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Hawthorne, Nathaniel

Category: Writer

Nathaniel Hawthorne by John Jabez Edwin Mayall
albumen carte-de-visite, circa 1860 NPG London

Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804 – 1864) was an American novelist and short story writer.
He was born in 1804 in Salem, Massachusetts to Nathaniel Hathorne and the former Elizabeth Clarke Manning. His ancestors include John Hathorne, the only judge involved in the Salem witch trials who never repented of his actions and William Hathorne who came to Massachusetts in 1630 and was:

a notorious Indian killer, an implacable opponent of royal authority, a tireless accumulator of land and wealth and a fearsome judge who punished fornicators, Quakers, and other malfactors [sic] with typical Puritan industry, cruelty and ingenuity.

So genetically, things looked none too promising. Nathaniel later added a "w" to make his name "Hawthorne" in order to hide this relation.

Luckily Nathaniel was spared exposure to his father's family. His father died when he was 4, and the family moved in with his mother's family. Nathaniel hated school and avoided it where possible preferring to read, but his uncle packed him off to Bowdoin College in 1821. Whilst there Hawthorne was fined for drinking, gambling, missing religious services, breaking windows and 'walking unnecessarily on the Sabbath'.

as a young man

Tall, with a touch of Gothic romance, he was timid and reticent, fond of reading and often alone. His friend Jonathan Cilley said:

I love Hawthorne, I admire him, but I do not know him. He lives in a mysterious world of thought and imagination which he never permits me to enter.

Evert Duykinck called him “a fine ghost in a case of iron”.

So he was sensitive, maybe a sensitive. He certainly understood his spiritual symbolism, for he later erected a tower as an adjunct to his house. To get over his shyness and dislike of public appearances he took to drinking heavily “I charge myself pretty high with champagne and port before I get up on my legs”. He knew very well himself how aloof he appeared ”by some witch craft or other .. I have been carried apart from the main current of life and find it impossible to get back”. His father was also described as a reserved and melancholy man, his mother and sister were reclusive too.

 

Nathaniel himself also suffered from 'depression' – extreme unhappiness and loneliness; after graduating he spent almost 12 years writing in his attic. His mornings were spent writing, occasionally he would take a solitary walk in the afternoon, and always a much longer walk in the evening; any time left was spent reading books. Communing with nature was to be a life-long passion with him and later in Concorde he became friends with Thoreau because he shared his love of nature.

His writing was his main form of release and through the books he wrote, he lived the life he was too timid to live himself, inventing characters and adapting periods of his own life to how he would have liked the story to have ended. His books at the time included My kinsman Major Molineux, Young Goodman Brown, Fanshawe, and Twice told tales.

 

After a rather disastrous first attempt at a relationship with Mary Silbee, he met and fell in love with Sophia Peabody. In order to provide an income so that he could marry, he started work at the Custom House, but when this fell through he sunk all his savings and went to work in Brook Farm, a “utopian community”, which failed spectacularly taking his savings with it.

In July 1842, despite the setback, he married Sophia and the couple moved to Concord, Massachusetts, the mecca of transcendentalism and home of Emerson. He wrote Moses from an Old Manse, but his finances forced him to take up work again and the writing stopped.

But in 1849, he was fired from his job in June and his mother died in July. Burying himself back in the world of writing, it was then that he wrote the Scarlet Letter considered one of his best books.

 

A political appointment took Hawthorne and family to a consulate job in Liverpool when Hawthorne was just 48, but although the money rolled in, the job itself was a private nightmare requiring him to do all the things he liked least, public speaking, entertaining, and dealing with difficult people. Hawthorne was burnt out by the end of his time in England and by 1856 he was “utterly prostrated by depression ... never was a man more miserable'.

When his term as consul ended in 1858, he went to Italy with his family, but his favourite daughter Una fell gravely ill with malarial fevers and TB. There Hawthorne wrote The Marble Faun his last complete novel.

Fever walks arm in arm with you and Death awaits you at the end of every dim vista”. Later Una was to suffer from manic depression and died aged 33. Hawthorne 'unravelled at Una's illness, he became mired in grief and depression'.  But he managed to finish the book. 

 

By 1860 he was back in Concord, but his last years were relatively unproductive. Depression dogged his efforts to write what would have been his last work Septimius Felton 'a story of a young man's search for the elixir of eternal life' reworked and renamed later as the Dolliver Romance.

By then Hawthorne was very ill with what doctors now believe to be stomach cancer. He lost a great deal of weight and was in great pain 'his limbs are shrunken but his great eyes still burn with their lambent fire'.

By May 1864, Hawthorne was very ill. When Oliver Wendell Holmes [also on this site] saw him he said:

He seemed to have shrunken in all his dimensions and walked with an uncertain feeble step as if every movement was an effort...Hawthorne complained of persistent local symptoms referring especially to his stomach – boring pain, distention, difficult digestion with great wasting of flesh and strength. [Overall ] his aspect medically considered was very unfavourable.

He died a week later.

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