Biography of Nathaniel Hawthorne

New England's Most Prominent Novelist Focused on Dark Themes

Photographic portrait of Nathaniel Hawthorne
Nathaniel Hawthorne. Getty Images

Nathaniel Hawthorne was one of the most admired American authors of the 19th century, and his reputation has endured to the present day. His novels, including The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables, are widely read in schools.

A native of Salem, Massachusetts, Hawthorne often incorporated the history of New England, and some lore related to his own ancestors, into his writings. And by focusing on themes such as corruption and hypocrisy he dealt with serious issues in his fiction.

Often struggling to survive financially, Hawthorne worked at various times as a government clerk, and during the election of 1852 he wrote a campaign biography for a college friend, Franklin Pierce. During Pierce's presidency Hawthorne secured a posting in Europe, working for the State Department.

Another college friend was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. And Hawthorne was also friendly with other prominent writers, including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Herman Melville. While writing Moby Dick, Melville felt the influence of Hawthorne so profoundly that he changed his approach and eventually dedicated the novel to him.

When he died in 1864, the New York Times described him as "the most charming of American novelists, and one of the foremost descriptive writers in the language."

Early Life

Nathaniel Hawthorne was born July 4, 1804, in Salem, Massachusetts. His father was a sea captain who died while on a voyage to the Pacific in 1808, and Nathaniel was raised by his mother, with the help of relatives.

A leg injury sustained during a game of ball caused young Hawthorne to restrict his activities, and he became an avid reader as a child. In his teens he worked in the office of his uncle, who ran a stagecoach, and in his spare time he dabbled with trying to publish his own small newspaper.

Hawthorne entered Bowdoin College in Maine in 1821 and began writing short stories and a novel. Returning to Salem, Massachusetts, and his family, in 1825, he finished a novel he had started in college, Fanshawe. Unable to get a publisher for the book, he published it himself. He later disavowed the novel and tried to stop it from circulating, but some copies did survive.

Literary Career

During the decade after college Hawthorne submitted stories such as "Young Goodman Brown" to magazines and journals. He was often frustrated in his attempts to get published, but eventually a local publisher and bookseller, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody began to promote him.

Peabody's patronage introduced Hawthorne to prominent figures such as Ralph Waldo Emerson. And Hawthorne would eventually marry Peabody's sister.

As his literary career began to show promise, he secured, through political friends, an appointment to a patronage job in the Boston custom house. The job provided an income, but was fairly boring work. After a change in political administrations cost him the job, he spent about six months at Brook Farm, a Utopian community near West Roxbury, Massachusetts. 

Hawthorne married his wife, Sophia, in 1842, and moved to Concord, Massachusetts, a hotbed of literary activity and home to Emerson, Margaret Fuller, and Henry David Thoreau. Living in the Old Manse, the house of Emerson's grandfather, Hawthorne entered a very productive phase and he wrote sketches and tales.

With a son and a daughter, Hawthorne moved back to Salem and took another government post, this time at the Salem custom house. The job mostly required his time in the mornings and he was able to write in the afternoons.

After the Whig candidate Zachary Taylor was elected president in 1848, Democrats like Hawthorne could be dismissed, and in 1848 he lost his posting at the custom house. He threw himself into the writing of what would be considered his masterpiece, The Scarlet Letter.

Fame and Influence

Seeking an economical place to live, Hawthorne moved his family to Stockbridge, in the Berkshires. He then entered the most productive phase of his career. He finished The Scarlet Letter, and also wrote The House of the Seven Gables.

While living in Stockbridge, Hawthorne befriended Herman Melville, who was struggling with the book that became Moby Dick. Hawthorne's encouragement and influence was very important to Melville, who openly acknowledged his debt by dedicating the novel to his friend and neighbor.

The Hawthorne family was happy in Stockbridge, and Hawthorne began to be acknowledged as one of America's greatest authors.

Campaign Biographer

In 1852 Hawthorne's college friend, Franklin Pierce, received the Democratic Party's nomination for president as a dark horse candidate. In an era when Americans often did not know much about the presidential candidates, campaign biographies were a potent political tool. And Hawthorne offered to help his old friend by quickly writing a campaign biography.

Hawthorne's book on Pierce was published a few months before the November 1852 election, and it was considered very helpful in getting Pierce elected. After he became president, Pierce paid back the favor by offering Hawthorne as diplomatic post as the American consul in Liverpool, England, a thriving port city.

In the summer of 1853 Hawthorne sailed for England. He worked for the U.S. government until 1858, and while he kept a journal he didn't focus on writing. Following his diplomatic work he and his family toured Italy and returned to Concord in 1860.

Back in America, Hawthorne wrote articles but did not publish another novel. He began to suffer ill health, and on May 19, 1864, while on a trip with Franklin Pierce in New Hampshire, he died in his sleep.

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McNamara, Robert. "Biography of Nathaniel Hawthorne." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, McNamara, Robert. (2020, August 26). Biography of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "Biography of Nathaniel Hawthorne." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 30, 2023).