Books, Biography, The Scarlet Letter Author
Nathaniel Hawthorne (1860-1864) was a genius of early American fiction, Hawthorne was a native of Salem, Massachusetts. He became acute in both his family lineage and the history of New England.
Judge John Hathorne (an earlier spelling of the family name), was a son of Hawthorne’s great-great grandfather Major William Hathorne. John Hathorne was a respected judge of Salem and heard trails there in the company of two other magistrates. He was not a vindictive person but skeptically questioned witnesses during trials of lengthy durations. However, he firmly believed in the evilness of witchcraft and that its magic could inflict harm on others through the use of puppets. He was known to be swayed by testimony of special evidence which he allowed to be presented and admitted in court.
As a young man Nathaniel had been fascinated and deeply moved by the family story that Judge Hathorne was cursed by one of the convicted witches. The convicted witch while accompanied by others, issued the curse on her way to the Salem gallows. When Reverend Nicholas Noyes asked her to confess, Sarah Good exclaimed, “I am no more of a witch than you are a wizard, and if you take my life, God will give you blood to drink.”It is known that Noyes choked on his own blood in 1717.
Whether this curse was laid on the other officials responsible for the executions was not certain; however, the Hathorne family apparently became to believe it affected them. There was another victim of the Salem hysteria, a Philip English, a wealthy merchant and shipper, who did not conceal his hatred for Judge Hathorne and Sheriff George Cowin. The result of this hatred caused the Englishes to be charged with witchcraft and the family lost their wealth and property.
English’s wife Mary was so impaired over the ordeal that she became gravely sick and died. Hathorne was never forgiven by English until just before the latter’s death. Eventually, ironically as it may seem, the two families later were joined by marriage, and it is from this lineage that Nathaniel Hawthorne was born.
Before the witch trials the Hathorne family had prospered from farming and shipping. Major Hathorne arrived from England in Boston in 1630, and moved to Salem in 1636. He became the first speaker in the House of Delegates in Massachusetts Colony. The family’s fortune began declining in the 1700s beginning with Joseph Hathorne, Nathaniel’s great-grandfather, who was a sea captain. The family lost social status in Salem as well.
On July 4, 1804, Nathaniel Hawthorne was born in a gable roofed house that had been purchased by his grandfather Daniel Hathorne, Captain Joseph’s youngest son. Nathaniel’s father, also named Nathaniel and a sea captain, died of yellow fever aboard ship off of the coast of Dutch Guiana when the boy was six. With her husband’s death Mrs. Hawthorne was left with no financial support with which to raise Nathaniel and his two sisters Elizabeth and Louisa. She turned for help to her parents the Mannings who also were established residents of Salem, but were not of Salem’s mercantile elite because they were yeomen and tradesmen. They operated a livery stable and a stagecoach line. They had homes in both Salem and Raymond, Maine. However, the family’s future fortune prospects laid in hugh land holdings around what was to become Portland, Maine; and, it was off of these land speculations that Mrs. Hawthorne and her children lived.
So as a boy Nathaniel lived with his mother and sisters in both of the Mannings’ homes. When at the northern home the boy took to the woods. It was there “I first got my first cursed habits of solitude,” he later said. But, also, it was in the woods while hunting and fishing he learned the love of unshackled freedom and solitude.
The woods apparently restored his health because as a child he was described as “delicate.” At the age of nine he suffered a foot injury which caused him to be lame for three years. This misfortune however probably fostered his great interest in reading.
Both of the Mannings homes were filled with books. He gradually became a voraciously reader as the records of withdrawals from Salem lending library show. His early favorite authors were Spenser, Bunyan, and Shakespeare. The first two particularly permanently effected his maturing allegorical mind and lead him to see the spiritual significance in natural events. He was later influenced by Sir Walter Scott and Scottish history.
His health and nature seemed to deem him unsuited for a life in business or at sea. His liking for the sea stemmed from his father. While working after school in his grandfather’s business his hand seemed to wonder from figures to verse. So with funding from his family he entered Bowdoin College which was not only less expensive than Harvard but was more associated with the growth of Maine.
During his four years (1821-1825) at Bowdoin Hawthorne made several friendships which were to last throughout his life. There was his classmate, Horatio Bridge, who helped to subsidize the publication of the Twice-Told Tales (1837); Franklin Pierce who became the 14th President of the United States and gave Hawthorne a consulship at Liverpool; and his long-time friend Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who in a prophetical commencement address at Hawthorne’s graduation said, “Already has a voice been lifted up in this land,–already a spirit and a love of literature are springing up in the shadows of our free political institutions.”
No dearer friend did Hawthorne have than Longfellow. Longfellow later gave critical book receptions for him. But, it is doubtful that in the commencement speech that Longfellow knew that he was speaking for both of them.
It was after his graduation, so one story is told, that his oldest sister Elizabeth persuaded Hawthorne to restore the “w” to the Hathorne name which had been abandoned for several generations. When doing so, Hawthorne disassociated himself from the infamous Hathorne heritage. Also, this act probably influenced his future writing.
Though he made several good friends in college his best friend and life companion he was to future meet. Her younger sister Elizabeth Peabody was friends with Hawthorn’s sisters and was eager to meet him through their invitation. It became apparent she had designs on the author of the Twice-Told Tales. Elizabeth was very confident and sure of herself among gentlemen. She became friends with Hawthorne and they went on outings.
One afternoon, however, Hawthorne met Elizabeth’s younger sister Sophia. Sophia, because of the result of an earlier medical mistreatment was much different from Elizabeth. She was virtually an invalid, staying alone in her room most of the time being almost constantly plagued with intense and protracting headaches. She had became a creature of mildness and patient cheerfulness without a remorseful sentiment. Her soft-spoken, fragile appearance made a lasting impression on Hawthorne.
Upon meeting Sophia he immediately recognized his own feeling of solitude. He later described the occasion of their meeting when writing to Sophia, “At length, a certain Dove was revealed to me in the shadow of seclusion as deep as my own had been.” This was not the usual case of opposites attracting; but, the very opposite, the attraction was the similarities of their lives and personalities.
Hawthorne was not an impulsive man, but he immediately asked Sophia to accompany Elizabeth and him to a transcendentalism discussion meeting at Miss Susan Burley’s that night. Within a few months they were lovers, just unacknowledged to each other, and within a year they became secretly engaged.
Their wedding was delayed for several years due to Sophia’s health. During this time Hawthorne did more traveling and held several jobs. Throughout these years, however, he frequently saw Sophia and constantly wrote her. Within these letters he could tell her his innermost thoughts.
Also, within these letters one sees the tormented personality of Hawthorne; a man caught between two worlds: the ordinary world of work which he was forced to live in, and the world of writing and literature which he loved. As he once wrote: “Nobody would think that the same man could live such different lives simultaneously. But then…the grosser life is a dream, and the spiritual life a reality.”
Of all of Hawthorne’s occupational efforts his job at Brook Farm seems to turned out the most dismal for him. One might expect this was because he entered the experiment with superficial expectations. Brook Farm, near Boston, was a quasi-communistic experiment begun by George Ripley. Ripley was a member of the transcendentalist club to which Hawthorne also belonged. Ripley had resigned his pastorate of a Boston Unitarian church as he was dissatisfied with the ministry as he found it. Ripley’s ideas in developing Brook Farm was to practically apply some of the transcendentalists’ social theories. His objective was to “insure a more natural union between intellectual and manual labor than now exists; to combine the thinker and worker, as far as possible, in the same individual.”
The more authoritarian transcendentalists were not too favorable toward the experiment, but Hawthorne having been unhappy with his Boston customhouse job, as a weigher, decided to try it. At first he liked it, but then the daily routine and drudgery began wearing on him. In May he wrote to his sister Louisa, “This is one of the most beautiful places I ever saw in my live…” He continues describing it to her. But, by June he wrote Sophia, “Of all the hateful places that is the worst, and I shall never comfort myself for having spent so many days of blessed sunshine there. It is my opinion, dearest, that a man’s soul may be buried and perish under a dung-heap, or in a farrow of the field, just as well as under a pile of money. The real ME was never an associate of the community.”
Hawthorne’s heart just was not in manual labor. Always his thoughts returned to writing and literature, this was his first love, second only to Sophia. During his stay at Brook Farm he briefly returned to Salem for a visit, and after returning to the farm he thought after Sophia and he once married they might live there, but these hopes soon vanished. While others accepted and enjoyed the life, Hawthorne could not. “No one could have been more out of place than he in a mixed company,” wrote Georgiana Kirby one of the residents. “He was morbidly shy and reserved, needing to be shielded from his fellows, and obtaining the fruits of observation second-hand.”
This was foreshadowed in what he wrote Sophia during the first spring of their engagement, “I never, till now, had a friend who could give me repose; all have disturbed me, and, whether for pleasure or pain, it was still disturbance. Peace overflows from your heart into mine.”
Hawthorne and Sophia were married in 1842 and moved to Concord, Massachusetts and took up residence in a house called the Old Manse. In Concord Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and others had begun sort of a literary colony. Here Hawthorne wrote numerous stories, some of them were published in a collection entitled Mosses from an Old Manse in 1846. But earnings from his stories were meager and again Hawthorne was forced to take another job. Later in 1846 he took the position of a surveyor for the Salem customhouse.
With the Whig victory in 1848, Hawthorne, being a Democrat, was no longer assured of his governmental position at the customhouse. Although about a year before his mind, while still focused upon writing, again saw an imaginary “A,” in fact scarlet “A,” as he had seen ten years before. It was as if he had totally forgotten it, but now the letter took on a different meaning. It required several years more for Hawthorne to discover and describe the letter’s true meaning, but even then he conceived some sort of a meaning: The “A,” he thought, could stand for “Admirable, or anything rather than Adulteress.” But, a scarlet “A” neatly embroidered upon the woman’s bosom? “For how deep a wrong might it not be the expiration, and how terrible a loneliness the cause! And what if there might be a wrong greater than that which this woman had done, and a more awful punishment than hers? What if the scarlet letter might appear in other guises than this?”
The current events within Hawthorne’s life seemed to make it for him his darkest hour. His mother laid dying while his daughter and son, Una and Julian, played noisily in the yard. He returned to the bedchamber where his mother laid thinking, “…and then I looked at my poor dying mother, and seemed to see the whole of human existence at once, standing in the dusty midst of it.”
Afterwards when telling Sophia of his discharge from the customhouse she exclaimed, “Oh, then, you can write your book!” She quickly showed him the small cache of dollars which she had been secretly saving out of his weekly income. Accompanying this came another generous offering from friends.
Scarlet letter Author
It was then The Scarlet Letter took form. The story grew in every detail within his mind and expanded into a novel. Hawthorne was so involved with its writing that he was unable to access it properly. To Horatio Bridge he wrote, “…it is positively a hell-fired story, into which I found it almost impossible to throw any cheering light.” He had written this because he found it almost impossible to direct the story in any other direction than its natural outcome. The novel had seemed to write itself.
Following this Hawthorne had almost convinced himself that hardly anybody would publish a little known author. But, the first edition of two thousand copies sold out in ten days. He immediately acquired an international reputation. This was 1850.
Within the same year the family moved to Lenox, Massachusetts and Hawthorne enjoyed the friendship of his admirer the American novelist Herman Melville. It was then that Hawthorne begun his second novel The House of Seven Gables.
Both novels, the Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables, not only focused on the sins of men, but more on the injustice that men or human beings show toward their fellow human beings. In the Scarlet Letter this is meticulously described. The gravest sin was not the adulterous act committed by Hester Prynne, or Arthur Dimmesdale trying to conceal their wrong until he can stand it no longer, it was not even the colonial law which forced Hester to wear the scarlet “A,” but rather the sin committed by Roger Chillingworth. Chillingworth’s was the worst sin of all. It was the sin of “…pride of the detached intellect” which had driven this elderly man of science to try to bring comfort into his life by latching onto the vigor and radiance of Hester’s youth. Feeling sorry for him she gave in till she could do it no longer.
This led to her transgression with Dimmesdale because of her loneliness which she never privately admitted was a sin. Hawthorne has Dimmesdale sum it up: “‘That old man’s revenge,’ says Dimmesdale to Hester, ‘has been blacker than my sin. He has violated, in cold blood, the sanctity of a human heart. Thou and I, Hester, never did so!’ Of all the spiritual ruin symbolized by the scarlet letter, no part is more awful than the destruction of Roger Chillingworth.”
Within the Scarlet Letter Hawthorne seemed to answered the questions which he asked before writing the work. What the crimson “A” stood for. The length and the deep loneliness which Hester suffered; and for that matter, Dimmesdale too. And, finally, the more serious question, “What if the scarlet letter might appear in other guises than this?” The letter guised Chillingworth’s sin, the most grievous of all.
The Scarlet Letter assumes a more important meaning when placed in context with Hawthorne’s life. Only a sensitive man such as he was could describe the life of Hester Prynne. He knew her loneliness, as he had known his wife Sophia’s, because he had experienced it himself. He knew the cruelty which society forced upon Hester by making her wear the scarlet letter because he felt such cruelty himself. His observation of man’s selfishness helped him to produce Roger Chillingworth as it also helped him to create Judge Pyncheon in The House of Seven Gables.
Judge Pyncheon is a study in hypocrisy. Externally he is the outstanding citizen of the community, while internally he an authoritarian and despot of his family. The man is shown to be unscrupulous. “Dominated by a narrow, self-seeking purpose, devoted to his own aggrandizement through wealth and wordily power, the Judge allows this to triumph over every humane consideration, and even over the limited loyalty of blood relationship; and he does not scruple to take upon his conscience in inactive falsehood that brings about the ruin of his cousin’s life. The human beings closest to him, his wife and his son, go down before the hardness and harshness of his will, the one to an early death, the other to disinheritance and exile.”
The story is not just about a man’s cruelty and injustice to his neighbor, but to his own family as well. It is a study in the length to which a man’s vanity can lead him. One might think this is why Hawthorne used the story to tell of the horrors of those suffering the accusations and convictions of witchcraft. He seemed to say that only such vane men could inflict such horrors upon their fellow men. The proof seemed to be that when the Judge was being the cruelest to his family he also was being elected to the highest office in the commonwealth. Also, he was enjoying with pride his house of seven gables, which he possessed through devious means, when fate seemed to strike. He was struck an ancestral death blow while sitting along in the parlor of the house.
When reading the history of the Hathorne family and comparing it to The House of Seven Gables, much seem biographical. This gives the novel its authenticity because a portion of it is narrative history. Once again one is reminded of Hawthorne’s partial comment to Sophia, “…It is my opinion, dearest, that a man’s soul may be buried and perish under a dung-heap, or in a farrow of the field, just as well as under a pile of money…” It seemed the author wrote what he believed.
A biographer implied that Hawthorne was disjointed from society, and this could be considered to be a character flaw. No one can say if the latter is true or not. But, Hawthorne’s distance from society seemed to better enable him to describe it accurately to his readers. A.G.H.
Arvin, Newton Hawthorne, New York, Russell & Russell, 1929 (Reissued 1961), pp. 190-193
Person, Norman Holmes, Yale University, “Nathaniel Hawthorne,” Encyclopedia Americana, Year 2000 Edition, Danbury, CT. Grolier, Inc., volume 13, pp. 886-889.
Guiley, Rosemary Ellen, The Encyclopedia of Witches and Witchcraft, New York: Facts On File, 1989, pp. 152-153
Funk &Wagnalls New Encyclopedia, 1979, volume 12, pp. 244-245