“He is one of the new, and far better generation of your writer. The smell of your beeches and hemlocks is upon him; your own broad prairies are in his soul; and if you travel away inland into his deep and noble nature, you will hear the far roar of his Niagara.” – Herman Melville, Hawthorne and His Mosses, 1850
Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864)
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s influence as writer, thinker, and public figure in the 19th century has suffused American literature for generations. Much of his writing grapples with morality, the role of religion in American life, and what it means to reckon with an unquiet past, themes that span literature through the ages. Born on July 4, 1804 in Salem, Massachusetts, Hawthorne attended Bowdoin College in Maine, along with future president Franklin Pierce and the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
He married transcendentalist Sophia Peabody in 1842 and the couple had three children, Una, Julian, and Rose. His best-known novels include The Scarlet Letter (1850), The House of Seven Gables (1851), and The Blithedale Romance (1852), although he was also a prolific short story writer and, like his novels, Hawthorne’s shorter works have a dark Romantic character — what Herman Melville described as Hawthorne’s “wild, witch voice” — and deal with the intersection of history, spirituality, and elements from Hawthorne’s own experiences, preoccupations, and observances. Hawthorne also had a notable political career, beginning with his position as a Surveyor for the District of Salem and Beverly from 1846-1848, an experience he famously chronicled in “The Custom-house”, his preface to The Scarlet Letter, and culminating with his role a US Consul to in Liverpool, England under President Franklin Pierce in 1853. Hawthorne died on May 19, 1864 in Plymouth, New Hampshire.
The legacy of Nathaniel Hawthorne has a fascinating and significant link to the early history of the internet, and to the ongoing debate about the freedom of information. In 1995, Eric Eldred, a former computer programmer and the founder of Creative Commons, was the first person to publish the complete works of Nathaniel Hawthorne online. By founding the Elderitch Press, Eldred created an accessible, free library on the early web of works that had passed into the public domain, with the aim of making these works come alive in a digital age. While Eldred no longer personally maintains the Eldritch Press website, an archival version of his collection of Hawthorne’s work is available here.
Hawthorne in Salem
The history of Hawthorne’s birthplace, Salem, Massachusetts, runs a deep current through Hawthorne’s life and works. Nathaniel Hathorne to an old Massachusetts family, Hawthorne later changed the spelling of his name to “Hawthorne” to distance himself from his ancestors, particularly John Hathorne, one of the judges who oversaw the Salem witch trials. After moving away from Salem in his boyhood, Hawthorne returned to serve as Surveyor for the District of Salem and Beverly and Inspector of the Revenue for the Port of Salem in 1846, a job that’s immortalized in “The Custom House”, the preface to The Scarlet Letter. The Salem home of Hawthorne’s cousin, Susanna Ingersoll, the Turner-Ingersoll Mansion, inspired the setting of The House of Seven Gables. Hawthorne’s life and works are celebrated throughout Salem by museums like The House of Seven Gables, the Peabody Essex Muesum, and the Salem Maritime National Historic Site. The Hawthorne in Salem website is an invaluable resource for information regarding Hawthorne and his family and literary connection with Salem.
Hawthorne in Concord
While Salem was Hawthorne’s birthplace and provided much inspiration, Concord, Massachusetts was a place where he forged connections with a circle of literary friends that included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Margaret Fuller. Hawthorne and his wife, Sophia, moved to Concord shortly after their marriage on July 9, 1842. They moved into the Old Manse, a home rented from Emerson; Thoreau planted the vegetable garden that adjoined the house. Hawthorne’s friendship with Thoreau helped shape his collection Mosses from the Old Manse.
Ralph Waldo Emerson Society: https://emersonsociety.org/
Henry David Thoreau Society: https://thoreausociety.org/
Margaret Fuller Society: https://margaretfullersociety.org/
Hawthorne at the Wayside
After moving back to Salem for a period of time, the Hawthornes returned to Concord in May 1852 in a home, Hillside, which Hawthorne bought and renamed the Wayside. Previously inhabited by transcendentalist teacher and philosopher Amos Bronson Alcott, father of Louisa May Alcott, the Wayside was the Hawthorne’s home until 1853, when he was appointed as Consul in Liverpool, England by his college friend President Franklin Pierce, and the family spent several years in Europe. Upon their return in 1862, the Wayside provided a refuge for Hawthorne, who built an Italian-inspired tower onto the house to serve as his writing study.
Louisa May Alcott Society: http://www.louisamayalcottsociety.org/
Hawthorne at Brook Farm, Abroad, and in the Berkshires
Hawthorne lived briefly in 1841 at Brook Farm, the utopian community that he helped to found in Boston Massachusetts. The farm was a short-lived experiment in communal living, based on transcendentalist principles. Though Hawthorne was not a keen believer in the views of the community, his time there inspired his novel The Blithedale Romance, which depicts some inner conflict between a utopian community’s ideals and its inhabitants’ private lives and passions.
In 1850, the Hawthornes moved to Lenox, Massachusetts in the Berkshires, ushering in a period of great literary production for Hawthorne and inaugurating his friendship with Herman Melville, which would have an impact on both writers’ works. The influence of the intense friendship between the two fed into their major works, which were published in the same time period. Hawthorne wrote The Scarlet Letter, The House of Seven Gables, and The Blithedale Romance in the same two year period, between 1850-1852, in which Melville also published Moby Dick, which he dedicated to Hawthorne, and Pierre: or, The Ambiguities. The Hawthorne in Salem archive includes extensive information about Melville and his connection with Hawthorne, including primary sources, critical commentary, and scholarly essays about the literary and personal impact of Hawthorne’s connection with Melville.
In 1853, about a year after purchasing the Wayside in Concord, the Hawthorne’s moved to Liverpool, where Hawthorne took up the position of U.S. Consul, a reward for his efforts in the election of President Franklin Pierce in 1852; Hawthorne wrote a campaign biography, The Life of Franklin Pierce. When his appointment in England ended in 1857, the Hawthornes spent another three years touring France and Italy, travels that would inspire his novel The Marble Faun.
Herman Melville Society: https://www.melvillesociety.org/
Herman Melville’s Arrowhead: https://berkshirehistory.org/