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Were all the literary works of Nathaniel Hawthorne compiled into a single manuscript, then appropriately filtered to include only works of prose and fiction, and if an attempt were then made to uncover a single motif spanning through the vast majority of the remaining text, it would read something like the following. A protagonist is haunted by a vague, strangely preternatural feeling of foreboding and doom that eventually manifests itself physically before mortally claiming its victim. Sadly, but not surprisingly so, this motif could also apply to Hawthorne's life. Despite the fact that the author who many have acclaimed as one of the finest in American history enjoyed a celebrated literary career (with a number of impressive, political boons as well), he was never able to fully surmount all of his 'demons' and enjoy the happiness that should have rightfully been his. Instead, the celebrated author would tap the genius and the intrinsic pain prevalent in such dispirited musings to create works that would eventually come to mirror his own life as he finally succumbed to depression and a tormented death. In fact, one could copiously support the argument that the traits of several characters in Hawthorne's literary works merely foreshadowed the existence -- and ending -- which he saw for himself.
As was the case with Hawthorne's most commercially successful (if not critically acclaimed) literary work, the melancholic The Scarlet Letter, the source of the vague sense of foreboding and inadequacy that plagued characters such as Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale was the same source of similar feelings in the American author. There were a variety of reasons why the town of Salem, Massachusetts, engendered such ominous emotions and brooding in Hawthorne, many of which would have both unperceived as well as tangible results. Hawthorne's lineage played a substantial role in the history of this city, as his relative William Hathorne settled there (coming from Boston) with Roger Conant in the 1630s. William would go on to achieve a good deal of notoriety, if not outright infamy, as an austere magistrate of the then-British ruled territory. Among other things, William was well-known for his exceedingly strict dissemination of punishment during his tenure as part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony (Crews, 1966).
Furthermore, the magistrate's son played an integral role in the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. John Hathorne worked as one of a number of judges who were appointed specifically for the trials in which citizens were charged to have been engaging in acts of witchcraft. Although future generations would judge the trials and the claims of witnesses, in particular, to be largely fraudulent and decidedly lacking in convincing evidence, John Hathorne's role in these trails was definitely real as his orders were responsible for the lawful execution of many citizens who posterity has judged to be innocent. As a young man, and later on in life as he approached middle age and seniority, Nathaniel Hawthorne was certainly aware of the somewhat jaded history of Salem, and of the role that his family, in particular, played in influencing that history (Hawthorne, 2001). It would not be too great a stretch to reason that the traces of supernatural influences that tinged a lot of the writer's work stemmed from the origins of the witchcraft trials for which his lineage was largely known for, and which Hawthorne made an overt attempt to distance himself from by changing his name from Hathorne to Hawthorne while still in his 20's.
Regardless of how his name was spelled, however, the influence of Salem, both actual and imaginary, would plague Hawthorne for the majority of his youthful and adult life -- and color his literary works accordingly. On a wider scope, it was not just the physical environs of Salem and the previous historical deeds performed there that would profoundly affect the novelist and short story writer, but it was the entire Puritan lifestyle which it typified and represented to the United States and surrounding world as a whole that would play havoc with the writer's mental state, as the following quotation from Nancy Clark's "Nathaniel Hawthorne's Struggle and Romance with Salem" plainly evinces. "Hawthorne was still struggling to relieve himself of the heavy psychic burden of his family's past. Puritanism had shaped his first full-length romance written in 1850, The Scarlet Letter, with its emphasis on secret sin, pride, vengefulness and shame."
Due in no small part to the fact that The Scarlet Letter is the novel for which Hawthorne has garnered the most acclaim, it is an excellent starting point for the comparison between the lives and livelihoods of the main characters in the novel and that of Hawthorne himself. The premise of the novel is that Hester Prynne has born a child out of wedlock in a strict Puritanical society, and must therefore live the life of a pariah and wear an emboldened letter "A" in public (which is generally taken to mean adultery). Unbeknownst to the general populace, the father of Hester's child is a reverend, Arthur Dimmesdale, whose own suffering mirrors that of Hester's.
The particular traits that Hawthorne imbues these characters with, however, are remarkably similar to those which typified his own personality. Hester is outcast from the Puritan society in which she exists. Similarly, Hawthorne chose to live the life of a recluse for much of his adult life, perhaps most intensely from the time period directly preceding his entrance to Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, (during which he returned, against his will, to Salem to be tutored as part of his collegiate preparation), until his courtship began with his future wife Sophia -- which spanned well over 10 years. (Wineapple, 2003) During this time Hawthorne kept to himself as much as possible, partly due to his penchant for both reading and writing that was fully manifesting at this time, and partly because he was unhappy in his surroundings. Therefore, the sense of isolation and reclusiveness that was endured by Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter was certainly experienced and lived first-hand by Hawthorne himself, who plummeted the depths of such isolation and the despair which it may cause.
In many ways, Arthur Dimmesdale's unhappiness is more profound, pronounced, and illustrated by the Hawthorne in this novel than is Hester Prynne's. This facet of Dimmesdale's character is largely due to the guilt which he suffers, spawning not only from his sin of creating a child out of wedlock, but also from the guilt of seeing Hester punished daily while he is relatively free from such punishment (socially, at least) of his own accord. This overwhelming sense of guilt creates a significant amount of depression, which Hawthorne himself knew only too well. Although the author would eventually die in such a state of unhappiness, his own depression was fairly palpable to those who knew him best during the same period of isolation which he endured between his college years and his courtship of his wife. The following quotation, in which a written correspondence from Horatio Bridge -- one of the friends Hawthorne met during his Bowdoin tenure -- addresses this state of depression which gripped Hawthorne, show how remarkable the state of suffering was that the author endured, and alludes to how similar it was to that of Arthur Dimmesdale. "You have the blues again. Don't give up to them, for God's sake and your own and mine and everybody's. Brighter days will come, and that within six months." In another correspondence, Bridge writes to Hawthorne, "I have just received you last [letter], and do not like its tone at all. There is a kind of desperate coolness in it that seems dangerous. I fear that you are too good a subject for suicide, and that some day you will end your mortal woes on your own responsibility." Although Dimmesdale does not kill himself, it is significant to note that he died due to complications from his depression…as, one day, Hawthorne would as well.
There are several facets of "The Ambitious Guest" that support the notion that Hawthorne imbued many of his characters, if not the very tales in which they existed in, with traits and similarities that either had or were to parallel his own life. There are allusions to the solitary existence lived by both the nameless guest and the company he finds in a mountain abode that stood in the Notch of the White Hills in New Hampshire -- a place which Hawthorne spent some time in during 1832. There is the ambition of the young man, for whom the story is named, that parallel Hawthorne's most ardent desire to succeed as a writer. This point becomes all the more eminent when one pauses to consider that "The Ambitious Guest" was originally published in Twice-Told Tales, Hawthorne's first book published and which was the source of many years' worth of anxiety. There is even a preoccupation with death in the discourse of virtually all the characters which may have mimicked some of…[continue]
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One of his major works was a long poem written in three cantos about the horrors he experienced while being held prisoner on a British prison. ship. There we see a much edgier, angry Freneau who is willing to write about real life in real terms: Here, generous Britain, generous, as you say, To my parch'd tongue one cooling drop convey; Hell has no mischief like a thirsty throat, Nor one tormentor like
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