Nathaniel Hawthorne was born on July 4, 1804, in Salem, Massachusetts. His family, the Hathornes, had lived in Salem since the seventeenth century. A descendent of the Puritan judges William Hathorne and John Hathorne, a judge who oversaw the Salem Witch Trials, Hawthorne chose to add the “w” to his name when he was in his early twenties. Hawthorne grew up with his mother and uncles in Salem and Raymond, Maine. His father, a ship’s captain, died of yellow fever in 1808. Many of Hawthorne’s childhood poems and stories were concerned with sailing and the sea. Hawthorne suffered temporary paralysis during his youth and studied literature at home with the lexicographer Joseph Emerson Worcester. Hawthorne then attended Bowdoin College from 1821 to 1825, where he wrote his early poems and a novel. He was classmates with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and they developed a friendship later in life. Hawthorne moved back to Salem after graduation.
While best known for his novels, letters, and short stories, Hawthorne also wrote a few poems, notably “The Ocean,” published in the Salem Gazette in 1825, and “Oh Could I Raise the Darken’d Veil,” which appeared in 1820 in the Spectator, a weekly newspaper that Hawthorne created and edited, starting in the summer of that year.
Hawthorne is best known for his four major romances: The Marble Faun (Ticknor, Reed, & Fields, 1860); The Blithedale Romance (Ticknor, Reed, & Fields, 1852); The House of the Seven Gables (Ticknor, Reed, & Fields, 1851); and, most importantly, The Scarlet Letter (Ticknor, Reed, & Fields, 1850). He was also a successful short story writer. He gained fame when he published his stories in the collection Twice-Told Tales (American Stationers Co., 1837). During this period, Hawthorne began to attach his own name to his prose. His best-known works are “Ethan Brand” (Ticknor, Reed, & Fields, 1850); “The Birth-Mark,” published in James Russell Lowell’s literary periodical, The Pioneer, in 1843; “Young Goodman Brown,” published in The New-England Magazine in 1835; and “My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” published in the illustrated gift book The Token and Atlantic Souvenir in 1832.
In 1986 Hawthorne was inducted into The American Poets’ Corner, joining the symbolic American pantheon of letters, alongside Robert Frost, the first twentieth-century poet to be inducted. Hawthorne was also recognized and admired by his contemporaries. Herman Melville gave Hawthorne’s short stories rave reviews, in addition to dedicating Moby Dick to him. However, Melville’s view of Hawthorne soured later in life, and Melville presented him unflatteringly in his poem “Clarel.” Longfellow wrote a review of Twice-Told Tales, in which he called Hawthorne a “new star” who wrote with “the heaven of poetry.” Henry James wrote a biographical critical essay on Hawthorne, describing him as “a beautiful, natural, original genius […] no one has had just that vision of life, and no one has had a literary form that more successfully expressed his vision […] he was not simply a poet. He combined in a singular degree the spontaneity of the imagination with a haunting care for moral problems. Man’s conscience was his theme, but he saw it in the light of a creative fancy which added, out of its own substance, an interest, and, I may almost say, an importance.”
In 1838 Hawthorne became engaged to his future wife, illustrator Sophia Peabody. While his writing often brought him satisfying recognition, it secured him very little income and Hawthorne often struggled to make ends meet, taking various positions throughout his life. As he said in 1820: “I have almost given up writing Poetry […] No Man can be a Poet & a Book-Keeper at the same time.” Hawthorne sought work at the Boston Custom House in 1839, as well as at the agricultural cooperative Brook Farm in 1841. By 1842 Hawthorne’s writing provided enough income for him to marry Sophia, and they settled for three years in Concord, Massachusetts. Hawthorne’s neighbors were Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and the philosopher and educator Bronson Alcott, making the village the leading center of Transcendentalism. While Hawthorne associated with the thinkers and shared many of their philosophies, he preferred the company of Franklin Pierce, his old college friend, who later became the fourteenth U.S. president. Hawthorne wrote a campaign biography on Pierce, titled Life of Franklin Pierce (Ticknor, Reed, & Fields, 1852). When Pierce became president in 1853, Hawthorne was given the position of U.S. consul in Liverpool. He resigned in 1857 and spent his later years traveling in France and Italy and writing.
Hawthorne died on May 19, 1864, in Plymouth, New Hampshire, while on a mountain tour with Pierce. Hawthorne is buried at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord.