In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Nathaniel Hawthorne

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Primary Texts
  • Reception
  • Themes
  • Hawthorne as Subject and Artist
  • Race, Politics, and Culture
  • The Scarlet Letter
  • Film and Theater

American Literature Nathaniel Hawthorne
Michael Martin, Samuel Coale
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 August 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 August 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0096


Unlike Dickinson, Melville, and Thoreau, who are now viewed as classic American authors, Nathaniel Hawthorne and his work were never completely ignored by the public and various critics. Hawthorne (b. 1804–d. 1864)—was born Nathaniel Hathorne in Salem, Massachusetts, and came from a long line of farmers and sailors. His most notorious ancestor was John Hathorne, a judge at the Salem witch trials in 1692, which helps explain his constant struggle with the Calvinistic sense of determinism and tragic fate in his fiction. He married Sophia Peabody in 1842 and sought and accepted political appointments to the custom house in Boston and Salem and finally as consul to Liverpool, England, as a result of his campaign biography of President Franklin Pierce, a fellow Bowdoin graduate. He spent a twelve-year apprenticeship in his mother’s family’s home (1825–1837)—his father died when he was four—writing short stories, sketches, and essays, which led to his romantic legend as a hermit and recluse. Success came with The Scarlet Letter in 1850 and went on to include The House of the Seven Gables (1851), The Blithedale Romance (1852), and The Marble Faun (1860) as well as collections of his short fiction and Our Old Home (1863). Early on, critics wrestled with the relationship between his genteel style and his “morbid” subjects, biographers creating either a very pragmatic Hawthorne or a reclusive ghost. The New Critics delved into the psychological and proto-theological themes in his work and trumpeted his use of contradiction, paradox, and the polarized perspectives of his characters, thus concentrating on such tales as “The Minister’s Black Veil” and “My Kinsman, Major Molineux” at the expense of the popular ones in his lifetime, such as “Little Annie’s Ramble,” “A Rill from the Town Pump,” and “Sunday at Home.” Friends such as Elizabeth Peabody and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow consistently praised his work, as did other writers such as Edgar Allan Poe (at first he praised and then disparaged it as too allegorical and thin) and Herman Melville. Criticism has always emphasized the dualisms in his work—good and evil, men and women, and Puritanism and romanticism—as well as his often contradictory responses to such historical issues as the Civil War, abolitionism, feminism, and the delicate political compromises, which upheld the status quo between North and South, of the 1850s. After his four-year stint in Liverpool, he traveled extensively in Italy and returned to Concord, Massachusetts, in 1860.

General Overviews

From an abundance of material, this list includes both books specifically on Hawthorne and his background, as well as others that place him in the wider realms of literary and cultural history. Hawthorne can be seen as his own man by critics in works such as Baym 1976, James 1997, and Woodberry 1902 and as a product of his era, the latter approach championed by critics in works such as Berlant 1991, Moore 1998, and Tompkins 1985. Both overlap one another, but Tompkins’s book clearly opts for a cultural and historical approach and led to the discipline of cultural studies, begun in the late 1980s and continuing into contemporary times.

  • Baym, Nina. The Shape of Hawthorne’s Career. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1976.

    An in-depth tracing of Hawthorne’s career as he constantly toyed with different personae, styles, and approaches, asserting that the stories we read today are the result of the pro-Freudian criticism after 1950. Examines the different phases that reveal how fluid and flexible Hawthorne was as an author, relying on different strategies at different times, as well as his complex attitude toward his strong female characters.

  • Berlant, Lauren. The Anatomy of National Fantasy: Hawthorne, Utopia, and Everyday Life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

    Suggests that Hawthorne intentionally provided an antidote to American myths of self-reliance and autonomy. What seems natural is really fully textualized according to prior writers who may feel isolated in a country that is already a kind of artistic construct of myth and self-conscious traditions. For the more specialized critic of Hawthorne.

  • Coale, Samuel Chase. The Entanglements of Nathaniel Hawthorne: Haunted Minds and Ambiguous Approaches. Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2011.

    Covers all of the major criticism and biographies of Hawthorne from 1828 to 2010 and tries to show how each is entangled with the other, thus undermining most polarized and dualistic interpretations of Hawthorne’s work and personality.

  • James, Henry. Hawthorne. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997.

    James uses the word “provincial” so many times that it becomes clear that James is trying to pigeonhole Hawthorne in opposition to his own more cosmopolitan self and fiction. This first view of Hawthorne, both biographical and critical, written by a literary successor, emphasizes Hawthorne’s simplicity as the product of an unsophisticated culture: a worthwhile read for getting a sense of how he was valued at the time. James relied heavily on the French critics with little acknowledgment of them. Reprint of the 1879 edition.

  • Moore, Margaret B. The Salem World of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1998.

    An excellent, full-bodied, impeccably researched book about Hawthorne’s family, his friends and neighbors, and rituals and events in his native town: including religious rivalries, murder trials, ancestry, African Americans, and the “fireside traditions” of telling tales and passing on legends. Hawthorne emerges as a pragmatic soul, deeply engaged with his society.

  • Pease, Donald E. Visionary Compacts: American Renaissance Writings in Cultural Context. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987.

    Argues that Hawthorne constructed a sense of community in terms of the past and memory, however contradictory and paradoxical, in response to the weakening of myths of the American Revolution and the prospects of civil war. Discusses the social roles of many of Hawthorne’s characters in an effort to create a cultural and communal memory. A broad context for Hawthorne’s fiction.

  • Tompkins, Jane. Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790–1860. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

    Tompkins tends to suggest a cultural conspiracy led by New England white males to maintain Hawthorne as a cultural and literary icon. Yet her main approach of placing novels in their cultural and historical context continues to resonate in contemporary literary criticism.

  • Woodberry, George E. Nathaniel Hawthorne: American Men of Letters. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1902.

    An early critical biography that emphasizes Hawthorne’s pragmatic side and connects his aloofness to New England culture. The criticism, separating man from artist, is surprisingly modern in its approach, anticipating the New Criticism in its close readings and discussion of Hawthorne’s narrative strategies, particularly in his use of allegory and the influence of Sir Walter Scott.

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