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Nathaniel Hawthorne

Nathaniel Hawthorne

Nathaniel Hawthorne: Writing The Scarlet Letter

In 1846, Hawthorne published the well-received collection of short stories, Mosses From an Old Manse. Income from writing, however, was not enough to support his growing family, which by that time included two young children. Hawthorne received a politically appointed job at the Salem Custom House, and the family moved to the city of his birth. Hawthorne worked at the job for three years, and then in June 1849 he learned that he was losing his position due to a political shakeup. Six weeks after his firing, his mother died. Hawthorne fell into a deep depression tinged with fury toward his supervisors in Salem. "I detest this town so much that I hate to go out into the streets, or to have people see me,"16 he wrote. He began to write a book into which he poured the rage he felt toward his fellow Salemites, recasting them instead as a hypocritical Puritan community. It was "positively a hell-fired story, into which I found it impossible to throw any cheering light,"17 Hawthorne wrote later. In 1850, he published the novel, entitled The Scarlet Letter.

The subject of The Scarlet Letter was shocking—a married Puritan woman who has borne an illegitimate child by a lover she refuses to name, who is forced to wear a scarlet "A" on her clothes as a symbol of her adultery. Hawthorne's plot was gripping, with his characters being a damning indictment of hypocrisy. Despite—or perhaps because of—the scandalous nature of the story, copies of the book flew off the shelves. In a biography of Hawthorne, Henry James described "the little shudder with which people alluded to it, as if a peculiar horror were mixed with its attractions."18 (Noting that phrase, a later reviewer said that the book "still inspires horror, but only in the hapless high school students who have it shoved down their throats like castor oil."19) The Scarlet Letter officially catapulted Hawthorne to literary prominence.

In 1851, Hawthorne followed up his success with The House of the Seven Gables. The thriller focused on a house haunted by the misdeeds of its previous owners, returning to Hawthorne's pre-occupation with the lingering burdens of previous sins. (The house itself was modeled after his cousin's home in Salem, where he had spent a good deal of time as a youth.) It was also a success. The year after it was published, the Hawthornes purchased their first home, a house in Concord, Massachusetts that he bought from the Alcott family and christened "The Wayside." Also in 1852, Hawthorne published The Blithedale Romance, a skewering satire of his days at Brook Farm.

Ironically, despite being surrounded by the nineteenth century equivalent of hippies, Hawthorne was never a reformist thinker. While most of his friends were outspoken opponents of slavery, he agreed with his college pal, the recently elected President Franklin Pierce, that the issue should be left up to the states. It wasn't that Hawthorne agreed with slavery; it was just that he didn't believe humans were capable of transcending their baser instincts to make the world a better place. "He thought no man wise enough to be a reformer," the literary critic DeLancey Ferguson wrote in 1961. "Indeed, the loftier the aim the greater the peril to the reformer because he may be the more tempted to use other people as instruments instead of souls."20

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