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Nathaniel Hawthorne Introduction

What Nathaniel Hawthorne did... and why you should care

The writer Nathaniel Hawthorne was born on the Fourth of July in 1804 and went on from there to establish himself as one of the great contributors to American literature. Like Forrest Gump, he seemed all his life to be surrounded by history. He was descended from a line of notorious Puritans, including a judge at the Salem witch trials. His college pals included poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and future president Franklin Pierce. Henry David Thoreau planted Hawthorne a vegetable garden as a wedding present. Edgar Allan Poe wrote rave reviews of his books. The mourners at his funeral in 1860 included Ralph Waldo Emerson and Oliver Wendell Holmes. Hawthorne spent most of his life in or around the Massachusetts towns of Salem and Concord, both of which played prominent roles in American history.

Hawthorne's books and stories drew heavily from America's Puritan history. His stories were pointed allegories that took aim at hypocrisy, sin, and corruption. Hawthorne's most famous novel, The Scarlet Letter, practically ran through a checklist of the Seven Deadly Sins. His was not a rosy view of human nature. Perhaps because of this, Hawthorne kept mostly to himself. He was painfully shy and rarely invited anyone to the home he shared with his wife and three children. A friend of his said at the time, "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."1 If Hawthorne were alive today, he probably wouldn't even be on Facebook. Maybe it's easier to know him 150 years after his death, now that we have access to the journals and personal papers he fiercely guarded during his lifetime.

Picture it: A brilliantly creative man is stuck at an incredibly boring desk job at the Boston Custom House. He hates it, but he can't quit because he has to support his family. It's sucking away his energy, his time, and his creativity. Yet, in a quintessentially American way, he refuses to give up hope. "I do not mean to imply that I am unhappy or discontented; for this is not the case," Hawthorne confided in his diary on 3 July 1839. "Henceforth forever I shall be entitled to call the sons of toil my brethren, and shall know how to sympathize with them; seeing that I likewise have risen at the dawn, and borne the fervor of the midday sun, nor turned my heavy footsteps homeward till eventide. Years hence, perhaps, the experience that, my heart is acquiring now will flow out in truth and wisdom."2 Generations of readers since agree that he was right.

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