by Deborah F. Vernon
Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864) was born in Salem, Massachusetts. He was the descendant of one of the first families to settle in Salem, the Hathornes. By the time he was born, the family name had fallen from its place of distinction. This was due to his great-great-grandfather, William Hathorne, and his great-grandfather, Colonel John Hathorne. The former claimed Quakers were heretics and persecuted them as such, including the notorious flogging of a Quaker woman as she was dragged half naked through the streets of Salem. The latter was a judge during the Salem Witch Trials. The Colonel found over a hundred women guilty of witchcraft and would ride out to Gallows Hill to witness the hangings. Legend has it that one of the “witches” cursed the Colonel and his family before her death. Nathaniel Hawthorne never escaped a sense of guilt for his family’s deeds, and in that sense, the curse was real. The burden of the past manifested in his writing, perhaps most directly in the short story “Young Goodman Brown” (1835) and The Scarlet Letter(1850). Hawthorne wryly summarized, “Let us thank God for having given us such ancestors and let each successive generation thank him, not less fervently, for being one step further from them in the march of ages” (Wineapple,15).
A discredited name was paired with a steady decline in the Hathornes’ financial standing. Matters were made worse when Hawthorne’s father died at sea. With his death, Hawthorne’s mother was unable to care for her four-year-old son and two daughters. His uncles, Richard and Robert Manning, supported the family. Thus, Hawthorne traveled from one Manning household in Maine to another in Salem for much of his youth. He graduated from Bowdoin College in 1825. As a student he was undistinguished, but what set him apart from his peers was his determination to be a writer. He moved home to Salem with the express purpose of writing the next great American novel. It was during this time that he changed his name from Hathorne to Hawthorne to distance himself from his family history.
The novel Hawthorne dreamed of writing during this time never came to fruition, but he did write several short stories that brought him some acclaim. “Young Goodman Brown” (1835) is a story concerning witchcraft—bearing allusions to William Hathorne and Colonel John Hathorne—that continues to be a staple of high school English classes. The story reflects a preoccupation with the past and a doubting self and is also indicative of the solitude and darkness that Hawthorne associated with these years after college. He may have continued in Salem, writing, lonely, publishing a piece of literature that would bring him some mention but little financial success, if he had not fallen in love. Sophia Peabody claimed, “I never intend any one shall have me for a wife” (Wineapple, 112)—obviously, Hawthorne convinced her otherwise, but this did not mean he had the means to support a wife and family. He left Salem for Boston where he worked at the Boston Custom House in the hopes of saving enough capital to marry his intended.
It was during these years in Boston that Hawthorne frequented the “noble hall” of the Boston Athenӕum, which at the time was located on Pearl Street. He particularly enjoyed spending a quiet hour in the Reading Room and it was there that he came into contact with one of the Athenӕum’s resident ghosts—Reverend Thaddeus Mason Harris. In April of 1842, Hawthorne entered the Athenӕum’s Reading Room to find the Reverend in his usual chair, newspaper in hand. Hawthorne did not think there was anything untoward until later that evening, when a friend told him the Reverend had died. Hawthorne explained that this was impossible as he had seen the Reverend at the Athenӕum earlier that day. Hawthorne was eventually convinced of the Reverend’s death but went to the Reading Room the next day only to see the apparition of the Reverend again. Hawthorne speculated that the ghost could have been reading his own obituary. He wrote of the encounter:
"I remember—once at least, and I know not but oftener—a sad, wistful, disappointed gaze, which the ghost fixed upon me from beneath his spectacles; a melancholy look of helplessness, which, if my heart had been as hard as a paving-stone, I could hardly have withstood. But I did withstand it; and I think I saw him no more after this last, appealing look." (The Athenæum Centenary, 34)
Given the witch’s curse from Hawthorne’s past, it isn’t surprising that he would be the one to espy Mason’s ghost. Indeed, Hawthorne was more intrigued by the phantom than distressed.
By the time Hawthorne raised enough funds to marry Sophia in 1842, he decided he and his wife would not settle in Salem. He was tired of living in a landscape where his family’s and town’s painful history were inextricable. Instead, he shrugged off hauntings and relocated with Sophia to Concord, Massachusetts. There they socialized with the Transcendentalists of the time, including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Hawthorne never considered himself a Transcendentalist but he appreciated their company. The time he and Sophia spent in their Concord home, The Old Manse, was marked by the sense of contentment he had hoped the move would bring. Thus, it made their move back to Salem in 1845 all the more difficult.
Hawthorne’s return to Salem was an embittered one. He did not want to go back to the setting of his family’s misdeed and only did so because he had produced little in the way of writing in the five years spent at The Old Manse and was unable to financially support Sophia and himself. A few years after the return to Salem, he lost his job at the Boston Custom House. However, his unrest was also a motivator. Shortly after losing his position, he wrote The Scarlet Letter(1850). The book made him famous in his own time and continues to be the primary tome associated with his name. The book brought with it the literary success he had desired since adolescence. In short succession, he wrote The House of Seven Gables(1851) and The Blithedale Romance(1852).
In 1853, the Hawthorne family experienced a change. Hawthorne was friends with statesmen Franklin Pierce. When Pierce was elected President of the United States, he appointed Hawthorne to the position of the United States Consul in Liverpool, England. The position was a prestigious one and brought Hawthorne the financial security he sought but rarely possessed. His family and he moved to England in 1853 and lived there until 1857. After his term, they traveled to Italy for a year. This year abroad was the inspiration for his last novel, The Marble Faun(1860), which he wrote upon his settling in Wayside, Massachusetts.
Hawthorne’s death is as mysterious as his vision of Reverend Thaddeus Mason Harris in the Athenӕum all those years ago. In 1862, Hawthorne’s body began to fail. He lost the good looks that people had ascribed to him since childhood. He aged suddenly, his hair turning a shock of white. In two years he transformed from an able-bodied man to a feeble one. He died on a trip with his wife and friend Pierce to New Hampshire. There has been speculation but no certainty regarding what stole him from the world of the living. Considering his haunted life, it is not surprising that Hawthorne’s death had the same air of mystery. At least his ghost can be at peace knowing his legacy is quite different from that of his ancestors.
The Athenӕum Centenary—The Influence and History of the Boston Athenӕum from 1807 to 1907 with a Record of its Officers and Benefactors and a Complete List of Proprietors.Boston: The Boston Athenӕum, 1907.
Mays, James O’Donald. Mr. Hawthorne Goes to England.Burley, Hampshire: New Forest Leaves, 1983.
Mellow, James. Nathaniel Hawthorne in His Times.Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1980.
“Nathaniel Hawthorne.” Encyclopedia Brittanica Online. Chicago: Illinois. 1 Oct., 2014. http://library.eb.com/levels/referencecenter/article/39629
Wineapple, Brenda. Hawthorne: a Life.New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003. Print.