Show Summary Details

Page of

Printed from American National Biography. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a single article for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 12 December 2019

Hawthorne, Nathanielfree

(04 July 1804–19 May 1864)
  • Rita K. Gollin

Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Engraving by T. Phillibrown, 1851.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-93807).

Hawthorne, Nathaniel (04 July 1804–19 May 1864), author, was born in Salem, Massachusetts, the son of Nathaniel Hathorne, a ship’s captain, and Elizabeth Manning; both were descended from seventeenth-century English settlers. In 1808 Hawthorne’s father died of yellow fever in Surinam. His mother then took her son and his two sisters to live with her parents and eight unmarried siblings in the Mannings’ house on nearby Herbert Street. The stagecoach line her father had founded supported them all comfortably if not lavishly, and when Richard Manning died in 1813, his son Robert succeeded him as head of the family business and caretaker of his nephew and nieces.

That same year, when Hawthorne was nine, a ballplaying accident left him lame for fourteen months. Released from regular schooling, he immersed himself in the family’s books, among them The Faerie Queene, Pilgrim’s Progress, and even The Newgate Calendar. But the real Eden of his youth was a lakeside wilderness in Raymond, Maine, where the Mannings owned property. Between 1816 and 1819 Hawthorne lived there with his mother and sisters, free to swim, fish, and hunt. That idyll ended when his Uncle Robert summoned him back to Salem to prepare for college. Resenting his dependence on the Mannings and homesick for Raymond, he devoured Gothic romances and Sir Walter Scott. His part-time clerking in the family’s stagecoach office made him conclude that “No Man can be a Poet & a Book-Keeper at the same time.” The problem would recur.

From 1821 to 1825 Hawthorne attended Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. He was “negligent of college rules and the Procrustean details of academic life,” as he later declared, “rather choosing to nurse my own fancies than to dig into Greek roots and be numbered among the learned Thebans.” He graduated eighteenth in a class of thirty-eight. Three of his classmates would become lifelong friends: his most intimate Bowdoin companion Horatio Bridge (who would help arrange publication of his first book), Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (who would review it), and Franklin Pierce (who would become president of the United States and appoint Hawthorne consul to Liverpool).

Even before entering college, Hawthorne had rejected the three professions most graduates entered—the ministry, medicine, and law. “What do you think of my becoming an Author, and relying for support upon my pen?” he asked his mother at age seventeen, whimsically musing how proud she would be “to see my works praised.” After graduating from Bowdoin, he returned to Herbert Street to pursue that ambition, settling in for what he later summed up as “twelve lonely years.”

If Hawthorne exaggerated his problems in his letters and his early tales about melancholy writer-dreamers, they were real enough. Most of the books on American bookshelves then were imported from England or pirated, and most magazine fiction was low paid and published anonymously. Washington Irving was one of the few American writers who had attained literary recognition and a reasonable income. But in Hawthorne’s view, an even more formidable obstacle to becoming an author was separation from the “main current of life.” As he told Longfellow in 1837, he had only “thin air to concoct my stories of and it is not easy to give a lifelike semblance to such shadowy stuff.” The complaint would recur.

Yet even during his “lonely years,” he never wholly confined himself to his “chamber under the eaves.” If his social life was not then (or ever) lively, he enjoyed dances and card games. He also intently scrutinized the world during his long walks in and beyond Salem and during his long summer excursions in and beyond New England (sometimes accompanying his Uncle Sam on horse-buying trips for the Mannings’ stagecoach lines and at one point traveling along the Erie Canal to Niagara Falls). As still another source of story materials, he read through hundreds of the volumes in the Salem Athenaeum, including numerous chronicles of New England’s Puritan past. Meanwhile he kept journals where he recorded “characteristics” and “remarkables” of what he had seen and what he had read, interspersed with ideas and images that piqued his imagination.

Achievement of Literary Recognition

In 1828—soon after adding a w to his family name—Hawthorne made his first concerted bid for literary recognition. Though he had almost no money, he financed the publication of a slender, unsigned Gothic romance drawn from his college experience, titled Fanshawe. A few reviewers offered mild praise, but Hawthorne’s painful awareness of the book’s shortcomings made him pledge his friend Bridge and his sister Elizabeth to secrecy. To the end of his life, he never acknowledged authorship of Fanshawe.

Three other planned volumes fared worse. Because no one would publish it “unless at the writer’s risk,” Hawthorne burned his first linked collection, “Seven Tales of My Native Land.” When he found no one to publish two other planned volumes, “Provincial Tales” and “The Story Teller,” he more sensibly allowed their tales separate publication. He would be paid about a dollar a page. In 1830 his work began appearing anonymously in newspapers, magazines, and literary annuals. Within six years, five of his stories were published in his hometown newspaper the Salem Gazette, twenty-eight in Samuel Goodrich’s Christmas giftbook The Token, and over a dozen in the New-England Magazine and other regional monthlies.

In January 1836 Hawthorne’s determination to support himself by his pen made him agree to edit the American Magazine of Useful and Entertaining Knowledge for a promised annual salary of $500. Leaving his “owl’s nest” for a room in Boston, he produced all the text for six successive issues (using his sister Elizabeth as his assistant). Though the publisher went bankrupt, and Hawthorne received only $20 for his work, Samuel Goodrich then paid him $100 for his first children’s book, Peter Parley’s Universal History, on the Basis of Geography.

In 1837 Hawthorne’s status as “the obscurest man of letters in America” ended when Twice-told Tales was published with his name on the cover (after his friend Bridge secretly guaranteed the publisher against loss). The eighteen tales Hawthorne selected from the dozens already in print were clearly calculated to display his range and to win literary recognition. Genial sketches of everyday life, such as “Little Annie’s Ramble” and the even more popular “A Rill from the Town-Pump,” appealed especially to his women readers, as did the celebration of marital love that Longfellow liked best, “The Great Carbuncle.” But Hawthorne also included speculative sketches such as “Wakefield” and disturbing stories about the Puritan past such as “The Minister’s Black Veil” and “The Gentle Boy.” Readers who had admired those stories before now learned Hawthorne’s name, and he could anticipate widening his readership and opening “an intercourse with the world.” Pragmatically, he sent a presentation copy of Twice-told Tales to his Bowdoin classmate Longfellow, who was by then a distinguished poet. Almost immediately Longfellow produced an essay for the influential North American Review that lauded Hawthorne’s poetic imagination, his style, and his use of New England materials, comparing him to Irving and hailing him as a new star in the American literary firmament. Other critics followed suit, and from then on Hawthorne’s name was marketable.

Twice-told Tales also resulted in Hawthorne’s introduction to Sophia Peabody (Sophia Peabody Hawthorne), the frail amateur artist he would marry five years later. Her sister Elizabeth Peabody was so enthusiastic about her fellow Salemite’s “genius” that she invited him to call; he and Sophia soon fell in love, and they became secretly engaged a year later. But Sophia’s invalidism was a serious impediment to their marriage, as were Hawthorne’s possessive mother and sisters and his own limited income.

Work in the Boston Custom House

To increase his earnings, Hawthorne accepted his first political appointment: in January 1839 he became a measurer of salt and coal in the Boston Custom House at an annual salary of $1,500. Before long, he was complaining that his routine duties dulled his imagination (as he would complain during his next two political appointments). But he felt up to writing children’s books, and when Longfellow showed no interest in collaborating on a book of fairy tales, Hawthorne produced a collection of historical sketches titled Grandfather’s Chair, then two others that Elizabeth Peabody would also publish—Famous Old People and Liberty Tree. Though he rarely saw his “sweetest Dove” while he was living in Boston, Hawthorne sent her copious letters assuring her that only their love made him fully alive.

Hawthorne left the custom house in November 1840, a few months before his two-year term was up. Then, in April 1841 he invested $1,000 of his hard-earned savings in Brook Farm, a community of utopian idealists near Boston committed to both manual and intellectual labor, hoping that there he could resume serious writing and prepare a home for himself and Sophia. But strenuous farm work left him too exhausted to write anything but letters and journal entries, and he left in the fall. His third novel, The Blithedale Romance, would anatomize that venture.

He then published a two-volume edition of Twice-told Tales, adding twenty-one tales to the original eighteen, and seven months later began an idyll that would last over three years. On 9 July 1842 Nathaniel Hawthorne married Sophia Amelia Peabody and moved into the “Old Manse” in Concord, Massachusetts, a house built by one of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s ancestors. Though none of his family attended the wedding and though Sophia’s mother regretted losing her “sweetest confidante” and worried about her daughter’s health, the newlyweds regarded themselves as a new Adam and Eve as they took possession of their new home. There the groom planted a garden, ice-skated with Emerson, rowed with Henry Thoreau, conversed with Bronson Alcott and Margaret Fuller, took long walks with Sophia, and produced stories in a study Sophia lovingly decorated (where Emerson had earlier written Nature). Hawthorne would publish twenty manuscripts while living at the Old Manse, including major stories such as “The Birth-mark” and “Rappaccini’s Daughter” (which portray obsessed and cold-hearted men who destroy the innocent women who love and trust them). In those stories and others, including “The Artist of the Beautiful,” “Drowne’s Wooden Image,” “Egotism; or, the Bosom-Serpent,” and “The New Adam and Eve,” as in his courtship letters to Sophia and in earlier stories such as “The Maypole of Merry Mount,” Hawthorne celebrated love as crucial to self-completion.

But he had trouble paying his bills. Editors paid little at best and often delayed or defaulted on their payments, and Hawthorne could not recover his Brook Farm investment or money he had loaned friends. His financial problems intensified when Una was born in March 1844, and that fall he and Sophia briefly returned to their parents’ homes. Yet he never stopped working. He edited Bridge’s Journal of an African Cruiser and arranged for its publication; he wrote Biographical Stories for Children; and the distinguished editor Evert Duyckinck persuaded him to assemble a new volume of his own short fiction. Then, in October 1845 the owner of the Old Manse declared he needed the house for his own family, and the Hawthornes were “driven out of Paradise.”

Mosses from an Old Manse (1846)

Again Hawthorne’s recourse was a political appointment, and friends in the Democratic party secured him a lucrative post. He became surveyor of the Salem Custom House in April 1846. Relieved of immediate financial worries, he nonetheless felt “my doom was on me … as if Salem were for me the inevitable centre of the Universe.” That June, his son Julian Hawthorne was born, and Mosses from an Old Manse was published, a collection of nearly two dozen tales and sketches preceded by a genially nostalgic essay titled “The Old Manse.” Most were recent: in addition to profound stories such as “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” “The Birth-mark,” and “The Artist of the Beautiful,” the volume included lighter pieces such as “Buds and Bird Voices” and the Bunyanesque dream-vision satirizing moral complacency called “The Celestial Rail-road.” Hawthorne also reprinted two stories with dense historical settings written years before and now ranked among his best, “Young Goodman Brown” and “Roger Malvin’s Burial,” and an early tale about a melancholy writer-dreamer titled “Passages from a Relinquished Work.” The book “met with good acceptance,” and Hawthorne’s literary reputation was higher than ever.

Yet his routine duties stifled his imagination. During his three years in the Custom House, he completed only two stories, “Ethan Brand” and “Main Street.” But his salary enabled him to rent a house large enough to accommodate his mother and sisters, and when the victorious Whigs fired him in June 1849, Hawthorne struggled for reinstatement on the grounds that he was apolitical. Despite wide support from distinguished politicians and sympathetic treatment in the national press, local “political bloodhounds” insisted on his ouster. Then, in July Hawthorne’s mother died. In September, still frustrated by his dismissal and anguished by her death, he began writing his novel The Scarlet Letter.

The Scarlet Letter (1850)

That November James T. Fields—the junior partner in Ticknor, Reed, and Fields, Boston’s most eminent publishing firm—entered Hawthorne’s professional and personal life. He called on Hawthorne in Salem, returned to Boston with an unfinished manuscript, and soon began advertising “a new volume by Hawthorne.” At that point Hawthorne planned to lighten his dark tale of adultery with a group of “old-time legends” that presumably included “Ethan Brand,” but Fields soon dissuaded him. Hawthorne then wrote the long autobiographical introduction called “The Custom-House” and completed his novel. The Scarlet Letter appeared in March 1850, a story of a proud adulteress sentenced by her stern Puritan judges to wear a scarlet A on her breast, the hypocritical minister who was her lover, her beautiful, unruly child, and her revenge-obsessed husband. Despite Salemites’ complaints of being maligned in the introduction and some critics’ objections to the novel’s “scandalous” subject, it was immediately hailed as a work of genius and America’s first major novel. Its sales were brisk.

This first novel, Hawthorne’s masterpiece, is an indictment of Puritan America but also of his own society. Its introductory essay, “The Custom-House,” purportedly a straightforward account of his experience as surveyor, attacks officials who connived in his dismissal while vindicating himself. Like the novel’s heroine, Hester Prynne, Hawthorne confronts a self-righteous society with self-assured dignity.

In this introduction—as in the introductions to his next three novels—Hawthorne also defined himself as a romancer (as distinguished from a reality-bound novelist), whose creative imagination required “a neutral territory, somewhere between the real world and fairy-land, where the Actual and the Imaginary may meet, and each imbue itself with the nature of the other.” Implicitly he was explaining his repeated use of dream, reverie, and transformed vision in his fiction, as when at the midpoint of The Scarlet Letter Dimmesdale perceives a meteor as an immense scarlet letter that signifies his guilt. An even stronger connection between the introduction and the novel is signaled by Hawthorne’s admission that he felt haunted by two paternal ancestors: William Hathorne, “who came so early, with his Bible and his sword” and became a “bitter persecutor” of Quakers, and William’s son John, a judge in Salem’s notorious witchcraft trials, men with “all the Puritanic traits, both good and evil.” Though he imagined the contempt they would feel for a mere “writer of story-books,” The Scarlet Letter amply proves that “strong traits of their nature have intertwined themselves with mine.” Hawthorne’s tightly plotted, densely symbolic, and psychologically probing story of concealed and revealed sin in seventeenth-century Boston is his most serious work of moral and cultural history. In his day as in ours, readers struggle to understand its main characters in the context of a repressive society. Arguably, Hawthorne’s greatest achievement is his heroine Hester Prynne.

Hawthorne’s Years in Lenox

Leaving Salem forever in the spring of 1850, Hawthorne moved his family to a small house in Lenox, Massachusetts, and soon wrote his second novel, The House of the Seven Gables, centering on a Salem family burdened by, but finally extricating themselves from, ancestral guilt. In this most novelistic of his romances, Hawthorne dealt with mid-nineteenth-century social change but also with older themes: the persistence of the past in public and personal life and the healing power of love. His sprawling narrative is at once a sentimental domestic drama and a Gothic romance set in a haunted house (primarily though not exclusively based on his cousin Susan Ingersoll’s house). The occupants’ problems originated with Colonel Pyncheon (based on John Hathorne), who had been cursed by a victim of the Salem witchcraft frenzy. Through the colonel’s villainous descendant Judge Pyncheon, Hawthorne avenged himself on his chief political opponent and also on his controlling Uncle Robert Manning, and through his plucky heroine who bore Sophia’s nickname “Phoebe,” he paid tribute to his wife. Though some critics faulted its happy ending, many ranked The House of the Seven Gables above The Scarlet Letter, and Hawthorne himself claimed that its sunniness was more characteristic of his own disposition than his first novel’s gloom.

While living at Lenox, Hawthorne also completed his last collection of short fiction, The Snow-Image, which included his most recent work—“Ethan Brand,” “Main-street,” “The Great Stone Face,” and the title story—as well as eleven earlier stories including one now ranked among his best, “My Kinsman, Major Molineux.” If this collection was not as popular as its predecessors, its range was as wide, and it was well received.

To support his growing family (his third child, Rose [Rose Hawthorne Lathrop], was born in May 1851), Hawthorne also produced a volume of Greek myths titled A Wonder-Book for Girls and Boys, which recast the protagonists as children. In addition, he gathered four earlier children’s books into a single volume titled True Stories from History and Biography, and he prepared a new preface for a third edition of Twice-told Tales.

Hawthorne’s Lenox residency was also the period of his intimacy with Herman Melville, a writer fifteen years his junior who was then living in nearby Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and who soon proved to be Hawthorne’s Ideal Reader. Soon after they met in August 1850, Melville anonymously published an enthusiastic review of Mosses from an Old Manse, praising Hawthorne’s “power of blackness” and his stories that probed “the very axis of reality.” In the process he defined his own literary ambitions, and when Moby-Dick was published in November 1851, it was dedicated to Hawthorne, with “admiration for his genius.” That same month the Hawthornes moved from Lenox to West Newton and then to Concord; though the men’s friendship continued through letters and a few visits (Melville called on Hawthorne in Concord and four years later in England), their close relationship ended.

While living in the West Newton house of his brother-in-law Horace Mann, Hawthorne speedily completed his third novel, The Blithedale Romance, somewhat ingenuously claiming in his preface that he used his Brook Farm experience only as “a theatre, a little removed from the highway of ordinary travel, where the creatures of his brain may play their phantasmagorical antics, without exposing them to too close a comparison with the actual events of real lives.” Critics have nevertheless pursued such connections, tracing particular passages back to entries in Hawthorne’s notebooks and identifying the dream-haunted first person narrator Coverdale as Hawthorne’s most self-mocking fictive self—a minor poet who becomes vicariously involved in other people’s lives. Coverdale’s story of a failed utopia presents the would-be reformer Hollingsworth and the two sisters who loved him, though Coverdale cannot understand his own attraction to all three. Both the passionate Zenobia and the submissive Priscilla emerge as objects of men’s but also women’s fears and desires; especially through Zenobia (partly based on Margaret Fuller), Hawthorne examined women’s subjection to their culture and their own sexual needs. The novel won serious attention and high praise, though many critics found fault with Hawthorne’s unreliable narrator.

Consul to Liverpool

In February 1852 Hawthorne bought a house in Concord that he called the “Wayside,” the only house he ever owned. That June the Hawthornes moved in, though their initial occupancy would last little more than a year. That same month, Franklin Pierce was nominated for the presidency, and Hawthorne agreed to write his campaign biography, though grief at his sister Louisa’s sudden death delayed its completion. Hawthorne’s reward after Pierce’s election in November was a lucrative four-year post as consul to Liverpool; in July 1853—shortly before the publication of Tanglewood Tales, a second volume of Greek myths retold for children—the Hawthorne family sailed for England. They would remain abroad for seven years.

During the next four years, Hawthorne not only performed routine consular duties with remarkable conscientiousness but made speeches at civic banquets, loaned money to destitute Americans, intervened on behalf of mistreated American seamen, lobbied to change inequitable maritime laws, and offered advice about America’s political and commercial relationships with England. But (predictably) his creative imagination was stultified. Throughout his stay in what he called “Our Old Home,” Hawthorne enjoyed visiting historical sites, cathedrals, and museums, and he developed a few close friendships. Except for his detailed notebook entries, letters, and official reports, he wrote nothing.

When he left the consulship in 1857, he had saved enough money for an extended stay in Italy, meaning to see the greatest art of the western world and so fulfill Sophia’s lifelong dream while furthering the children’s education and refining his own taste. In Rome and Florence, the Hawthornes became part of a large expatriate community that included the American sculptors Hiram Powers, William Wetmore Storey, Louisa Lander, and Harriet Hosmer. Meantime, in his notebooks, Hawthorne carefully recorded all his visits to celebrated paintings, statues, and buildings, noting their “characteristics” and “remarkables,” monitoring his “receptive faculty,” and exulting in each epiphanic moment when he was “surprised into admiration.” His sensitivity to the interrelationship of creator, creation, and spectator as well as his intimacy with art and artists would generate his last completed novel, The Marble Faun. After writing almost ninety pages of a Gothic romance based on an English legend, “The Ancestral Footstep,” Hawthorne put them aside to begin drafting The Marble Faun. But in November 1858 all the Hawthornes’ lives were darkened when Una was stricken with malaria, an illness that lasted for six months and from whose effects she never fully recovered.

Hawthorne’s Last Completed Novel

The Hawthornes returned to England the following June, and on Fields’s advice Hawthorne remained there to complete The Marble Faun and then secure the English copyright. The novel was published during the winter of 1860 and won critical acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic. As in The Blithedale Romance, Hawthorne followed the permutations and variations of intimacy among two couples, this time two Americans (the sculptor Kenyon and the copyist Hilda) and two Italians (the painter Miriam and the count Donatello). Some reviewers disparaged the narrative as a fictionalized guidebook to Italy; some resisted Donatello’s transformation from an embodied Faun to a guilt-ridden sinner; and some complained about the indeterminacy of Hawthorne’s ending. Yet from the start, reviewers praised Hawthorne’s skill, his psychological probings of his four major characters, his development of the “international novel” (pitting moral Americans against guilt-stained Europeans), his inquiries into the nature of art, and his incorporation of perplexing moral questions about original sin, the fortunate fall, and the ongoing struggle between good and evil.

In June 1860 Hawthorne returned to Concord and tried to resume his career as a romancer. In the tower study he added to the Wayside, modeled after the tower of the villa he had rented in Florence (and incorporated into The Marble Faun), he struggled to draft one moralized Gothic romance after another—“Dr. Grimshawe’s Secret,” “Septimius Felton,” and “The Dolliver Romance.” But each draft became overloaded with symbols and plot devices, and he repeatedly interrupted his narratives with self-critical expostulations. He brought none to completion. Distraught by the prospect and then the actuality of Civil War, he thought slavery was evil and hoped for Union victory, yet he had always been skeptical of radical change and felt “no kindred to nor leaning towards the Abolitionists.” Except for the eyewitness report “Chiefly about War Matters” (which included a long description of Abraham Lincoln), during his last years Hawthorne published only a series of sketches drawn from his English notebooks (collected as Our Old Home) and the beginning of The Dolliver Romance—all in the Atlantic Monthly, the prestigious periodical owned by Ticknor and Fields and edited by Fields. Though Hawthorne’s primary motive was supporting his family, his vibrant sketches of English people and places delighted American readers (as did English critics’ outrage at his caricature of the beefy English dowager).

During his last six months Hawthorne’s health swiftly deteriorated, though no one could pinpoint a precise cause. On 12 May 1864 he left Boston with his friend Franklin Pierce for a leisurely trip through New Hampshire, which even the devoted Sophia only faintly believed would restore him to health. He died in his sleep in Plymouth, New Hampshire, and four days later he was buried in Concord’s Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, with Longfellow, Emerson, and Fields among his mourners.

A Consummate Craftsman

For more than a century, despite changes in perspective and methodology, the verdict on Hawthorne’s stature has remained virtually constant. For Henry James, Hawthorne was a great imaginative writer who was limited by the thinness of American culture and sometimes trapped into allegory; early twentieth-century critics saw him as a dreamer of dreamlike fiction and the heir of Puritan gloom; mid-century “new critics” stressed the organic unity of his fiction and analyzed recurring symbols, character types, and themes; and psychoanalytic critics have theorized about Hawthorne’s psychological problems and his characters’ mental states.

More recently, reader response theorists have explored the ways Hawthorne’s texts “create” his readers; semioticians have examined signifiers such as the embroidered scarlet letter on Hester Prynne’s breast; and deconstructionists have read his texts as hieroglyphs that resist final interpretation. New historians move beyond questions of how he used history to ask how the social construction of gender and family constellations shaped him and how marketplace values affected his career. Hawthorne’s literary theory and rhetorical performance meanwhile continue to engage critics who approach him not only as a consummate craftsman but also as a self-aware writer who concealed even while revealing himself through his narrators and his characters, as in the fictionalized autobiography of “The Custom-House” and in the novel it informs.

Feminists in particular say that through sympathetic characters such as Beatrice Rappaccini and Hester Prynne, Hawthorne indicted patriarchal society by showing how it victimizes women. Yet many also note his uneasiness about women’s sexuality and his conflicted attitudes toward independent women (including his friend Margaret Fuller, historical figures such as Anne Hutchinson, and his own “dark” heroines Hester, Zenobia, and Miriam). Most of those critics quote Hawthorne’s resentful 1855 remark to his publisher William Davis Ticknor about the “damned mob of scribbling women” whose novels sold far better than his, interpreting it as a blanket condemnation of women writers without noting Hawthorne’s gender-free praise of “genuine” writing.

Yet everyone agrees that close textual analysis of Hawthorne’s subtle prose style has been abetted by the Centenary volumes and that biographical study of the writer has been aided by definitive editions of his letters and notebooks. Whatever their disagreements, most of his critics and biographers continue to regard Hawthorne as his distinguished contemporaries Fields and Melville did—as a shrewd and large-minded writer who read widely and pondered deeply about the human condition and about American identity from Puritan times to his own. Though afflicted by self-doubt and constrained by a materialistic society that did not adequately reward serious artists, he created texts whose power, profundity, and artistry command our attention.

Major writers from Hawthorne’s day to our own have paid him the compliment of serious critical appraisal and implicitly acknowledged him as a strong precursor within their own fiction—among them Herman Melville, Henry James, Rebecca Harding Davis, Sarah Orne Jewett, William Dean Howells, William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, Joyce Carol Oates, and Jorge Luis Borges. The particularly strong influence of The Scarlet Letter has also been manifested through its numerous adaptations, as operas, plays, films, and a television miniseries.

Hawthorne’s structured irresolutions require all his readers to become collaborators who examine his characters and their behavior, attentive to the narrator’s tone of voice and developments of plot, theme, and imagery. Hawthorne requires his readers to probe beneath surface appearances, and he permits no simplistic judgments. Characters are not simply good or bad but mixed, and we evaluate them in terms of their interfusion of mind, heart, and imagination, and what they nurture or destroy. Thus Hawthorne encourages readers to condemn Dimmesdale’s self-protective hypocrisy while admiring Hester’s loving loyalty and moral growth.

Readers quickly recognize many of Hawthorne’s recurrent images: light and dark, masks and veils, shadows and mirrors, the moonlight of imagination, the fire of passion, the cave of the heart, the labyrinthine path of confusion. But interpretation of his work is never simple. Thus the scarlet letter is a badge of shame that Hester’s embroidery transforms into an emblem of triumph signifying not only adulteress but proud defiance and artistic assertion, while its color suggests hellfire but also life-giving blood and sexual passion.

Hawthorne’s recurrent themes include the interpenetration of past and present; the antagonism between the individual and society; the dangers of isolation; the importance of self-knowledge; the “fortunate fall,” or lost innocence as the price of mature awareness; and the impossibility of earthly perfection. Those themes are usually veiled and layered, as in “Young Goodman Brown” (about a journey into evil undertaken by a “good man” whose imagination has been distorted by the stern morality of his Puritan society) and in “My Kinsman, Major Molineux” (about a youth on the verge of adulthood and America on the verge of revolution). Confronting Hawthorne’s art of ironic multiplicity expands a reader’s imagination. By writing about his own society and its antecedents, he wrote about ours.


Major collections of Hawthorne’s papers and related manuscripts are at the Hawthorne-Longfellow Library at Bowdoin College, the Essex Institute of Salem, Mass., the Boston Athenaeum, the Boston Public Library, the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library, the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York City, the Houghton Library at Harvard University, the Bancroft Library of the University of California at Berkeley, and the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library of Yale University.

The definitive edition of Hawthorne’s works is The Centenary Edition of the Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, a projected 26-volume edition that began in 1962. The prior “standard” edition was The Complete Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne (12 vols., 1883)—the “Riverside Edition.” The Library of America has issued Hawthorne’s Tales and Sketches in a single comprehensive volume (1982) and his completed novels in another (1983).

Useful secondary studies include Nina Baym, The Shape of Hawthorne’s Career (1976); Sacvan Bercovitch, The Office of the Scarlet Letter (1991); Richard H. Brodhead, The School of Hawthorne (1987); Michael Colacurcio, The Province of Piety (1984); Frederick Crews, The Sins of the Fathers: Hawthorne’s Psychological Themes (1966); Gloria Erlich, Family Themes and Hawthorne’s Fiction: The Tenacious Web (1984); Rita K. Gollin, Nathaniel Hawthorne and the Truth of Dreams (1979); T. Walter Herbert, Dearest Beloved: The Hawthornes and the Making of the Middle Class Family (1993); James R. Mellow, Nathaniel Hawthorne in His Times (1980); Edwin H. Miller, Salem Is My Dwelling Place: A Life of Nathaniel Hawthorne (1991); and Arlin Turner, Nathaniel Hawthorne: A Biography (1980).