The Life of Nathaniel Hawthorne

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Nathaniel Hawthorne was a writer from Massachusetts during the 19th century.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, who was born and raised in Salem, is best known for his novels The Scarlet Letter and The House of Seven Gables.

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s family had deep roots in Salem. As a result, the town and Nathaniel’s Salem ancestors themselves greatly influenced his writing.

Born in Salem on July 4, 1804, Nathaniel Hawthorne was the great-great grandson of the Salem Witch Trials judge John Hathorne.

Hawthorne was haunted by his connection to his ancestor and it is speculated that he may have eventually added the “W” to his last name to distance himself from his great-great grandfather. Hawthorne published two stories under the name “Hathorne” in 1830 but started spelling his name with a W after this date

Nathaniel Hathorne is not only related to John Hathorne but also to a number of the accused witches from the Salem Witch Trials: Mary and Philip English, John Proctor and Sarah Wilson, as well as one of the accusers: Sarah Phelps.

Nathaniel’s great uncles, Captain William Hathorne and Daniel Hathorne, married two of Mary and Philip English’ granddaughters, Mary and Susannah Touzel. Nathaniel’s cousin, Elizabeth Hathorne, married John Proctor’s great-great-great grandson, Thorndike Proctor.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, oil painting by Charles Osgood, circa 1841
Nathaniel Hawthorne, oil painting by Charles Osgood, circa 1841

Sarah Wilson was the married daughter of Robert Lord, an ancestor of Nathaniel’s maternal grandmother Miriam Lord Manning.

Sarah Phelps was the great-niece of Henry Phelps, Nathaniel’s maternal great-great grandfather.

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Childhood:

Hawthorne grew up in Salem but also spent time in Raymond, Maine where his mother owned property. His father, Captain Nathaniel Hathorne, Sr., died of yellow fever in Suriname in 1808. After his father’s death, Hawthorne’s mother Elizabeth Manning, moved her and her children back into her parent’s house.

Nathaniel Hawthorne's birthplace in Salem, illustration published in Witchcraft Illustrated, circa 1892
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s birthplace in Salem, illustration published in Witchcraft Illustrated, circa 1892

Elizabeth had a reputation for being cold and aloof, especially after she was widowed, and Hawthorne once stated that although he loved his mother, they were never close, according to the book The Salem World of Nathaniel Hawthorne:

“Nathaniel Hawthorne’s relationship with his parents has been characterized in many ways. He himself recognized as his mother lay dying in 1849 that his relationship with her was not quite natural: ‘I love my mother, but there has been, ever since my boyhood, a sort of coldness of intercourse between us, such as is apt to come between persons of strong feelings, if they are not managed rightly…I shook with sobs. For a long time, I knelt there, holding her hand; and surely it is the darkest hour I ever lived.’”

Hawthorne had a love/hate relationship with Salem too, according to the book The Salem World of Nathaniel Hawthorne:

“He often saw Salem as a sleepy, run-down town full of unpainted wooden buildings, living on past glories in a present that was dull and unalluring.”

In 1821, his family managed to scrape together enough money to send Hawthorne to Bowdoin College in Maine. After four years at Bowdoin, he returned to Salem in 1825 and began working on his first novel Fanshawe. The novel was published shortly after in 1828, at his own expense, but Hawthorne disapproved of it and tried to destroy all copies.

Hawthorne continued writing and published many short stories including The Hollow of the Three Hills, Roger Malvin’s Burial and An Old Woman’s Tale.

Although Hawthorne descended from a long line of sea captains, he decided against entering into the profession. It is not known why he veered away from going to sea, but it is most likely because of the danger associated with the profession. Many of his sea-faring relatives died at sea, including his father. Hawthorne probably did not want to join them.

Nonetheless, he felt guilty for not following in the footsteps of his more prosperous ancestors, according to an autobiographical sketch he wrote for the introduction to the Scarlet Letter, which he titled The Custom-House:

“Doubtless, however, either of these stern and black-browed Puritans would have thought it quite a sufficient retribution for his sins, that, after so long a lapse of years, the old trunk of the family tree, with so much venerable moss upon it, should have borne, as its topmost bough, an idler like myself. No aim, that I have ever cherished, would they recognize as laudable; no success of mine—if my life, beyond its domestic scope, had ever been brightened by success—would they deem otherwise than worthless, if not positively disgraceful. ‘What is he?’ murmurs one gray shadow of my forefathers to the other. ‘A writer of story-books! What kind of a business in life—what mode of glorifying God, or being serviceable to mankind in his day and generation—may that be? Why, the degenerate fellow might as well have been a fiddler!’ Such are the compliments bandied between my great-grandsires and myself, across the gulf of time! And yet, let them scorn me as they will, strong traits of their nature have intertwined themselves with mine.”

In 1837, Hawthorne published another novel titled Twice-Told Tales and met his future wife Sophia Peabody. The couple married in July of 1842 and rented a home in Concord where they were neighbors with fellow Concord writers Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and the Alcott family, including young Louisa May Alcott.

Nathaniel Hawthorne photographed by Mathew Brady circa 1855-1865
Nathaniel Hawthorne photographed by Mathew Brady circa 1855-1865

The Hawthornes struggled with debt and a growing family and eventually returned to Salem in 1845. There, Hawthorne took a job as Surveyor of the Port at the Salem Custom House. He held the job for a few years until he lost it when there was a change in the administration.

His frustration drove him to leave Salem again, calling it a “abominable city,” and move to Lenox, Mass where he continued to write.

Hawthorne published his most well-known work, The Scarlet Letter, shortly after in 1850, bringing him fame and financial relief. He then began working on The House of Seven Gables, a novel based on the old Pyncheon family in Salem.

In 1852, Hawthorne purchased the Wayside from the Alcotts in Concord. This home was the only house Hawthorne ever owned.

The Hawthorne Family Curse:

Many of Hawthorne’s novels and stories, which tend to be about overbearing Puritan rulers ruthlessly persecuting others, were inspired by Hawthorne’s ancestors, John Hathorne and his father William.

William Hathorne was a local judge who earned a reputation for cruelly persecuting Quakers, most notably ordering the public whipping of Ann Coleman in 1662.

Hathorne feared that his family suffered from a curse brought on by John and William’s persecutions of Quakers and alleged witches. Although the Hathorne family was once wealthy and prosperous, the future generations slowly lost the family’s fortune and land until there was almost nothing left, prompting the rumor about a curse.

In The Custom-House, an introductory sketch to the Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel criticized both John and William Hathorne, apologized for their actions and asked for the curse to be lifted:

“But the sentiment has likewise its moral quality. The figure of that first ancestor, invested by family tradition with a dim and dusky grandeur, was present to my boyish imagination, as far back as I can remember. It still haunts me, and induces a sort of home-feeling with the past, which I scarcely claim in reference to the present phase of the town. I seem to have a stronger claim to a residence here on account of this grave, bearded, sable-cloaked and steeple-crowned progenitor,—who came so early, with his Bible and his sword, and trode the unworn street with such a stately port, and made so large a figure, as a man of war and peace,—a stronger claim than for myself, whose name is seldom heard and my face hardly known. He was a soldier, legislator, judge; he was a ruler in the Church; he had all the Puritanic traits, both good and evil. He was likewise a bitter persecutor, as witness the Quakers, who have remembered him in their histories, and relate an incident of his hard severity towards a woman of their sect, which will last longer, it is to be feared, than any record of his better deeds, although these were many. His son, too, inherited the persecuting spirit, and made himself so conspicuous in the martyrdom of the witches, that their blood may fairly be said to have left a stain upon him. So deep a stain, indeed, that his old dry bones, in the Charter Street burial-ground, must still retain it, if they have not crumbled utterly to dust! I know not whether these ancestors of mine bethought themselves to repent, and ask pardon of Heaven for their cruelties; or whether they are now groaning under the heavy consequences of them, in another state of being. At all events, I, the present writer, as their representative, hereby take shame upon myself for their sakes, and pray that any curse incurred by them—as I have heard, and as the dreary and unprosperous condition of the race, for many a long year back, would argue to exist—may be now and henceforth removed.”

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Writing Style:

Nathaniel Hawthorne was a part of the American Renaissance that occurred in the 19th century, which is considered the romantic period in American literature.

Yet, Hawthorne’s writing style was considered old-fashioned even for the time period he was writing in. As a result, some literary critics have dubbed his style “pre-modern,” according to the book Nathaniel Hawthorne American:

“His style for instance, though at its best a wonderfully effective instrument for the expression of his sensibility, is likely to strike us as not nearly as modern as Thoreau’s. It was slightly old-fashioned even when he wrote it. It is very deliberate, with measured rhythms, marked by formal decorum. It is a public style and, as we might say, a ‘rhetorical’ one – though of course all styles are rhetorical in one sense or another. It often prefers the abstract or generalized to the concrete or specific word. Compared to what the writers of handbooks, under the influence of modernist literature, have taught us to prefer – the private, informal, concrete, colloquial, imagistic – Hawthorne’s style can only be called pre-modern.”

Since most of his stories consisted of moral, cautionary tales about guilt, sin and retribution, many readers consider his work to be dark and sometimes gloomy.

Hawthorne himself even once described The Scarlet Letter as “positively a hell-fired story, into which I found it impossible to throw any cheering light.”

Hawthorne continued to write more novels throughout the 1850s until he was appointed to the consulship in Liverpool, England by his old college friend President Franklin Pierce.

While in Europe he wrote The Marble Faun, based on his sight-seeing experiences in Italy, and Our Old Home before moving back to his house in Concord in the early 1860s.

Nathaniel Hawthorne's grave at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Concord, Mass. Photo credit: Rebecca Brooks
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s grave at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Concord, Mass. Photo credit: Rebecca Brooks

Hawthorne suffered from poor health in the 1860s and died in his sleep during a trip to the White Mountains with Franklin Pierce on May 19, 1864. He is buried at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord.

Waggoner, Hyatt H. Nathaniel Hawthorne American. University of Minnesota Press, 1962.
Moore, Margaret B. The Salem World of Nathaniel Hawthorne. University of Missouri Press, 1998.
“Biographical Information Relating to Nathaniel Hawthorne.” Hawthorne in Salem,

About Rebecca Beatrice Brooks

Rebecca Beatrice Brooks is the author and publisher of the History of Massachusetts Blog. Rebecca is a freelance journalist and history lover who got her start in journalism working for small-town newspapers in Massachusetts and New Hampshire after she graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a B.A. in journalism. Visit this site's About page to find out more about Rebecca.

6 thoughts on “The Life of Nathaniel Hawthorne

  1. Mason Skelton

    I honestly liked this page its just that It didn’t answer the question I had on my school paper.

    1. Rebecca Beatrice Brooks Post author

      Hi Mason, thanks for your comment. I’m glad you liked the page. Sorry it didn’t help with your paper. What was the question you had?

  2. Rebecca Crowell

    Just happened on this page by accident and wanted to say it was well written and interesting. Nathaniel Hawthorne is my cousin as my maternal tree includes the Ingersolls of Maine that are traced down to Suzannah Ingersoll who lived in the House of the Seven Gables with her father.

  3. Canace

    I really learned a lot about Hawthorne from this page but I have a question that why did he write so many stories about sin and guilt?

    1. Janet W

      I would guess and he has said because of the cruelty of at least two of his ancestors. He felt that his family had been cursed because of his ancestors’ persecution of Quakers and role in murdering accused witches in Salem.

  4. Arkiu Himikoi

    This in an interesting read, thank you 🙂 I wasn’t aware that his writing style was considered old-fashioned even for his time. I certainly love it and how well he weaves the words for even the shortest of his tales.

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