It was almost inevitable that Nathaniel Hawthorne would grow up to write fiction about the New England past. Born on July 4, 1804, in Salem, Massachusetts, Hawthorne could trace his family tree on both sides to the Puritans, whose unbending attitudes toward religious conformity were branded on the American, and especially the New England, consciousness. His great-great grandfather, John Hathorne, was one of the three judges at the famous Salem witch trials in 1692. (The family name was spelled “Hathorne” until the novelist himself added the “w”.) Hawthorne’s father, a sea captain, died in Suriname in 1808; the four-year-old Hawthorne and his family found themselves living on the charity of relatives. The family moved from Salem to Raymond, Maine, when Hawthorne was twelve; he remained there for three years, and became accustomed to a life of solitude. In 1821 he entered Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, graduating in 1825 near the middle of a class that included future president Franklin Pierce (one of Hawthorne’s best friends) and the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
For the next several years, Hawthorne secluded himself in his Salem home, reading prolifically and writing the ghostly stories that only slowly came to be recognized by his contemporaries as works of artistic merit. Although his privately published romance Fanshawe (1828) did little to help his career as a writer, Hawthorne continued to compose his tales. In 1832 his story “The Gentle Boy” was accepted by the Token; others appeared in succeeding years, and by 1837 he was able to bring out a collection, Twice-Told Tales. The work drew praise from Longfellow and others.
In 1839 he took a job as measurer in the Boston Custom House, and, at about the same time, fell in love with Sophia Peabody. Hawthorne resigned from the Custom House job in 1840 and in 1841 spent seven months at nearby Brook Farm, an experimental site dedicated to communal living and backed by many Transcendentalist thinkers of the time. The following summer, on July 9, Hawthorne and Peabody were married; the couple moved to The Old Manse in Concord, Massachusetts, where they became friends with neighbors such as the writers Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, and the feminist leader Margaret Fuller. The Hawthornes’ first child, Una, was born in 1844; a son, Julian, and a second daughter, Rose, followed in the next seven years.
Despite the publication and moderate success of Mosses from an Old Manse in 1846, Hawthorne discovered that full-time writing did not provide sufficient income for the family. He worked as surveyor in the Boston Custom House from 1846 until 1849, when he turned once again to full-time writing. After working steadily for nine months on a “romance” set in Puritan New England, he published The Scarlet Letter in April 1850. The work sold modestly, but met with exceptional critical acclaim. Buoyed by the encouragement of his peers, Hawthorne embarked on two years of furious literary activity, publishing The House of the Seven Gables and The Snow Image in 1851 and The Blithedale Romance in 1852. That same year he wrote a campaign biography of his college friend, Franklin Pierce, who captured the presidency of the United States. In return for past favors, Pierce appointed Hawthorne U.S. Consul at Liverpool, a post he held for four years.
Hawthorne produced little fiction while in Liverpool, but upon resigning in 1857 he moved to Italy, where he wrote The Marble Faun. Hawthorne returned to the United States, and Our Old Home, his last novel, was published in 1863. Hawthorne’s health began to fail in 1863, and he died on May 19, 1864, while undertaking a trip to Plymouth, New Hampshire, in an effort to improve his health.
Though he had not achieved monetary independence through his fiction, by the time of his death Hawthorne was regarded as one of America’s few truly successful and original novelists. Unlike his Transcendentalist contemporaries Emerson and Thoreau, or his friend and fellow-novelist Herman Melville, Hawthorne established a reputation that never suffered a serious decline. His works, especially The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables, remain staples of American fiction, and continue to be admired by modern critics.