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Young Goodman Brown | Study Guide

Nathaniel Hawthorne

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Nathaniel Hawthorne | Biography


Nathaniel Hawthorne is known for dark allegories set in New England, often in the 17th century. Writing in the Romantic era, which is characterized by a focus on intense emotions and individualism, Hawthorne focused on the evil, flawed, and sinful aspects of human nature. In particular he unveiled the hypocrisy behind the moral rigor of the "godly" Puritans, many of whom immigrated to New England in the 1600s and promoted a strict adherence to religious principles.

Born July 4, 1804, in Salem, Massachusetts, to a family with roots going back to the 17th century, Hawthorne was raised by his mother and her brothers' families after his father died when Nathaniel was four years old. He attended Bowdoin College and then decided to pursue writing.

Hawthorne allegedly added a "w" to his family's original name, Hathorne, to separate himself from his ancestors. Hawthorne felt guilty about his family's past and wondered whether these sins caused the family's subsequent decline. One was a magistrate who sentenced a Quaker woman to public whipping, as did the protagonist's grandfather in "Young Goodman Brown": "I helped your grandfather, the constable, when he lashed the Quaker woman so smartly through the streets of Salem." Another ancestor was a judge during the 1692 Salem witch trials who sentenced numerous women to death. With this in mind Hawthorne wrote the short story "Young Goodman Brown" after college, during 12 years of relative seclusion in his mother's attic where he devoted himself to reading and learning the craft of writing. The tale of a young Puritan witnessing witchcraft and a satanic ritual was first published in New England Magazine in 1835 and later in the collection Mosses from an Old Manse in 1846.

From the start Hawthorne's work was critically well received, though he remained circumspect; of "Young Goodman Brown" and other early tales he said, "These stories were published ... without making ... the slightest impression on the public." Over the years praise from the literary lights of his time did nothing to diminish his modesty; perhaps this was partly due to the small income his work generated.

Hawthorne himself admitted that he did not always know the meaning behind all the elements of the stories he wrote. As he wrote in 1854 to a friend: "Upon my honor, I am not quite sure that I entirely comprehend my own meaning, in some of these blasted allegories; but I remember that I always had a meaning, or at least thought I had."

Today Hawthorne continues to be universally respected and is considered a father of American literature. Tastes may change, but Hawthorne's work has remained popular. Beloved contemporary writer Stephen King wrote "The Man in the Black Suit" as an homage to "Young Goodman Brown," his favorite Hawthorne tale, which he called "one of the ten best stories ever written by an American."

In 1836 Hawthorne was hired as the editor of a Boston magazine called the American Magazine of Useful and Entertaining Knowledge. This position did not last long as the magazine's office was almost destroyed by a fire. In 1837 he published his first collection of short stories, Twice Told Tales, which brought him some fame as a writer. He had some success publishing his stories but couldn't make a living at it, so he spent a year working in the Boston Custom House, weighing salt and coal. Later he lived at the Brook Farm commune of West Roxbury, Massachusetts, a Utopian experiment aimed at preparing its residents for a simpler life of intellectual freedom. In 1842 he married Sophia Peabody, with whom he would have three children. The couple rented the Old Manse in Concord, Massachusetts, the center of the transcendentalist movement headed by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Bronson Alcott.

In 1846 Hawthorne returned to Salem and worked in the Custom House as a politically appointed surveyor. After a change in power relieved him of his duties, Hawthorne quickly wrote The Scarlet Letter, published in 1850, about a woman who is shamed for committing adultery. The novel was a success, as was The House of the Seven Gables, published in 1851, about a New England family and their ancestral home. In 1852 he published The Blithedale Romance, set in a fictionalized version of Brook Farm, which was not as well received or lucrative as Hawthorne had hoped. He then wrote a campaign biography for Franklin Pierce, a friend from Bowdoin, who was running for president of the United States. After winning the election Pierce reciprocated by giving Hawthorne a political appointment. Hawthorne worked in the consulate in England during Pierce's presidency and then traveled in Italy. In 1860 he published The Marble Faun, a Gothic romance set in Rome. When his family returned to the Wayside, their home in Concord, Hawthorne's health was in decline. He died on May 19, 1864, in Plymouth, New Hampshire, while on a trip to restore his health.

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