About the Author

Nathaniel Hawthorne was born in Salem, Massachusetts, July 4, 1804. His ancestors were prominent in the affairs of the colony: John Hawthorne was one of the judges who tried the witches in 1620; and another John Hawthorne was a member of the dignified school committee of Salem in 1796. Hawthorne's father, a ship captain, died in a foreign land when his son was only four years old; his mother lived for forty years after the death of her husband the life of a recluse in her own house. The family's star was in the decline and the people of Salem looked on Nathaniel as a lazy and very queer boy. He grew up in a unique solitude. During these years of seclusion Hawthorne acquired the habit of keeping silent on all occasions, and reading a few books frequently and thoroughly. The Newgate Calendar must have supplied him with many subtle suggestions for his later writings on sin and crime, for in almost all of his productions his imagination is tinged with, this old Puritanic philosophy and theology.

He entered Bowdoin College in 1821 and graduated from this institution in 1825. He had as classmates Longfellow, and Franklin Pierce, who afterward became president of the United States. After his graduation Hawthorne returned to Salem, where he lived with his mother and sisters in almost absolute seclusion for fourteen years. During this period he wrote daily, and spent his nights in burning what he had written in the daytime.

He was clerk of the Boston Custom House from 1839 to 1841, when the Whig party removed him for being ultra-partisan in behalf of the Democrats. At this time Hawthorne wrote: "As to the Salem people, I really thought I had been exceedingly good-natured in my treatment of them. They certainly do not deserve good usage at my hands, after permitting me to be deliberately lied down, not merely once, but at two separate attacks, and on two false indictments, without hardly a voice being raised in my behalf." He married Sophia Peabody, July 9, 1842. From 1842 until 1846 they lived in Concord in the house formerly occupied by Emerson. These were the happiest years of his life. In 1846 he returned to Salem as surveyor in the Salem Custom House. He retired from this office in 1850 and lived in Lenox, Massachusetts, for two years. In 1852 he settled in Concord. President Pierce appointed him consul at Liverpool in 1853, and he served in this position until 1857.

After leaving Liverpool he travelled three years in England and on the continent. He returned to Concord in 1860. He died in the White Mountains, May 18, 1864. Although a silent man and a seeker of solitude during his life, few writers have ever experienced such wide publicity of their inmost lives as has Hawthorne since his death. The publication of his Notes has opened his desk and work-shop to every one, and has revealed to us a magnanimous, sympathetic, and pure man, who realized his responsibilities as a writer and improved all his literary opportunities.

Criticisms

Many influences in Hawthorne's environment served to condition and mold him as a writer. Salem had reached its highest prosperity in all lines and was just beginning its retrogression in Hawthorne's time; the primeval forests of Maine produced a subtle and lasting influence on him during his sojourn in Maine for his health; transcendentalism was the ruling thought at the time when Hawthorne was in his most plastic and solitary age; his interest in Brook Farm brought him in contact with all the good and bad points of that social movement; his life in the Old Manse in Concord and in the Berkshire Hills contributed largely to the deepening of his convictions and sympathies; and over all, like a sombre cloud, hung his ancestral Puritanic training which penetrated and suffused all his writings. He is the most native and the least imitative of all our fiction writers.

Hawthorne did not write on the common subjects and facts of his day, but chose to have his readers go with him, away from prosaic life, out into a world of mysteries where we may revel in all kinds of imaginary sports. By this process he succeeded in producing poetic effects from the most unpromising materials. His writings are fanciful. He enjoyed subjects that deal with the occult, such as mesmerism, hypnotism, and subtle suggestions. He harked back to the rigid beliefs and laws of the Puritans, but he and his subjects are spiritually advanced far above the crude, ponderous, and highly theological tenets of his forefathers.

Hawthorne is very provincial. He travelled little until he was fifty years old. He naturally loved the antique and poetic countries, but he always qualified his admiration of these foreign lands by praising something in his own New England. He conceded that there was little or nothing in this prosperous and crude country to inspire a writer to produce poetry, but his patriotism was so strong that he could never free himself wholly from its provincial effects. All his works were produced in the stress created by this pull of opposing forces--his high poetic ideals and his love of country.

In form he tends toward the polish of a classicist; in quality and freedom of thought he is very responsive to the mysteries of romanticism. He is introspective in his thinking and symbolical in his writing. Naturally he thinks abstractly, but is compelled to construct concrete methods of presenting his ideas. He never describes a strong emotion in detail, but delights in using suggestions and sidelights. His pure and refined manhood, his delicate fancy and deep interest in moral and religious questions, his conscience in its most artistic form, all are presented to the reader in the choicest garb of well chosen words and attuned to a subtle rhythm that adds beauty and attractiveness to his style.

Most author biographies courtesy of Author's Calendar. Used with permission.