Scarlet Letter

Hawthorne, Nathaniel

Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1804–64, American novelist and short-story writer, b. Salem, Mass., one of the great masters of American fiction. His novels and tales are penetrating explorations of moral and spiritual conflicts.

Early Life and Works

Descended from a prominent Puritan family, Hawthorne was the son of a sea captain who died when Nathaniel was 4 years old. When he was 14 he and his mother moved to a lonely farm in Maine. After attending Bowdoin College (1821–25), he devoted himself to writing. His first novel, Fanshawe (1829), published anonymously, was unsuccessful. His short stories won notice and were collected in Twice-Told Tales (1837; second series, 1842). Unable to support himself by writing and editing, he took a job at the Boston customhouse.

Later, Hawthorne lived at the experimental community Brook Farm for about six months, but he did not share the optimism and idealism of the transcendentalist participants (see transcendentalism), and he did not feel himself suited to communal life. In 1842 he married Sophia Peabody, a friend and follower of Emerson, Thoreau, and Margaret Fuller, and they settled in Concord. There he wrote the tales and sketches in the collection Mosses from an Old Manse (1846).

Later Life and Mature Work

In order to earn a livelihood Hawthorne served as surveyor of the port at Salem (1846–49), where he began writing his masterpiece, The Scarlet Letter (1850). Set in 17th-century Puritan New England, the novel delves deeply into the human heart, presenting the problems of moral evil and guilt through allegory and symbolism. It is often considered the first American psychological novel. Hawthorne's next novel, The House of the Seven Gables (1851), takes place in the New England of his own period but nevertheless also deals with the effects of Puritanism.

For a time the Hawthornes lived at "Tanglewood," near Lenox, Mass., where he wrote A Wonder Book (1852), based on Greek mythology, which became a juvenile classic, and Tanglewood Tales (1853), also for children. At this time he befriended his neighbor Herman Melville, who was one of the first to appreciate Hawthorne's genius. Returning to Concord, Hawthorne completed The Blithedale Romance (1852), a novel based on his Brook Farm experience.

A campaign biography of his college friend Franklin Pierce earned Hawthorne the post of consul at Liverpool (1853–57) after Pierce became President. Hawthorne's stay in England is reflected in the travel sketches of Our Old Home (1863), and a visit to Italy resulted in the novel The Marble Faun (1860). After returning to the United States, he worked on several novels that were never finished. He died during a trip to the White Mts. with Franklin Pierce.

Short Stories

Aside from his importance as a novelist, Hawthorne is justly celebrated as a short-story writer. He helped to establish the American short story as a significant art form with his haunting tales of human loneliness, frustration, hypocrisy, eccentricity, and frailty. Among his most brilliant stories are "The Minister's Black Veil," "Roger Malvin's Burial," "Young Goodman Brown," "Rappaccini's Daughter," "The Great Stone Face," and "Ethan Brand."


See the centenary edition of his complete works, ed. by W. Charvat et al. (16 vol., 1965–85); biographies by his son, Julian Hawthorne (2 vol., 1884, repr. 1968), A. Turner (1980), J. R. Mellow (1980), E. Miller (1991), and B. Wineapple (2003); studies by H. James (1879, repr. 1956), M. D. Bell (1971), N. Baym (1976), T. Stoehr (1978), T. Martin (1983), M. Colacurcio (1984), F. Crews (1989), and E. Miller (1991).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2013, The Columbia University Press.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

FREE! The Scarlet Letter
Nathaniel Hawthorne.
J. M. Dent & Sons, 1913
Understanding The Scarlet Letter: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents
Claudia Durst Johnson.
Greenwood Press, 1995
The Yellow Ruff & The Scarlet Letter: A Source of Hawthorne's Novel
Alfred S. Reid.
University of Florida Press, 1955
The Scarlet Mob of Scribblers: Rereading Hester Prynne
Jamie Barlowe.
Southern Illinois University Press, 2000
The Threads of the Scarlet Letter: A Study of Hawthorne's Transformative Art
Richard Kopley.
University of Delaware Press, 2003
The Adulteress in the Market-Place: Hawthorne and the Scarlet Letter
Egan, Ken, Jr.
Studies in the Novel, Vol. 27, No. 1, Spring 1995
Hawthorne's Pearl: Woman-Child of the Future
Daniels, Cindy Lou.
ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly), Vol. 19, No. 3, September 2005
Narrative of the Captivity and Redemption of Roger Prynne: Rereading the Scarlet Letter
Reid, Bethany.
Studies in the Novel, Vol. 33, No. 3, Fall 2001
Ideology and Classic American Literature
Sacvan Bercovitch; Myra Jehlen.
Cambridge University Press, 1987
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 11 "The Politics of the Scarlet Letter"
The Bureaucratic Origins of the Scarlet Letter
Traister, Bryce.
Studies in American Fiction, Vol. 29, No. 1, Spring 2001
The Fatal Hero: Diana, Deity of the Moon, as An Archetype of the Modern Hero in English Literature
Gil Haroian-Guerin.
Peter Lang, 1996
Librarian’s tip: Chap. Two "Hester Prynne: The American Transformation"
The Callisto Myth from Ovid to Atwood: Initiation and Rape in Literature
Kathleen Wall.
McGill-Queens University Press, 1988
Librarian’s tip: Chap. Six "The Scarlet Letter: The Power of Society's Sacred Sanctions"
Acts of Naming: The Family Plot in Fiction
Michael Ragussis.
Oxford University Press, 1986
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 4 "The Scarlet Letter"
'The Scarlet Letter' and the Book of Esther: Scriptural Letter and Narrative Life
Gartner, Matthew.
Studies in American Fiction, Vol. 23, No. 2, Autumn 1995
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