Armytage Open Lecture




The great American novelist and short-story writer NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE was born into a prominent Puritan family in Salem, Massachusetts in 1804. His ancestors, among the earliest settlers, included John Hathorne, a judge at the Salem witchcraft trials of 1692, whom Hawthorne later fictionalised as the founder of The House of the Seven Gables. After his father, a sea captain, died of yellow fever when Hawthorne was four, he was raised by his widowed mother in an atmosphere of mournful seclusion. In 1815 the family moved to Maine, and Hawthorne spent his remaining childhood reading extensively in poetry and the romance. He attended Bowdoin College, where he was befriended by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. On graduating at twenty-five, Hawthorne returned to Salem, where he began writing historical sketches and allegorical stories concerning the moral values of New England.

At twenty-eight, Hawthorne published Fanshawe -- a novel based on his time at college -- anonymously and at his own expense. He burnt the unsold copies in shame after it passed virtually unnoticed -- except by the publisher Samuel Griswold Goodrich, who encouraged the writer, and went on to publish many of his stories in his annual gift-book, The Token. Later reproduced in Twice-Told Tales (1837; enlarged 1842), these included 'The Maypole of Merry Mount', 'Endicott and the Red Cross', 'The Minister's Black Veil', 'Mr Higginbotham's Catastrophe', 'Dr Heidegger's Experiment', 'The Grey Champion' and 'The Ambitious Guest'. The stories had 'the pale tint of flowers that blossomed in too retired a shade', according to Hawthorne himself, and dealt with themes which would characterise all his writings: shame, guilt, secrecy, intellectual pride, moral strength and weakness. These grew out of Hawthorne's perpetual interest in the effects of Puritan thinking on the communities of New England. The darkness of much of Hawthorne's short fiction compares to Edgar Allan Poe's work. Both are far from the idealistic Transcendentalist rhetoric of Ralph Waldo Emerson -- and neither found much popularity with the public, in the story genre at least. Hawthorne himself acknowledged this, describing the Twice-Told Tales as 'my attempts, and very imperfectly successful ones, to open an intercourse with the world'.

From 1836 to 1839, Hawthorne edited the American Magazine of Useful and Entertaining Knowledge for Goodrich. He also compiled the popularPeter Parley's Universal History (1837). Two years later, Hawthorne accepted the job of surveyor of the Boston Custom House, but left in 1841 to invest in an experiment in communal living, Brook Farm, founded by the Transcendentalist George Ripley. Hawthorne lived there for six months with his new wife, Sophia (née Peabody), herself an ardent follower of the Concord Transcendentalist school. Hawthorne's sensitivity and solitariness, however, made him an unlikely advocate of communal life. The couple left in 1842 for Concord, where they lived in the Old Manse, formerly Emerson's home.

Around this time Hawthorne wrote a number of children's books, including Grandfather's Chair (1841), Famous Old People (1841), Liberty Tree(1841) and Biographical Stories for Children (1842). Next came a second collection of tales, Mosses from an Old Manse (1846), including 'Young Goodman Brown', 'The Celestial Railroad', 'Rapaccini's Daughter', 'The Birthmark' and 'Roger Malvin's Burial'. Hawthorne worked as the Customs Surveyor of the Port of Salem from 1846-49. He wrote little, but watched his fellow workers closely, as later described in the introduction to Hawthorne's first important and most famous full-length work, The Scarlet Letter (1850).

This novel -- properly speaking, like Hawthorne's others, a romance -- was begun after Hawthorne was dismissed from his post in a change of administrations. It began a highly prolific and uniquely successful run in Hawthorne's writing career. Developed from an incident included in Hawthorne's 1837 story 'Endicott and the Red Cross', The Scarlet Letter is set in seventeenth-century Boston. It opens with the young Hester Prynne emerging from prison, holding her illegitimate baby daughter Pearl. Charged with adultery, Hesther stands exposed on the public scaffold. Thereafter she must wear a scarlet letter 'A' on her breast -- sign of her sin. Hesther's husband, an English scholar, had sent her two years previously to Boston to prepare a home for them. He failed to come as scheduled as he had been captured by Indians, but arrives just as his wife is being condemned. Hesther persistently refuses to reveal the identity of her lover to anyone. The reader soon learns, however, that it is the highly-thought-of Arthur Dimmesdale, the town's young minister.

Keeping this secret leaves Dimmesdale outwardly respected, but inwardly tormented by guilt. Hesther settles back into Boston society and begins to help other social unfortunates. Pearl, meanwhile, grows up an awkward child, whose very presence underlines Hesther's guilt, especially as she asks her mother curiously probing questions about the scarlet letter and Dimmesdale. Meanwhile, Hesther's husband takes the name Roger Chillingworth and begins practising as a doctor. He dedicates himself to discovering the identity of Hesther's lover -- and guesses it correctly when he comes upon Dimmesdale, Hesther and Pearl talking together at night.

Chillingworth immediately understands that Dimmesdale's ongoing poor health is related to his sense of sinfulness. Chillingworth purports to offer medical help, but in fact persecutes Dimmesdale by making veiled allusions to his unconfessed crime. One day in the nearby forest, Hesther begs Dimmesdale to escape with her and Pearl to Europe, going so far as to remove the scarlet letter from her breast. At the last minute, however, Dimmesdale backs out, seeing the flight as a further concession to sin. He returns to town to complete his Election Day Sermon.

Hesther then learns that Chillingworth had in any case thwarted her planned escape by booking a place on the same ship. Dimmesdale preaches a sermon of formidable power, and asks Hesther and Pearl to join him on the pillory, where he finally publicly confesses his sin. He dies in Hesther's arms, as Chillingworth cries out at losing the twin purposes of his life -- the pursuit of Dimmesdale, and the love of his wife. Hesther and Pearl are now free to leave the town. The Scarlet Letter ends, however, with Hesther's return, and her voluntary decision to continue to wearing the 'A'. Pearl settles in Europe, and Hesther lives out her life in penance, undertaking acts of charity and thus conquering sin.

The Scarlet Letter brilliantly summed up in dramatic form the Puritan moral dilemmas which so haunted Hawthorne, though Henry James, in an influential assessment (1879), did not think The Scarlet Letter the best of Hawthorne's books, and criticised its 'want of reality and [. . .] abuse of the fanciful element'. Still, it won immediate acclaim, selling some 13,500 copies in Hawthorne's lifetime, and was quickly followed by the almost-as-popular The House of the Seven Gables (1851; 11,500 copies in his lifetime). Seven Gables is a dark romance examining the legacy of early Puritan culture. It was partly based on the life of Hawthorne's great-grandfather, a judge who was allegedly cursed by one of his victims at the Salem witch trials. It opens in the mid-nineteenth century, but from the beginning concerns the impact of past generations upon the fictional present. Before being hanged for witchcraft, 'Wizard' Maule placed a curse on Colonel Pyncheon. Maule's death enabled Pyncheon to seize a plot of disputed land, on which he builds a seven-gabled house. The current owner, the malign Judge Pyncheon, lets his cousin Hepzibah and her witless brother Clifford stay there. Clifford has just completed a thirty-year jail term passed upon him by his cousin the Judge, the result of a wrongful conviction for the murder of their rich uncle.

Phoebe, a young cousin, and a daguerreotypist called Holgrave join Hepzibah and Clifford. Judge Pyncheon threatens to have Clifford put away as a lunatic when he fears Clifford knows where the deeds to the 'murdered' uncle's property are. Judge Pyncheon then suddenly dies, however, leaving considerable sums to Hepzibah and Clifford. Holgrave then reveals himself as the descendant of 'Wizard' Maule, and explains how both the uncle and the Judge were not victims of others' wrongdoing, but of old Maule's curse. Holgrave and Phoebe announce their plans to marry, in so doing removing the curse from The House of the Seven Gables. The novel has been widely praised ever since James's positive verdict: 'a large and generous production, pervaded with that vague hum, that indefinable echo, of the whole multitudinous life of man, which is the real sign of a great work of fiction'.

The Blithedale Romance (1852) drew on Hawthorne's stay at Brook Farm. Its narrator Miles Coverdale goes to the idealistic community of Blithedale and meets Zenobia, a famous feminist (based on Margaret Fuller), Hollingsworth, a former blacksmith and Priscilla. The latter, an odd seamstress, has fled the controlling influence of one Westervelt, an evil man who forced her to pose as his mysterious 'Veiled Lady', and through whom he communicated his mesmeric powers to the Boston public. A past secret connects Westervelt and Zenobia, who is in love with the egotistical Hollingsworth. Hollingsworth, meanwhile, plans to turn Blithedale into an institute for criminal reform. Suspecting Priscilla a rival for Hollingsworth's affections, Zenobia betrays Priscilla to Westervelt. Hollingsworth, however, intervenes, announcing his love for Priscilla, who is revealed not only as the half-sister of Zenobia, but as chosen heiress of the fortune Zenobia thought her own. This explains Hollingsworth's pledge to Priscilla, as he needs to fund his ambitions. The rejected Zenobia drowns herself. Hollingsworth and Priscilla marry -- but the former's guilt over Zenobia's death saps his strength, and he never recovers. Coverdale becomes a reclusive bachelor, explaining to the reader that his interest in his friends' stories was itself rooted in his own unrequited love for Priscilla. The reception accorded The Blithedale Romance was mixed, the critic for the Westminster Gazette (? George Eliot) lamenting its 'poetry of the hospital [. . .] and the dissecting room', though James thought Zenobia 'the nearest approach Hawthorne has made to the complete creation of a person'.

Hawthorne's third story collection, The Snow-Image & Other Twice-Told Tales appeared in 1851, including 'The Great Stone Face' and 'Ethan Brand'. A retelling of Greek myths for children, A Wonder Book, and a further volume of children's stories, Tanglewood Tales, were published in 1852 and 1853 respectively. For all this productive period, Hawthorne and his wife lived at the Berkshires, near their good friends the Melvilles. Herman Melville and Hawthorne became especially close, the former writing a penetrating study of Hawthorne's writings, 'Hawthorne and His Mosses' (1850). Poe was another early admirer, in 1847 calling Hawthorne 'the example, par excellence, in this country, of the privately-admired and publicly-underappreciated man of genius'.

In 1853, Franklin Pierce, whom Hawthorne had known at college, became U.S. President. Hawthorne was rewarded for having written his campaign biography with the consulship of Liverpool, England. He stayed for four years, then travelled for two years in Italy before returning to Concord in 1860. While abroad, Hawthorne mostly wrote journals, though a last romance, The Marble Faun, set in Italy, appeared shortly after his return (In England, Transformation). It concerns two American art students in Rome, Kenyon and Hilda. They befriend Myriam, an artist, and together meet Donatello, a handsome, kind Italian of noble birth, who, they notice, resembles the Marble Faun drawn by Praxiteles. Donatello falls for Myriam, but is worried by rumours concerning her past -- that she may be the heiress of a Jewish banker, in flight from a disastrous marriage, or a German princess, or the mulatto child of a South American planter, or the mistress of an English nobleman. Myriam is tormented by the sudden appearance of a mysterious Capuchin monk. One evening, Donatello finds the monk following the four friends. Angry, and perhaps in response to a sign from Myriam, Donatello pushes the monk off a precipice, an action Hilda also witnesses. Horrified, Donatello flees to his estate, Monte Beni. Myriam, equally guilt-stricken, follows, and the pair determine to accept their punishment: Donatello gives himself up and is jailed; Myriam embarks on pilgrimage. Hilda, also tormented by what she has seen, abandons her Puritan heritage and takes Catholic confessional. She subsequently marries Kenyon. In a postscript, Hawthorne's narrator argues that to want to know whether Donatello is in fact a faun, or what Myriam's past is, would be to destroy the effectiveness and artistry of the tale. The Marble Faun was another good seller, selling over 14,000 copies in one year.

In 1863, Our Old Home, a collection of essays on England, was published. Hawthorne continued contributing essays to Atlantic Monthly in his final years, but experienced a creative decline before his death in 1864. He tried to write a further romance, based on the theme of the elixir of life and the story of an American claimant to an English estate. However, only four posthumously-published fragments survive: Septimius Felton(1872); The Dolliver Romance (1876); Dr Grimshawe's Secret (1882); and The Ancestral Footstep (1883). Sophia edited Passages from the American Notebooks (1868), Passages from the English Notebooks (1870) and Passages from the French and Italian Notebooks (1871). More recent editions have restored excised material.

Hawthorne is remembered as a most penetrating interpreter of the spiritual history of New England. Alongside Poe, he developed the short story to make it a distinctive American genre. Unlike Poe, Hawthorne's interests were always primarily ethical and philosophical, though his use of supernatural elements, like Poe's, had an aesthetic, rather than a religious foundation. An emphasis on allegory and symbolism -- the former, invariably, in his stories; the latter in his romances -- has often led readers to think of Hawthorne's characters as embodiments of psychological traits or moral concepts, not real people. Still, in the twentieth century, he never experienced serious critical or commercial neglect. He was praised by T.S. Eliot for his 'very acute historical sense', and was much discussed in F.O. Matthiessen's American Renaissance(1941). Mark van Doren wrote an influential life (1949). D.H. Lawrence, however, ridiculed Hawthorne's style: 'Old-fashioned Nathaniel, with his little boy charm, / He'll tell you what's what, but he'll cover it with smarm' (1923).

Significant recent studies include: Nina Baym's biographical critique The Shape of Hawthorne's Career; Frederick Crews's The Sins of the Fathers(1966), which considers Hawthorne as a psychological author; Luther Luedtke's Nathaniel Hawthorne and the Romance of the Orient (on the nineteenth-century vogue for the east); Taylor Stoehr's Hawthorne's Mad Scientists (on scientific advances in Hawthorne's day); and Charles Swann's Nathaniel Hawthorne: Tradition and Revolution (1991) (on Hawthorne's view of history). Formal readings are: M. Dunne's Hawthorne's Narrative Strategies (1995); John Dolis's The Style of Hawthorne's Gaze (1993); and J. Bercovitch's The Office of the Scarlet Letter (1991), which considers Hawthorne's novel 'the liberal example par excellence of art as ideological mimesis'. T. Walter Herbert's Dearest Beloved, an important study of the Hawthorne family, suggested that Hawthorne had incestuous longings for his sister.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel, 1804-1864 
from Literature Online biography 





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