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Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864). The Scarlet Letter & Rappaccini’s Daughter.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.

Biographical Note

NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE was born at Salem, Massachusetts, on July 4, 1804, the descendant of a family that had settled in New England as early as 1630. Among his ancestors, who called themselves “Hawthorne,” he numbered a persecutor of Quakers and another of witches; the more recent members of the family had been ship captains. His father died when the young Nathaniel was only four, and ten years later the family moved to the shores of Sebago Lake, in Maine. At fifteen the youth returned to Salem to prepare for college, and from 1821 till 1825 he attended Bowdoin College, where he made friends of two fellow students destined to become famous—Henry W. Longfellow and Franklin Pierce.

From his schooldays he had shown an inclination toward literature, and on leaving college he devoted himself to solitary walks, study, and writing. The beginnings of his reputation were made in “The Token,” an annual to which many prominent writers were then contributing. But recognition came very slowly. His first book, “Twice-told Tales,” was favorably reviewed by Longfellow in the “North American Review,” but had a very modest success.

The prospect of making a living by his pen seeming very remote, he accepted a situation as weigher at the port of Boston, but lost it after two years, owing to a change of administration. In 1841 he joined the Utopian settlement at Brook Farm, and stood it for nearly a year. On leaving it, he married Sophia Peabody of Salem, and settled in the Old Manse at Concord, Mass., just beside the revolutionary battle field. He was now contributing to the “Democratic Review” and writing a set of children’s stories called the “Grandfather’s Chair.” In 1846 another collection of his writings appeared under the title of “Mosses from an Old Manse,” and among these was “Rappaccini’s Daughter.” The Democrats having now returned to power, Hawthorne was appointed surveyor of the customhouse at Salem, an experience of which there remains an immortal record in the introduction to “The Scarlet Letter,” published in 1850 after another political change had lost him his position.

His next residence was at Lenox in the Berkshires, where he produced “The House of the Seven Gables” and “The Wonder-Book;” and at West Newton, near Boston, were written “The Blithedale Romance,” in which he drew on his experiences at Brook Farm, and “The Snow Image and Other Twice-told Tales” (1852). He now bought an old house at Concord called “The Wayside” where he wrote a campaign biography of Franklin Pierce, when that old college friend was a candidate for the presidency. He received his reward in an appointment to the consulate at Liverpool, in which he spent five years, and during the remaining two years of his sojourn in Europe he produced “Transformation, or the Marble Faun.”

On his return to America he again settled at “The Wayside,” but except for the volume of his impressions of England, “Our Old Home,” he wrote nothing more of note. He died on May 19, 1864, at Plymouth, N. H., and is buried in Sleepy Hollow at Concord.

The fiction of Hawthorne is of an individual and rare distinction. He had a great curiosity as to exceptional and even morbid types of character; he loved to explore the more mysterious influences that play upon the human spirit; and he was especially devoted to the study of the workings of conscience. His most powerful work, “The Scarlet Letter,” presents the classic picture of Puritan New England, but its fundamental truth to human nature and its profound analysis of emotion give it a value far beyond that of an interpretation of a bygone epoch. “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” which here represents his short stories, is a characteristic instance of his treatment of the weird and mysterious. Both stories exemplify a quality which, as much as his reading of character, have given him a place among the greater English novelists—his almost perfect style. No American writer and few English have attained such a mastery of prose.

W. A. N.