The Scarlet Letter Author/Context
Nathaniel Hawthorne (July 4, 1804 - May 19, 1864), who could trace his lineage directly to a judge in the Salem Witch Trials, was the son of a naval captain who died when Nathaniel was four. Nathaniel and his two sisters were raised by their mother, who practiced, after being widowed, a life of almost complete solitude. Nathaniel was slightly lame as a young child, and subsequently spent a great deal of his time reading the great literary masters.
In 1821, at the age of 17, Hawthorne left Salem to live with his uncle at Sebago Lake, Maine and attend Bowdoin college. Apparently a hearty socializer during college, Hawthorne only began serious writing after returning to Massachusetts. "If I had sooner made my escape into the world, I should have grown hard and rough, and been covered with earthly dust, and my heart might have become callous by rude encounters with the multitude.... But living in solitude till the fullness of time was come, I still kept the dew of my youth with the freshness of my heart." (American Note-Books, 219, as quoted in the Dictionary of American Biography).
His first move after college was to the Brook Farm in West Roxbury, Mass., a gathering place for many of the leading transcendentalists of the era. Hawthorne spent only a few years there, and soon became disillusioned by the ideas of his fellow residents.
He returned to Salem, spent summers traveling around New England and New York, and there met and eventually married Sophia Amelia Peabody, a marriage that provided both happiness and inspiration to Hawthorne. During this period, Hawthorne published an influential and popular collection of short stories, Twice-told Tales. The two moved to Concord, Mass., where Hawthorne continued a lifelong, close friendship with Henry David Thoreau.
Because literary fame came late to Hawthorne, he was forced to work for a number of years as the Surveyor of Port at Salem, leaving Concord, which he loved dearly. Later, after political changes forced him to leave his surveyor position, Hawthorne moved with his growing family to Lenox, Mass. in the Berkshires. During this period, Hawthorne wrote and published some of his greatest works: The Scarlet Letter, The House of the Seven Gables, and The Blithedale Romance. It was here that he befriended Herman Melville, who later dedicated Moby Dick to Hawthorne.
After a subsequent move back to the Boston vicinity, and after his wife's death, Hawthorne was appointed United States Consul to Liverpool, England, and made his first voyage to Europe. Hawthorne spent seven years overseas, taking a number of trips throughout the continent, and wrote almost nothing during his years there. He returned to Salem at the end of his life, and completed a few sketches about his experiences in Europe, and a final novel, The Marble Faun.
Hawthorne remains a major American novelist. His work is unique in its lack of narrative structure; for example, the only thing that holds the Scarlet Letter together is its strong uniformity of tone. He felt the need for a new national literary voice, one that examined "the individual ajar in the world." (Academic American Encyclopedia). Many of his earlier short stories, including "Young Goodman Brown," and "The Gray Champion," deal with historical ideological conflict and egotism as the cause of solitude.
Academic American Encyclopedia, Deluxe Library Edition. Vol 10. Grolier, Inc, Danbury, CT, 1990.
Dictionary of American Biography. Vol IV. Allen Johnson and Dumas Malone, Eds. Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1960.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. New York: A Bantam Classic Bantam Books, 1986.