Nathaniel Hawthorne was an Eighteenth Century American author who through his works explored the subject of human sin, punishment and guilt. In fact, themes of pride, guilt, sin, punishment and evil is evident in all of his works, and the wrongs committed by his ancestors played a particular dominant force in Hawthorne's literary career, such as his most famous piece, "The Scarlet Letter" (Nathaniel Pp). Hawthorne and other writers of the time, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Herman Melville, looked to the Puritan origins of American history and Puritan styles of rhetoric to create a distinctive American literary voice (Nathaniel Pp).
Hawthorne was born in Salem, Massachusetts in 1803. His father, who died when Nathaniel was four years old, was a sea captain and direct descendent of John Hathorne, one of the judges in the Salem witchcraft trials of 1692 (Nathaniel Pp). Growing up in seclusion with his widowed mother, Hawthorne and his mother leaned heavily upon each other for emotional support, a situation which he carried with him into adulthood, once writing to his friend Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, "I have locked myself in a dungeon and I can't find the key to get out" (Nathaniel Pp).
Educated at Bowdoin College in Maine, Longfellow and Franklin Pierce, who became the fourteenth president of the United States, were among his classmates and good friends (Nathaniel Pp).
Hawthorne worked as a writer and contributor to periodicals between the years of 1825 and 1836 (Nathaniel Pp). The Democratic Review, owned by one of his friends, John L. O'Sullivan, published some dozen stories by Hawthorne and his first novel, "Fanshawe," appeared anonymously at his own expense in 1828 (Nathaniel Pp). The novel was based on his college life and did not receive much attention, leading the author to burn the unsold copies, however, the book did initiate a friendship between Hawthorne and the published Samuel Goodrich (Nathaniel Pp). In 1836, he edited the "American Magazine of Useful and Entertaining Knowledge" and in 1837 compiled "Peter Parley's Universal History" for children, following with a series of children's books, "Grandfather's Chair," "Famous Old People," and "Liberty Tree" in 1841 (Nathaniel Pp).
In 1842 Hawthorne published "Biographical Stories for Children" (Nathaniel Pp). That same year he became friends with the local Transcendentalists in Concord, Emerson, Thoreau, and Bronson Alcott, although, he generally did not have much confidence in intellectuals and artists (Nathaniel Pp). Nevertheless, in 1842 he married Sophia Peabody who was an active participant in the Transcendentalist movement, and together they settled in Concord (Nathaniel Pp). Yet, with mounting debts due to a growing family and unable to earn a living as a writer, the Hawthornes returned to Salem three years later where Nathaniel took a three-year position as surveyor of the Port of Salem in 1846 (Nathaniel Pp). In 1850, Hawthorne's most famous novel, "The Scarlet Letter" was published, followed the next year by "The House of Seven Gables" (Nathaniel Pp). These works were followed by two classic children's books, "A Wonder Book" in 1852 and "Tanglewood Tales" in 1853 (Nathaniel Pp). In 1860, Hawthorne wrote another novel, "The Marble Faun" and in 1863, an account of a journey to England, "Our Old Home" (Nathaniel Pp).
Regarding his workroom, Hawthorne once wrote, "This deserves to be called a haunted chamber, for thousands and thousands of visions have appeared to me in it" (Nathaniel Pp).
He was one of the first American writers to explore the hidden motivations of his characters, such as in the "Scarlet Letter," a story describing the early victims of Puritan obsession with spiritual ferocity and the effect of guilt, anxiety and sorrow as its central theme (Nathaniel Pp). "The House of the Seven Gables" focused on a family that has inherited a curse by one of the victims of the Seventeenth Century Salem witchcraft trials (Nathaniel Pp). Hawthorne based this story on the legend of a curse that was pronounced upon his own family by a woman who was condemned to death during the Salem trials (Nathaniel Pp). This curse is mirrored in the Pyncheon family's seven-gabled mansion's state of decay, and is finally lifted when a descendant of the women who was killed during the trails marries a young niece of the family, thus ending the hereditary sin (Nathaniel Pp).
Like the Puritan colonialists, Hawthorne believed that a person should practice self-awareness before seeking out the sins of others, however, this of course is easier said than done, for it is far easier to judge others than acknowledge one's own faults (Barna Pp). In his 1846 short story, "Young Goodman Brown," Hawthorne explores the effect on one's soul of projecting upon others one's own darkness (Barna Pp). Goodman Brown makes a pact with the Devil and becomes obsessed with the supposed sins of his fellow townspeople (Barna Pp). Whether reality or a dream, Brown believed that he had witnessed these individuals, sinners and church people alike, partaking in a ceremony of which a dark figure presided, bellowing, "Now are ye undeceived. Evil is the nature of mankind. Evil must be your only happiness. Welcome again, my children, to the communion of your race" (Hawthorne 1041). Brown believed he saw the sins of those around him, even the most righteous of the village appeared vile to him, for they all had demons and sins they kept from public knowledge. Hawthorne writes, "Be it so if you will; but, alas! It was a dream of evil omen for young Goodman Brown. A stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not a desperate man did he become from the night of that fearful dream" (Hawthorne 1042). Brown turned his passionate righteousness into passionate cynicism (Barna Pp). The last paragraph of the story describes the lifelong effect of such cynicism:
On the Sabbath day, when the congregation were singing a holy psalm, he could not listen because an anthem of sin rushed loudly upon his ear and drowned all the blessed strain. When the minister spoke from the pulpit with power and fervid eloquence, and, with his hand on the open Bible, of the sacred truths of our religion, and of saint-like lives and triumphant deaths, and of future bliss or misery unutterable, then did
Goodman Brown turn pale, dreading lest the roof should thunder down upon the gray blasphemer and his hearers.
Often, waking suddenly at midnight, he shrank from the bosom of Faith; and at morning or eventide, when the family knelt down at prayer, he scowled and muttered to himself, and gazed sternly at his wife, and turned away. And when he had lived long, and was borne to his grave a hoary corpse, followed by Faith, an aged woman, and children and grandchildren, a goodly procession, besides neighbors not a few, they carved no hopeful verse upon his tombstone, for his dying hour was gloom" (Nawthorne 1042).
Hawthorne believed that there is both good and evil in everyone and that the best way to come to terms with this is not by judging others, but rather by being self-aware of the frigid regions of one's own heart (Barna Pp).
Although no mystic, what attracted Hawthorne to Transcendentalism was its freedom of inquiry, its radicalism, and its relationship with actual life, with reality (Hawthorne and Puritanism Pp). Therefore, in his stories, "he was a philosophical experimenter," with no room for any kind of optimism or prepossessions (Hawthorne and Puritanism Pp). "....he had recourse to life in order to try out the efficacy or the consequences of Transcendental ideas, and if the result was hardly what he expected, he still pursued the hypothesis to the bitter end" (Hawthorne and Puritanism Pp). He was the questioner and the detached observer that other Transcendentalists merely thought they were (Hawthorne and Puritanism Pp). When philosophers, such as Emerson, write that humans should trust themselves and follow their own nature, "to live from the Devil if we are the Devil's children, Hawthorne projects the advice experimentally in "The Scarlet Letter" and in "The Blithedale Romance" (Hawthorne and Puritanism Pp). Hawthorne as did other Transcendentalists, believed that the "fortune of a human soul was the most critical of experiences; comparatively negligible were the doings of society as a whole or the outward panorama of events and scenes" (Hawthorne and Puritanism Pp).
The ideal of self-reliance was that a man should live according to his own nature and by listening to the dictates of the over-soul as revealed in his impulses (Hawthorne and Puritanism Pp). Moreover, he should keep himself free of the imprisoning past and of conventional society, which embodies the past (Hawthorne and Puritanism Pp). Although Hawthorne believed in this doctrine as much as any of his peers, however, he was also aware of the "unsocial" results that might follow of such a narrow practice (Hawthorne and Puritanism Pp). By being consciously and entirely free of the past, while constantly on guard against it, "might indeed possess his soul, but he might also miss the essence of culture, and having renounced the…