This Day In Literary History
On July 4th, 1804, the legendary American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne was born. He was born Nathaniel Hathorne, Jr. in Salem, Massachusetts. He would change the spelling of his last name to Hawthorne to distance himself from the shameful acts of his relatives.
Hawthorne's great-great-great grandfather, William Hathorne, was a magistrate infamous for his lack of compassion and extremely harsh sentences. His son was even worse.
William's son, John Hathorne, served as a judge during the notorious Salem Witch Trials, where many innocent people were falsely accused of witchcraft, convicted in kangaroo courts, then tortured and executed.
John Hathorne was the only judge who refused to repent or express any regret for his contemptible actions during the Salem Witch Trials. His infamy would besmirch the Hathorne family name for generations.
When Nathaniel Hawthorne was four years old, his father, a sea captain, contracted yellow fever and died. His mother moved the family in with relatives, living first in Salem, then in Raymond, Maine.
Hawthorne loved Maine. "Those were delightful days," he wrote, "for that part of the country was wild then, with only scattered clearings, and nine tenths of it primeval woods."
When Nathaniel was fifteen, he was sent back to Salem to begin his formal education. He hated Salem and missed his mother and sisters. He took up writing and would send his family issues of a homemade newspaper he wrote and copied by hand.
The newspaper, which Hawthorne called The Spectator, contained essays, poetry, and news items that reflected his sardonic, adolescent sense of humor.
In 1821, at the age of seventeen, Hawthorne went off to college. He didn't want to go, but his uncle insisted and paid his tuition at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine.
On his way to college, Hawthorne met and struck up friendships with legendary poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and future U.S. President Franklin Pierce.
Nathaniel Hawthorne began his career as a writer in 1836, when he served as the editor of the American Magazine of Useful and Entertaining Knowledge, a literary magazine based in Boston.
Though he would leave the magazine to take a higher paying job as a weighter and gauger at the Boston Common House, Hawthorne continued to write, and his short stories were often published in magazines and anthologies.
Hawthorne's classic short story Young Goodman Brown was written and published during this time. The title character leaves his wife, Faith, to run an errand in the woods.
While walking through the forest, Brown meets a mysterious man who carries a black staff shaped like a serpent. He also runs into a townswoman, Mistress Cloyse, who knows the stranger. She accepts his snake staff and literally flies away.
Later, Brown happens upon a witches' Sabbath. All of the townspeople are part of the coven, except for Brown and his wife - who are about to be initiated! Brown calls out to Heaven to be saved and the scene vanishes.
Brown is left badly shaken. He thought he lived in a good Christian community, but, seeing the evil hidden within it, he loses faith in humanity and in his own wife.
This story is a metaphor for the hypocrisy and cruelty of the Puritans - a frequent theme in Hawthorne's writings. He was racked with guilt over the role of his ancestor in the Salem Witch Trials.
When a collection of Hawthorne's short stories was published in book form as Twice-Told Tales, it made his name as a writer.
Hawthorne married Sophia Peabody, an artist and transcendentalist with whom he would have three children. He became a follower of transcendentalism as well.
Later, when he and Sophia moved to Concord, Massachusetts, their next door neighbor turned out to be Hawthorne's literary and spiritual idol, Ralph Waldo Emerson.
The late 1840s found Hawthorne back in Salem, working as a civil servant and suffering from a crippling bout of writer's block. He wrote the following to his old friend Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:
I am trying to resume my pen, Whenever I sit alone, or walk alone, I find myself dreaming about stories, as of old; but these forenoons in the Custom House undo all that the afternoons and evenings have done. I should be happier if I could write.
Hawthorne beat his writer's block and returned in grand form with The Scarlet Letter (1850), which is rightfully considered one of the greatest American novels of all time.
The classic, haunting tale of love, anguish, and Puritan cruelty was one of the first mass produced novels in American history. It sold nearly 3,000 copies in its first ten days of publication.
Now financially secure, Hawthorne quit his job and moved to a small farmhouse in the Berkshire mountains, where he remained a productive writer and struck up a friendship with one of his biggest fans - the legendary writer Herman Melville.
Melville had been working on his classic novel Moby Dick when he met Hawthorne. The dedication page of Moby Dick reads, "In token of my admiration for his genius, this book is inscribed to Nathaniel Hawthorne."
Hawthorne followed The Scarlet Letter with more classic novels, including The House of the Seven Gables, The Blithedale Romance, and The Marble Faun.
He also published more classic short story collections, including Mosses from an Old Manse, The Snow-Image, and Other Twice-Told Tales, and his collections of children's stories, A Wonder-Book for Girls and Boys and Tanglewood Tales.
Nathaniel Hawthorne died on May 18th, 1864, at the age of 59. That same day, in an eerie Hawthorne-esque coincidence, his son Julian was initiated into a college fraternity by being blindfolded and locked in a coffin.
Quote Of The Day
"The only sensible ends of literature are, first, the pleasurable toil of writing; second, the gratification of one's family and friends; and lastly, the solid cash." - Nathaniel Hawthorne
Today's video features a complete reading of Nathaniel Hawthorne's classic short story, Young Goodman Brown. Enjoy!