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Nathaniel Hawthorne - Biography & Selected Products

Selected products from Nathaniel Hawthorne

    

The novelist and short story writer Nathaniel Hawthorne’s heritage is one of rigid political stance, authority and a strict approach to personal and public affairs. Born on July 4th, 1804, to Nathaniel Hathorne Sr. and Elizabeth Clarke Hathorne (née Manning) in Salem, Massachusetts, Nathaniel Sr., a sea captain, died of yellow fever in Suriname in 1808. Though born Hathorne, he later changed his name by adding the ‘w’ in order to conceal his relation to his birth-name name which was coloured by his great-great-grandfather’s involvement in the Salem witch trials; John Hathorne was the only one of the various judges who never repented of his involvement with the trials, or the various brutalities which ensued. The family had settled first in Dorchester when John’s father William, Nathaniel’s great-great-great-grandfather, emigrated from England, whereupon he became a key figure in the Massachusetts Bay Colony and held several influential political positions which included magistrate and judge; as a judge he was infamous for his particularly harsh sentencing.

Following Nathaniel Hathorne Sr.’s death, Elizabeth, the young Nathaniel and his two sisters moved to live with the Mannings in Salem, staying there for ten years, during which time Nathaniel was bedridden for a year having been hit on the leg while playing “bat and ball”, though several physicians could not establish what was the problem. Then, in 1816, the family stayed as boarders on a farm while they waited to move in to a new home in Raymond, Maine, which Hawthorne’s uncles Richard and Robert Manning had built for them specifically. It was situated near Sebago Lake and surrounded by quite dense woodland. Hawthorne later recounted the time they spent there as “delightful days, for that part of the country was wild then, with only scattered clearings, and nine tenths of it primeval woods”. It was certainly an evocative environment in which a creative young mind might develop and perhaps accounts for his fascination with New England puritanism. However, he was sent back to Salem in 1819 for school and soon developed a strong homesickness, both for his family and the countryside. One of the ways he dealt with this homesickness and dissatisfaction with Salem was by writing and sending to his family several issues of The Spectator, a satirical, homemade newspaper, written by hand and comprising essays, poems and news. Not only was it a pleasant way to spend his time and a thoughtful way to stay in contact with his family; it also exhibits his burgeoning talent as a writer, along with a healthy dose of his adolescent humour.

Following his schooling in Salem, his uncle Robert insisted that he go on to attend college, to great protest by Hawthorne. Since it was so much his wish, Robert met most of the financial requirements himself and, accordingly, in 1821 Hawthorne was sent to Bowdoin College. The choice of this establishment was due in part to the family’s connections in the area, and perhaps also owing to its relatively inexpensive fees. It was while waiting at the stage stop for the horses on his way there for the first time that Hawthorne met and befriended Franklin Pierce who would later become the President of the United States. Despite Pierce’s increasingly high profile, the two remained friends for life. Pierce wasn’t the only prominent figure Hawthorne encountered though; also at the school were future poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the future naval reformer Horatio Bridge and the future congressman Jonathan Cilley, with whom he had a bet for a bottle of Madeira wine that Cilley would marry before Hawthorne did. He and these friends formed a secret society, the Pot-8-0 club while at College, though it is not clear what the purpose of the club was. Later, describing his time at the College to Richard Henry Stoddard, he said “I was educated (as the phrase is) at Bowdoin College. I was an idle student, negligent of college rules and the Procrustean details of academic life, rather choosing to nurse my own fancies that to dig into Greek roots and be numbered among the learned Thebans.” Despite this apparent indifference to his schooling, he graduated in 1825.

Hawthorne’s first proper professional appointment came in 1836, at which time he began service as the editor of the American Magazine of Useful and Entertaining Knowledge in Boston while boarding on Hancock Street in Beacon Hill with the poet Thomas Green Fessenden. While he was there he received the offer of a position at the Boston Custom House as weigher and gauger, with a salary of $1,500 per year. He took the position on January 17th, 1839, and rented a room from George Stillman Hillard, the business partner of Charles Sumner. Meanwhile, he wrote short stories from his ‘owl’s nest’ in the family home, in what he considered comparable security. Looking back on the time, he would write “I have not lived, but only dreamed of living”. Several of these short stories he sent to magazines and annuals, including ‘Young Goodman Brown’ and ‘The Minister’s Black Veil’, though none of these brought him much attention as an author. His friend Horatio Bridge promised to cover the cost of collecting his stories into one volume, Twice-Told Tales, an endeavour which brought Hawthorne moderate local fame.

Though by 1836 he had won the bet and the bottle of Madeira, Hawthorne did not remain a bachelor for long. Brief public flirtations with Mary Silsbee and Mary Peabody, both local women, he then began to court Peabody’s sister, the illustrator and transcendentalist Sophia. Seeking to marry her, and in need of a home in which they could both live, in 1841 he joined the transcendentalist Utopian community at Brook Farm. This was not because of any real agreement with the experiment, but because he realised it would save him money which he could put towards the wedding. Paying a $1,000 deposit, he was tasked with shoveling the hill of manure on the site which was referred to as “the Gold Mine”. Though he left later in the year, his experiences there had provided him with the inspiration for a later novel, The Blithedale Romance. Hawthorne and Peabody married on July 9th, 1842, during a ceremony held in the Peabody parlor on West Street in Boston. They then moved to The Old Manse in Concord, Massachusetts, and lived there for three years where they were neighbours with Ralph Waldo Emerson. Though Emerson extended his hand in friendship by inviting Hawthorne into his social circle, Hawthorne’s extreme shyness meant he spent most of the time with the group in silence. It was here that Hawthorne wrote most of the tales collected in Mosses from an Old Manse.

Sophia, too, was reclusive and socially anxious, and she suffered frequently from migraines for which she sought various experimental medical treatments. Having been largely bedridden until her sister presented her to Hawthorne, these headaches and their associated infirmities seemed to abate following that meeting and they would enjoy a long, happy marriage. Hawthorne wrote of his wife, to whom he referred as his “Dove”, that she “is, in the strictest sense, my sole companion; and I need no other - there is no vacancy in my mind, and more than in my heart... Thank God that I suffice for her boundless heart!” Perhaps a contributing factor in Hawthorne’s ‘sufficiency’ was his writing; Sophia was a great admirer of his work, writing in one of her journals that “I am always so dazzled and bewildered with the richness, the depth, the ... jewels of beauty in his productions that I am always looking forward to a second reading where I can ponder and muse and fully take in the miraculous wealth of thoughts.”

On July 9th 1843, the new couple’s first anniversary, they were called on by the poet Ellery Channing who was seeking assistance in the drowning of Martha Hunt, a local teenager dead in the river. In order to recover her body, Channing resolved to borrow Hawthorne’s boat, Pond Lily, and Hawthorne elected to go out himself and assist. He described the scene on recovering the corpse as “a spectacle of such perfect horror... She was the very image of death-agony”. Hawthorne went on to use the incident as inspiration for a scene in The Blithedale Romance. With Sophia, Hawthorne had three children, the first of whom was born on the 3rd March 1844 and named Una, in reference to The Faerie Queene and much to the displeasure of various family members. Undeterred, however, Hawthorne found much happiness and purpose in her, writing to a friend that “I find it a very sober and serious kind of happiness that springs from the birth of a child... There is no escaping it any longer. I have business on earth now, and must look about me for the means of doing it.”  Hawthorne was officially appointed the “Surveyor for the Disctrict of Salem and Beberly and Inspector of the Revenue for the Port of Salem”, for which he received the annual sum of $1,200. Hawthorne wrote of the difficulty he had with his writing during the period in a letter to Longfellow, for “I am trying to resume my pen... Whenever I sit alone, or walk alone, I find myself dreaming about stories, as of old; but these forenoons in the Custom House undo all that the afternoons and evenings have done. I should be happier if I could write.” Now, two years after Una’s birth, they had a son whom they named Julian. Hawthorne wrote to his sister Louisa to announce the news on the 22nd June 1846, saying “A small troglodyte made his appearance here at ten minutes to six o’clock this morning, who has claimed to be your nephew”.

As with all custom house positions, his employment there was subject to the politics of the spoils system which lost him the job when, in 1848, the change of administration in Washington following the presidential election meant his position there was no longer viable. Following this dismissal, Hawthorne protested by way of a letter to the Boston Daily Advertiser. The letter garnered much attention, being criticised by the Whigs and supported by the Democrats, which opposition drew New England’s attention to his dismissal in general until it was a common topic of discussion. His situation was made worse when his mother died shortly thereafter in late July, a time he later described as “the darkest hour I ever lived”. Then, having mourned her, he took an appointment as the corresponding secretary and the Salem Lyceum in late 1848, hosting guests such as Emerson, Thoreau and Theodore Parker.

Somewhat discouraged by his treatment as a customs official Hawthorne returned to writing, publishing The Scarlet Letter in March of 1850. It was one of the first mass-produced books in America, selling over 2,500 volumes within the first ten days of its shelf-life and ultimately earning Hawthorne $1,500 over 14 years, a little over $40,000 in 2012 currency. This immediate success in America led to its piracy in London, furthering his audience and popularity. Much to the horror of various politicians who had been involved in the scandal surrounding his dismissal, he included in the preface several references to his three-year tenure at the Custom House which were reached globally, thanks to the scale of the novel’s readership. Hawthorne’s friend Edwin Percy Whipple, a critic, objected to the “morbid intensity” in the novel, writing that its dense psychological detail meant it was “apt therefore to become, like Hawthorne, too painfully anatomical in his exhibition of [those details]”. This criticism was unusual though, and it was largely much more favourably received by critics, writers and readers alike.

Almost as soon as the book had been published, the Hawthorne family relocated to The Berkshire hills in Lenox, Massachusetts, occupying a small red brick farmhouse from the end of March. Nearby lived fellow writer and critic Herman Melville, and the two met and became friends at a picnic hosted by a mutual friend. Melville had in fact just finished reading Mosses from an Old Manse which he reviewed in The Literary World under the title “Hawthorne and his Mosses”, printed on 17th August and 24th August on that year. Melville was writing Moby-Dick at the time, for which he would become best-known, and having written in his review of Mosses from an Old Manse that the stories revealed a dark side of Hawthorne, “shrouded in blackness, ten times black”, he dedicated his own work to his friend, inscribing Moby-Dick that “in token of my admiration for his genius, this book is inscribed to Nathaniel Hawthorne.”

Following the success of The Scarlet Letter and in the company of another great writer, Hawthorne found the atmosphere of The Berkshires both geographically and socially very inspiring. In early 1851 he published The House of the Seven Gables, a novel based on a gabled house in Salem which had belonged to those of his ancestors involved with the Salem Witch Trials, now in the possession of his cousin Susanna Ingersoll. Hawthorne later wrote of it that “it sold finely and seems to have pleased a good many people”; indeed, H.P. Lovecraft thought highly of the novel, calling it “New England’s greatest contribution to weird literature” in his essay ‘Supernatural Horror in Literature’ and undoubtedly inspired by it in several of his works, particularly the short story “The Picture in the House” and The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. The poet-critic James Russell Lowell thought it better than The Scarlet Letter, calling it “the most valuable contribution to New England history that has been made”. In the midst of the writing process his final child, Rose, was conceived, and she was born in May 1851 into the flurry of success surrounding the family. Hawthorne called her his “autumnal flower”.

Perhaps encouraged by the support he was receiving from his friends, his reviewers and his sales figures, Hawthorne now embarked on an exploration of stylistic variance, writing his next novel, The Blithedale Romance, in the first person. It was published in 1852, and in his book of literary criticism entitled Hawthorne (1879), the great novelist Henry James described it “the lightest, the brightest, the liveliest [of Hawthorne’s] unhumourous fictions”. James is undoubtedly one of, if not the greatest, of Hawthorne’s literary successors; the new tradition of American Literature of moral intensity and exploration of the ambiguity of human choice and the universality of guilt was undoubtedly one which James sought to continue. Alongside this more progressive writing Hawthorne began to rewrite Greek mythology for children, producing the collection of short stories A Wonder-Book for Girls and Boys, also published in 1852, though he had been considering it since 1846. Despite the success and heightened productivity he enjoyed while living in The Berkshires, it was said by the poet Ellery Channing that Hawthorne had “suffered much living in this place”, particularly the harsh winters which were hardly abated by their little red brick house. Noting that “I am sick to death of Berkshire... I have felt languid and dispirited, during my whole residence”, Hawthorne and his family left on 21st November, 1851. Though he wrote much while here, he had left before he saw any of it published.

The family returned to Concord and in February bought The Hillside, a home which had previously been inhabited by the writer Amos Bronson Walcott and his family. The Hawthornes renamed it The Wayside, and were neighboured by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. His friend Franklin Pierce was campaigning politically and asked Hawthorne to write his biography, which he did, titling it The Life of Franklin Pierce, in which he describes him as “a man of peaceful pursuits”. Horace Mann, who had served in the Massachusetts House of Representatives and had since been elected to the US House of Representatives famously said of the biography “if he makes out Pierce to be a great man or a brave man, it will be the greatest work of fiction he ever wrote”. Indeed, the biography certainly does serve as a pair of rose-tinted spectacles when viewing the details of Pierce’s life. He was by several alternative accounts a lazy, cowardly alcoholic with delusional views on the futility of human endeavours to abolish slavery. He became President of the United States in 1853.

Having recently published Tanglewood Tales, the follow-up to A Wonder-Book for GIrls and Boys, Hawthorne was rewarded for his biographical endeavours with the position of United States consul in Liverpool, a role considered the most lucrative foreign service position at the time. His wife described it as “second in dignity to the Embassy in London”. His appointment here ended with Pierce’s single term as President in 1857, after which the family toured France and Italy. They returned to The Wayside in 1860, the year in which he published The Marble Faun: Or, The Romance of Monte Beni, set in a fantastical Italy featuring elements of fable, pastoral and gothic. The last of his four major romances, it is conceivably a combination of all of the literary influences he had accumulated over the course of his life and career. Being his first publication in seven years, Hawthorne was the first to admit that he had aged considerably during the intervening time, going so far as to refer to himself as “wrinkled with time and trouble.”

Then, at the outset of the American Civil War, Hawthorne and the publisher William D. Ticknor travelled to Washington, D.C, where they met, among several notable figures, Abraham Lincoln. He wrote about his experiences in the essay “Chiefly About War Matters” in 1862. Though his creative force had not yet expired, his ill-health prevented him from completing several other romances and the pain he was experiencing in his stomach led him to take a recuperative holiday with Franklin Pierce to the White Mountains in New Hampshire, despite his neighbour Bronson Alcott’s concern for his ever-worsening health. He died in his sleep on 19th May, 1864, in Plymouth, New Hampshire. Pierce sent a telegram to the education reformer Elizabeth Peabody, Hawthorne’s sister-in-law, in order that Hawthorne’s wife might be informed in person. She was distraught. In accordance with the morbidity of much of Hawthorne’s writing, his son learned of his father’s death the following day while undergoing his initiation rites for the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity at Harvard College. Part of the ceremony involved being blindfolded and placed in a coffin. Buried on what is now known as ‘Author’s Ridge’ in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Concord, Massachusetts, his funeral was attended by many important state figures while the literary representation was composed of his pallbearers which included Longfellow, Emerson, Holmes, Alcott, Fields and Whipple. Emerson later wrote of the ceremony that “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”.