The Life of Nathaniel Hawthorne


The Life of Nathaniel Hawthorne

Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) is considered one of the most significant American authors of the 19th century. Though he died in 1864, Hawthorne’s novels, short stories, and literary criticism have endured as seminal contributions to American literature. He is best known for his masterpiece, The Scarlet Letter, as well as other dark Romantic novels and short stories exploring guilt, sin, and moral struggles.

Early Life and Family
Hawthorne was born in Salem, Massachusetts in 1804. His family had a long history in Salem and were descended from William Hathorne, who emigrated from England in 1630 and was involved in the Salem Witch Trials of 1692 (Derosa 1). Hawthorne added the “w” to his last name to disassociate himself from his Puritan ancestors. After his father died when he was 4 years old, Hawthorne and his mother moved in with his uncles (“Nathaniel Hawthorne” 1).

Hawthorne graduated from Bowdoin College in Maine in 1825, where he met future U.S. president Franklin Pierce and writer Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. After college, he returned to Salem and self-published his first novel Fanshawe in 1828. He went on to publish several anonymously-written short stories before finding success with his short story collection Twice Told Tales in 1837 (Derosa 2).

The Scarlet Letter and Literary Influences
Hawthorne’s fame was secured with the publication of his novel The Scarlet Letter in 1850. The novel centers on Hester Prynne, condemned to wear a scarlet “A” after committing adultery, and her struggles living as a social pariah. Through the story of moral legalism and guilt in colonial Boston, Hawthorne explores issues of grace, justice, and female autonomy. The Scarlet Letter is considered an American masterwork and is a staple of high school English curriculums.

Hawthorne belonged to the New England literary movement of Dark Romanticism, which reacted against Transcendentalism by exploring the fallibility of human nature and existence (Derosa 3). Like Edgar Allen Poe and Herman Melville, Hawthorne emphasized inner darkness, moral dilemmas, and secret sins. His Puritan ancestors and harsh experience with public shame after publishing Fanshawe influenced his writing, seen through The Scarlet Letter’s themes of public condemnation and desire to conceal one’s inner self.

Later Works and Death
In the 1850s, after moving to Lenox, Massachusetts, Hawthorne reached the peak of his literary career. He published The House of the Seven Gables in 1851, about a cursed Puritan family. His other major work from this time is The Blithedale Romance, which explores utopian communities and his 1852 experience at Brook Farm. Hawthorne also wrote about his friendships with contemporaries like Herman Melville in “The Old Manse” (1846) and Henry David Thoreau in Twenty Days with Julian and Little Bunny (1851). After serving as U.S. Consul in Liverpool from 1853-1857, the Hawthorne family moved to Italy after his political appointment ended. There he published his final completed novel, The Marble Faun in 1860 (“Nathaniel Hawthorne” 2).

Hawthorne died in his sleep in 1864 at age 60 while vacationing in Plymouth, NH with Franklin Pierce. Today, Nathaniel Hawthorne is regarded as one of the most important writers of 19th century America. His Gothic romanticism helped establish a unique American literary voice. Hawthorne’s profound and impassioned treatment of guilt, evil, hypocrisy, and redemption continue to capture reader’s imaginations as moral allegories. The Scarlet Letter remains his most famous work.

Works Cited
Derosa, Robin. “Nathaniel Hawthorne.” Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia, 2020. EBSCOhost,

“Nathaniel Hawthorne.” Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th Edition, 2019. EBSCOhost, Accessed 27 July 2023.


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