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Nathaniel Hawthorne

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Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804 - 1864)

Nathaniel Hawthorne was born in 1804 in Salem, Massachusetts, and raised by a widowed mother. His ancestors were some of the earliest settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. John Hathorne (the original spelling of the family name), one of his great-grandfathers, had served as a judge at the Salem witch trials of 1692 and condemned twenty-five women to death. Hawthorne felt both fascination with and shame for his family's complicity in the witch trials and incorporated those feelings into his fiction, much of which explores the social history of New England and the Puritans.

Major Themes in Hawthorne's Fiction

1. Alienation - a character is in a state of isolation because of self-cause, or societal cause, or a combination of both.

2. Initiation - involves the attempts of an alienated character to get rid of his isolated condition.

3. Problem of Guilt -a character's sense of guilt forced by the puritanical heritage or by society; also guilt vs. innocence.

4. Pride - Hawthorne treats pride as evil. He illustrates the following aspects of pride in various characters: physical pride (Robin), spiritual pride (Goodman Brown, Ethan Brand), and intellectual pride (Rappaccini).

5. Puritan New England - used as a background and setting in many tales.

6. Italian background - especially in The Marble Faun.

7. Allegory - Hawthorne's writing is allegorical, didactic and moralistic.

8. Other themes include individual vs. society, self-fulfillment vs. accommodation or frustration, hypocrisy vs. integrity, love vs. hate, exploitation vs. hurting, and fate vs. free will; hypocrisy, witchcraft, the Puritan guilt, and the sins of fathers

-his first novel, Fanshawe, which he personally funded and published anonymously in 1828, was based on his college life and did not receive much attention; once again, Hawthorne took the unsold copies and burned these as well

-in 1842 he befriended Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, who also drew on the Puritan legacy. two important thinkers in the Transcendentalist movement in the United States; however, generally he did not have much confidence in intellectuals and artists, and eventually he had to admit, that "the treasure of intellectual gold" did not provide food for his family

-with the publication of The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne did what few other American writers had done up until that point: he explored the hidden motivations of his characters

-in a preface to The Scarlet Letter, "The Custom-House," Hawthorne delved into the dark past of his family and of Puritan Salem: in it he claims that the manuscript was found in the Federal Custom House, in Salem, Massachusetts, where he worked for a short time. His portrayal of Puritans obsessed with sin and intolerance appeared in 1850 and has since been criticized as depicting Puritans as being harsher than they were

-such criticisms seem to fall by the wayside when taken in light of Hawthorne's own family history, and the publication of The House of the Seven Gables (1851): the motivation for the story comes from the legend of a curse placed on Hawthorne's own family by one of the women condemned to death during the Salem witch trials, of which Nathaniel's grandfather, James Hathorne, was a judge, Nathaniel added a w to his name to further distance himself from the dark past of his family; in the novel, the curse is played out in the novel through the decay of a mansion with seven gables, not until the descendant of the killed woman marries a young niece of the family does the decay cease, implying that only through an acknowledgement of the past, whether he was a part of it or not, can those connected to the witch trials hope to find solace.

The Blithedale Romance (1852): -an analysis of the flaws within the concept of a utopia, seems to be based on Hawthorne's earlier stay in the Brook Farm Commune, in West Roxbury; some speculate that the doomed heroine is, in fact, the transcendentalist Margaret Fuller -it was during this time that Hawthorne befriended Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick, which is dedicated to Hawthorne.

-Hawthorne's works belong to romanticism or, more specifically, dark romanticism: the Dark Romantics adapted images of anthropomorphized evil in the form of Satan, devils, ghosts, werewolves, vampires, and ghouls; for these Dark Romantics, the natural world is dark, decaying, and mysterious; when it does reveal truth to man, its revelations are evil and hellish

-whereas Transcendentalists advocate social reform when appropriate, works of Dark Romanticism frequently show individuals failing in their attempts to make changes for the better, cautionary tales that suggest that guilt, sin, and evil are the most inherent natural qualities of humanity

-many of his works are inspired by Puritan New England, combining historical romance loaded with symbolism and deep psychological themes, bordering on surrealism; his depictions of the past are a version of historical fiction used only as a vehicle to express common themes of ancestral sin, guilt and retribution

-his later writings also reflect his negative view of the Transcendentalism movement.

-Hawthorne was predominantly a short story writer in his early career: upon publishing Twice-Told Tales, however, he noted, "I do not think much of them", and he expected little response from the public

-his four major romances were written between 1850 and 1860: The Scarlet Letter (1850), The House of the Seven Gables (1851), The Blithedale Romance (1852) and The Marble Faun (1860); another novel-length romance, Fanshawe was published anonymously in 1828.

The Novel versus the Romance

-Hawthorne defined a romance as being radically different from a novel by not being concerned with the possible or probable course of ordinary experience

-in the preface to The House of the Seven Gables, Hawthorne describes his romance-writing as using "atmospherical medium as to bring out or mellow the lights and deepen and enrich the shadows of the picture."

-Europe could afford the luxury of romanticizing its past and finding its ideal in the pastoral, but America's past was too close; yet America's literature was in need of tradition in which literature could flourish, so Hawthorne struggled with the problem of relevance of the artist to the world and the meaning of art to America




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