Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ancestors included one judge who had prosecuted Quakers in the 1650s.
Hawthorne’s great-grandfather was a magistrate during the 1692 Salem witch trials; he was instrumental in decrying the guilt of a number of victims.
Hawthorne was no churchgoer; however, he was still as keenly aware of problems of sin and guilt as any early Puritan.
He explored complex questions of right and wrong in tales he called “allegories of the heart” – stories that teach a moral principle.
Born in Salem, young Hawthorne spent long periods alone in the remote Maine woods.
Among Hawthorne’s many illustrious classmates at Bowdoin College were the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and future president Franklin Pierce.
After attending college in Maine, Hawthorne returned to Salem, where he secluded himself at home for 12 years to focus on perfecting his skills as a writer.
The author’s last name was originally spelled “Hathorne.” He changed it after graduating from college so that the spelling would more closely match the pronunciation.
In the late 1830s, as Hawthorne was beginning to establish himself as a writer, he met and fell in love with Sophia Peabody, whom he married in 1842.
The couple moved to Concord, where Hawthorne socialized with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.
Hawthorne was a friend with a number of Transcendentalists, including Emerson and Thoreau, though he never fully embraced their views. But that didn’t create any bad blood. Emerson was a pallbearer at Hawthorne’s funeral.
Unable to support his family as a writer, Hawthorne returned to Salem and took a government job that he disliked.
When he lost the job, he returned to writing, completing his masterpiece, The Scarlet Letter, in early 1850.
Although he feared it would be a failure, the book was a sensation.
During this period, he moved his family from Salem to the countryside, where a close neighbor was the writer Herman Melville.
The two writers, who shared a dark view of human life, spent a great deal of time together.
Melville dedicated his famous novel Moby Dick to Hawthorne, his good friend.
While on a tour of the White Mountains, Hawthorne died in his sleep on May 19, 1864, in Plymouth, New Hampshire. Pierce sent a telegram to Elizabeth Peabody to inform Hawthorne’s wife in person; she was too saddened by the news to handle the funeral arrangements herself. Hawthorne’s son Julian, at the time a freshman at Harvard College, learned of his father’s death the next day; coincidentally, it was the same day he was initiated into the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity by being placed blindfolded into a coffin.