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The Birthmark | Study Guide

Nathaniel Hawthorne

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Nathaniel Hawthorne | Biography


Hawthorne was born on July 4, 1804, in Salem, Massachusetts, where one of his ancestors had acted as a judge during the infamous Salem witch trials in the late 17th century. Hawthorne's father, a sea captain, died when the author was four years old, and the boy was raised by his mother and her family.

Later, Hawthorne attended Bowdoin College in Maine. He wrote his first novel, Fanshawe, which he later self-published in 1828. He then began writing and publishing short stories, the first of which, "The Hollow of the Three Hills," appeared in a magazine in 1830 and then became part of the collection Twice-Told Tales (1837). In 1842 he married Sophia Peabody, with whom he had three children. The income produced from his work was unreliable, so Hawthorne always sought jobs to support his writing, often through the help of politically well-connected friends. These included Franklin Pierce whom he met at Bowdoin College and who would later be elected 14th president of the United States. Over the years, Hawthorne worked at the Boston Custom House, the Salem Custom House, and eventually as the American Consul in Liverpool, England.

Hawthorne is known for short stories and novels that examine the relationship between the visible, physical world of nature and the invisible, spiritual life of human beings. These works are often set in colonial or post-colonial America and may involve elements of the supernatural. Hawthorne's short stories and sketches were gathered in numerous collections, including Twice-Told Tales (1837), Mosses from an Old Manse (1846), and The Snow-Image, and Other Twice-Told Tales (1851). In 1850 he published his first popular novel, The Scarlet Letter, which was soon followed by The House of the Seven Gables (1851) and The Blithedale Romance (1852). His last full-length novel, The Marble Faun, was published in 1860. He also published several books for children. His writing was praised by popular literary figures of the day, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–82), whom Hawthorne knew personally, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–82).

"The Birthmark" was written in 1842, the same year as Hawthorne's marriage, and eventually became part of the collection Mosses from an Old Manse in 1846. Besides "The Birthmark," this collection includes such well-known stories as "Young Goodman Brown," "Rappaccini's Daughter," and "The Artist of the Beautiful." Critical reception of the book was mixed. In his review, writer Edgar Alan Poe referred to Hawthorne as a "privately-admired and publicly-unappreciated man of genius," though he also said the stories are "not original" and seem to have "been written to himself and his particular friends alone." Poe suggested Hawthorne quit writing about themes addressing Puritanism and transcendentalism and that Hawthorne was "infinitely too fond of allegory, and can never hope for popularity so long as he persists in it." Margaret Fuller admired some of the stories in the collection, including "The Birthmark," but she also wrote that Hawthorne "does not lay bare the mysteries of our being."

Hawthorne died in his sleep in Plymouth, New Hampshire, on May 19, 1864.

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