read widely and received solid instruction in English composition and the classics, particularly in Latin. His persistent refusal to engage in public speaking prevented his achieving any marked academic distinction, but he made a creditable record. On one occasion he was fined 50 cents for gambling at cards, but his conduct was not otherwise singled out for official disapproval. Though small and isolated, the Bowdoin of the 1820s was an unusually good college, and Hawthorne undoubtedly profited by his formal education, as well as making steadfast friends. Such men as Longfellow, Pierce, and Bridge remained devoted to him throughout life, and each would render him timely assistance.
Years as a Recluse
Hawthorne's life was not externally exciting or remarkable, but it presents an interesting symbolic pattern. As John Keats said of Shakespeare, he led a life of allegory and his works are the comments on it. Returning from Bowdoin, Hawthorne spent from 1825 to 1837 in his mother's Salem household. Later he looked back upon these years as a period of dreamlike isolation and solitude, spent in a haunted chamber, where he sat enchanted while other men moved on. The "solitary years" were, however, his literary apprenticeship, during which he learned to write tales and sketches that are still unrivaled and unique.
Recent biographers have shown that this period of Hawthorne's life was less lonely than he remembered it to be. In literal truth, he did have social engagements, played cards, and went to the theater and the Lyceum; his sister Elizabeth remarked that "if there was any gathering of people in the town he always went out; he liked a crowd." Nevertheless, he consistently remembered these 12 years as a strange, dark dream, though his view of their consequences varied.
"In this dismal chamber Fame was won, " Hawthorne wrote, perhaps a little ironically, in 1836. To his fiancée, Sophia Peabody, he later confided, "If ever I should have a biographer, he ought to make great mention of this chamber in my memoirs, because so much of my lonely youth was wasted here, and here my mind and character were formed." On the whole, he felt that his isolation had been beneficial: " … if I had sooner made my escape into the world, I should have grown hard and rough, and been covered with earthly dust, and my heart would have become callous by rude encounters with the multitude"—an observation that he made more than once.
Writing the Short Stories
Most of Hawthorne's early stories were published anonymously in magazines and giftbooks. In his own words, he was "for a good many years, the obscurest man of letters in America." In 1837 the publication of Twice-Told Tales somewhat lifted this spell of darkness. In the preface to the 1851 edition he spoke of "the apparently opposite peculiarities" of these stories. Despite the circumstances under which they were written, "they are not the talk of a secluded man with his own mind and heart … but his attempts, and very imperfectly successful ones, to open an intercourse with the world." The Twice-Told Tales he supplemented with two later collections, Mosses from an Old Manse (1846) and The Snow-Image (1851), along with Grandfather's Chair (1841), a history for children of New England through the Revolution; the Journal of an African Cruiser (1845), edited from the observations of his friend Horatio Bridge while he was purser on an American frigate; and the second edition of the Tales (1842).
Hawthorne's short stories came slowly but steadily into critical favor, and the best of them have become American classics. It may well be claimed for them as a whole that they are the outstanding achievement in their genre to be found in the English language during the 19th century. Lucid, graceful, and well composed, they combine an old-fashioned neoclassic purity of diction with a latent and hard complexity of meaning. They are broadly allegorical but infused with imaginative passion. The combination has produced very different opinions of their value, which Hawthorne himself acutely foresaw, remarking that his touches "have often an effect of tameness, " and that his work, "if you would see anything in it, requires to be read in the clear, brown, twilight atmosphere in which it was written; if opened in the sunshine, it is apt to look exceedingly like a volume of blank pages" (1851 Preface, Twice-Told Tales).
Hawthorne is a master of balance and suggestion who inveterately understates: the texture of his tales, as of his novels, is so delicate that some readers cannot see it at all. But many, too, will testify as Herman Melville did to his "power of blackness." Of Hawthorne's story "Young Goodman Brown, " Melville wrote, "You would of course suppose that it was a simple little tale. … Whereas it is as deep as Dante: nor can you finish it, without addressing the author in his own words: 'It is yours to penetrate, in every bosom, the deep mystery of sin."'
Out in the World
By his own account it was Hawthorne's love of his Salem neighbor Sophia Peabody that brought him from his "haunted chamber" out into the world. His books were far from profitable enough to support a prospective wife and family, so in 1838 he went to work in the Boston Custom House and then spent part of 1841 in the famous Brook Farm community in hopes of finding a pleasant and economical haven for Sophia and himself. It is curious that the seclusive Hawthorne was always interested in experiments in community living: in Brook Farm, in the New England Shaker settlements, and later in Greenwich Hospital in London. He was to record his mingled feelings of sympathy and skepticism about Brook Farm in The Blithedale Romance (1852).
At any rate, Hawthorne and Sophia, whom he married in 1842, resorted not to Brook Farm but to the Old Manse in Concord, where they spent several years of idyllic happiness in as much solitude as they could achieve. Concord, however, contained Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Ellery Channing, and Hawthorne was in frequent contact with these important thinkers, though his was not a nature for transcendental affirmations.
Writing the Novels
Facing the world once more, Hawthorne obtained in 1846 the position of surveyor in the Salem Custom House, from which as a Democrat he was expelled after the Whig victory in the 1848 presidential election. He did not leave without a fight and considerable bitterness, and he took revenge in the "Custom-House" introduction to The Scarlet Letter (1850) and in The House of the Seven Gables (1851), in which he portrayed his chief Whig enemy as the harsh and hypocritical Judge Pyncheon. His dismissal, however, turned out to be a blessing, since it gave him leisure in which to write his greatest and crucial success, The Scarlet Letter. Except for his early Fanshawe (1828), which he suppressed shortly after publication, The Scarlet Letter was his first novel, or, as he preferred to say, "romance"; thus his literary career divided into two distinct parts, since he now almost wholly abandoned the shorter tale.
The period 1850-1853 was Hawthorne's most prolific. Doubtless stimulated by the enthusiastic reception accorded The Scarlet Letter, he went on with The House of the Seven Gables and The Blithedale Romance, along with A Wonder Book (1852) and Tanglewood Tales (1853), exquisitely fanciful stories for children from Greek mythology. During 1850 the Hawthornes lived at the Red House in Lenox in the Berkshire Hills, and Hawthorne formed a memorable friendship with novelist Herman Melville, whose Arrowhead Farm was some miles away on the outskirts of Pittsfield. The association was more important to Melville than to Hawthorne, since Melville was 15 years younger and much the more impressionable of the two men. It left its mark in Melville's celebrated review of Mosses from an Old Manse, in the dedication of his Moby-Dick, and in some wonderful letters. Hawthorne's share in their correspondence has not survived, but he clearly aided Melville with insight and sympathy.
In 1852 Franklin Pierce was elected to the presidency of the United States, and Hawthorne, who was induced to write his campaign biography, was appointed to the important overseas post of American consul at Liverpool, in which he served form 1853 to 1857 with considerable efficiency. These English years resulted in Our Old Home (1863), a volume drawn from the since-published "English Note-Books." It was to give considerable offense to the English public. Hawthorne felt a very deep affinity for "our old home, " but as with his other "old home, " Salem, his feelings were mingled, and he did not hesitate to express them.
In 1857 the Hawthornes left England for Italy, where they spent their time primarily in Rome and Florence. They returned to England, where Hawthorne finished his last and longest complete novel, the "Roman romance" The Marble Faun (1860). They finally returned to the United States, after an absence of seven years, and took up residence in their first permanent home, The Wayside, at Concord, which Hawthorne had bought from Bronson Alcott.
Hawthorne was to live only four more years. Although he had always been an exceptionally vigorous man, his health inexplicably declined; and since he refused to submit to any thorough medical examination, his malady remains mysterious. During these last years in Concord he struggled with no less than four romances, The Ancestral Footstep, Dr. Grimshawe's Secret, Septimius Felton, and The Dolliver Romance, but completed none of them. Ironically, they are obsessively concerned with the theme of "earthly immortality" and the "elixir of life, " which he had earlier touched upon in stories like "Dr. Heidegger's Experiment" (Twice-Told Tales).
Hawthorne died on May 19, 1864. He had set off for the New Hampshire hills with Franklin Pierce. He had always been fond of such expeditions and hoped to benefit from this one. But he died the second night out in Plymouth, N.H., presumably in his sleep. The circumstances of his end were somehow representative of the man, at once settled and at the same time restless when too long in one place. He once said that New England was enough to fill his heart, yet he sought the broader experience of Europe. Modest in expectations, he had yet desired to live fully.
Hawthorne's Literary Background
The case of Hawthorne is complex, in his life and in his writings. A born writer, like Edgar Allan Poe he suffered the difficulties of the writer in early-19th-century America: an unsympathetic environment, the materialism of a physically expanding nation, the lack of an artistic tradition. His Puritan heritage was both a support and a drawback. Its tradition of soul-searching encouraged profundity, and its penchant for seeking God's Providence in natural events provided Hawthorne with a way of seeing and interpreting. It was a highly literate tradition as well. It was, however, notoriously unfriendly to art—fiction as make-believe was mere vanity, and as imitation of God's creatures and creations it was idolatry. A natural artist, Hawthorne was always to worry about the morality of imitating and analyzing human nature in his art of fiction.
With his Puritanism, Hawthorne also inherited the Augustan culture of the early 18th century—a common case in New England, but especially powerful in his. Thus came the purity of his prose style, and its coolness and balance, in a sense retrogressive in his own time. Yet he was also responsive to the influence of his near contemporaries, the English romantics. He read widely and was vitally influenced by all the chief romantic poets, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats. Hawthorne drew especially upon Coleridge's critical principles for his own theory of the prose romance. Like the romantics, he too desired to live fully and make the best use of his sensibilities, but his impulses were tempered by Augustan moderation and Puritan self-distrust.
A serious and conscientious craftsman, Hawthorne yet was not committed (as was Henry James) to the craft of fiction, not being minded to sacrifice either himself or those who depended upon him to its demands. He held a rather too pessimistic view of his own talent, and his deep Puritan skepticism of the value of merely human effort was also a deterrent to complete dedication to fiction; the volume of his writing is substantial but not great.
Power of Darkness
Hawthorne's belief in Providence could be discouraging, but it was also a source of strength. Along with Melville, he was one of the great "no-sayers" of 19th-century America. He accepted, imaginatively if not literally, the doctrine of the Fall of Man, and thus the radical imperfection of man. In his work there is as much light as darkness, but the dark is perhaps the more dramatic hue. In imaginative literature evil can be an esthetic element with the dark as a contrast to light; and Hawthorne used contrast so effectively that Henry James believed his "darkness" to be mere fanciful playing, with evil and pain used simply as counters in his fictional game. Melville, however, perceived more deeply that Hawthorne might be fascinated with the problem of evil as an element of his design, yet at the same time treat it with the utmost seriousness ("Hawthorne and his Mosses").
Tragedy is traditionally the most complex literary form, while it is also an imaginative testing ground, in which the human spirit is broadened and deepened by its struggle with the utmost imaginable adversity. In The Scarlet Letter, for example, the protagonists Hester and Dimmesdale are opposed not only by Puritan society but by something in themselves, and by a mysterious and invisible principle of reality still more powerful.
Allegorical Structures and Themes
Hawthorne's fictional structures are basically allegorical confrontations of good and evil, and his characters can usually be classified as types. He writes, however, not to prove points or teach moral lessons, which are themselves his fictional materials rather than his conclusions. The House of the Seven Gables, for instance, has a message, "the truth, namely, that the wrongdoing of one generation lives into the successive ones, and, divesting itself of every temporary advantage, becomes a pure and uncontrollable mischief." But Hawthorne reflects that when romances do teach anything, "it is usually through a far more subtle process than the ostensible one. … A high truth, indeed, fairly, finely, and skillfully wrought out, brightening at every step, and crowning the final development of a work of fiction, may add an artistic glory, but is never any truer, and seldom any more evident, at the last page than at the first" (Preface, The House of the Seven Gables).
Isolation or "alienation" is Hawthorne's principal theme and problem, and loss of contact with reality is the ultimate penalty he envisions. Characteristically, this results from a separation of the "head, " or intellect, and the "heart, " a term that includes the emotions, the passions, and the unconscious. The heart is the custodian of man's deepest potentialities for good and evil, and it is man's vital connection with reality. Too much "head" leads always to a fatal intellectual pride, which distorts and finally destroys the wholeness of the real world. This, for Hawthorne, is the worst sin or calamity that man is heir to.
Further Reading on Nathaniel Hawthorne
Randall Stewart, Nathaniel Hawthorne (1948), is the standard biography. Newton Arvin, Hawthorne (1929), contains criticism and psychological analysis. Mark Van Doren, Nathaniel Hawthorne (1949), presents a balanced interpretation of Hawthorne's life and principal works. Older works include Henry James, Jr., Hawthorne (1879).
Notable treatments of Hawthorne's art in its historical and national contexts appear in Yvor Winters, Maule's Curse: Seven Studies in the History of American Obscurantism (1938); F. O. Matthiessen, American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman (1941); Charles Feidelson, Jr., Symbolism and American Literature (1953); and Richard Chase, The American Novel and Its Tradition (1957), which is illuminating on the tradition of "romance" in America. More specialized interpretations of Hawthorne's fiction are Richard Harter Fogle, Hawthorne's Fiction: The Light and the Dark (1952, rev. ed. 1964) and Hawthorne's Imagery (1969); Hyatt H. Waggoner, Hawthorne: A Critical Study (1955, rev. ed. 1963); and Roy R. Male, Hawthorne's Tragic Vision (1957).