Nathaniel Hawthorne was born on July 4, 1804, in Salem, Massachusetts. His Salem ancestors were strict Puritans; one ancestor served as a judge during the Salem Witch Trials. Nathaniel Hawthorne felt so much shame over his ancestor's role in the trials that he chose to add a w to his last name as a way of distancing himself from his Hathorne relatives. While Hawthorne was born in Salem and moved away and back again multiple times over the course of his life, he hated the town and the Puritanical influence that lingered there.
When Hawthorne was four years old, his father died at sea while serving as a ship's captain. Hawthorne's mother was left to care for him and his two sisters. The family moved in with the wealthy brothers of Hawthorne's mother, the Mannings.
In 1828, Hawthorne published his first book, Fanshawe, although he would later call the book an inferior work. His 1837 short story collection, Twice-Told Tales, brought him some notoriety but little income. He worked for a short period at the Boston Custom House. By 1842, writing provided Hawthorne with an adequate income, and he married Sophia Peabody. The couple had three children and would go on to have a long and happy marriage.
In 1846 Hawthorne published his second book of short stories, Mosses from an Old Manse. Once again, Hawthorne's book brought little income despite being well received. By this time, Hawthorne's family was back in Salem. He took another job to support his family, serving as a Custom House surveyor in Salem under the administration of President James Polk (1795–1849; president 1845–49), but he lost the job after Polk's presidency ended. At this point he wrote The Scarlet Letter (1850), the book that made him famous.
The Hawthorne family then moved to Lenox, Massachusetts. Hawthorne was productive there, publishing a number of works, including The House of the Seven Gables (1851). The novel centers on the Pyncheon family, who has suffered under a curse for a number of generations but who are ultimately freed from the curse by love. The novel was widely praised by literary critics upon release; a reviewer for Harper's New Monthly Magazine said the characters had "the air of old acquaintance" and were "managed with admirable artistic skill," and called the novel "unsurpassed" by the author's previous works. It is still considered one of his best works.
When Franklin Pierce—a personal friend of Hawthorne's—was elected president of the United States in 1852, Hawthorne was appointed American consul to Britain as a reward. The Hawthorne family lived in Europe for a number of years, then returned to America in 1860. Hawthorne wrote two novels while in Europe, including The Marble Faun in 1860. The author's health declined rapidly in the last two years of his life, and he died on May 19, 1864, in Plymouth, New Hampshire.