In his biography of the author, Henry James wrote, “Hawthorne's career was probably as tranquil and uneventful a one as ever fell to the lot of a man of letters; it was almost strikingly deficient in incident, in what may be called the dramatic quality.” For someone of Hawthorne's bent, it could hardly have been otherwise. A retiring, taciturn man who would often put himself to great inconvenience in his efforts to avoid society, the richest and most significant episodes of his life were those he projected onto the magic screen of his own imagination. His five completed novels, six dozen short stories and collections of notebooks offer a far greater illumination of this veiled internal world than any factual biography possibly could.
Nathaniel Hawthorne was born in Salem on July 4th, 1804, into a family that had arrived on American shores in 1630 in the person of William Hathorne, magistrate and military hero, whose proud record was stained by his cruel persecution of the Quakers. Hathorne’s equally notorious son, John, was the only magistrate presiding over Salem’s 1692 witch trials not to repent of his involvement. It was to distance himself from these bloody forebears that Nathaniel inserted the w into his surname. After a stint at Bowdoin College — where, despite later describing himself as “an idle student” with little interest in being “numbered among the learned Thebans,” he excelled — he began to apply himself seriously to writing. His early efforts shamed him and he destroyed most of them, but he was sufficiently pleased with the novel Fanshawe to publish it anonymously in 1828. Most of his critics wish that he hadn’t. Later short stories, including the much-admired ‘Young Goodman Brown’ (1835) and ‘The Minister’s Black Veil’ (1836), were published in periodicals but garnered little recognition for their author. Even his first collection, Twice-Told Tales (1837), only brought him local fame.
Unable to sustain himself financially through his writing, Hawthorne took up an assortment of posts. He edited the American Magazine of Useful and Entertaining Knowledge. He worked as a weigher and gauger at the Boston Custom House and as a surveyor for the Salem Custom House. He also spent a year at the utopian Brook Farm community — less because he believed in its ideals than to save up enough money to marry his beloved Sophia Peabody — where he was put in charge of shovelling the manure heap known as “the Gold Mine.” His sensitive mind, however, found work inimical to creativity (he wrote to Sophia that “labor is the curse of the world, and nobody can meddle with it without becoming proportionately brutified”) and it was during his periods of unemployment that he crafted his greatest works.
Hawthorne married Sophia Peabody in 1842, hallowing a deep and committed love that would last until their deaths. They had three children together, Una (1844-77), Julian (1846-1934) and Rose (1851-1926). Sophia, herself an artist, was a fervent admirer of her husband’s work and encouraged this highly self-critical man in his literary pursuits. With the publication of The Scarlet Letter in 1850, he at last received the acclaim he dreamed of; while The House of the Seven Gables (1851), The Blithedale Romance (1852) and The Marble Faun (1860) cemented his reputation as one of America’s foremost authors. These novels, which take sin and redemption as their central themes, are imbued with penetrating psychological awareness and a narrative style that is at once alluringly dream-like and shrewdly insightful.
Hawthorne died in his sleep during a hiking expedition through the White Mountains in 1864. His remains are interred beneath a simple stone marker on Authors' Ridge in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Concord Massachusetts.