Books That Endure: Classic Studies of Human Relationships

Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864)

The Scarlet Letter


  • Born in Salem, Massachusetts on July 4, 1804, the fifth generation of his family to be born in New England.  His great-grandfather, one of the judges at the Salem witchcraft trials; his father a ship's captain, who died of yellow fever on a voyage when Hawthorne was four.
  • Grew up in a large extended family of siblings, grandparents, and aunts and uncles, in which environment his life-long habits of solitude, reading, and introspection were nurtured.
  • Entered Bowdoin College in 1821; graduated in 1825 and returned to Salem, where he lived in semi-seclusion in his family home and wrote.
  • Took a job in the Boston customhouse (1839-41); also experimented with communal living for six or seven months at Brook Farm near Boston, but found it neither suited his temperament nor allowed him time for writing.
  • Married Sophia Amelia Peabody of Salem in 1842 and settled in Concord, Massachusetts at a house called Old Manse, where they remained until 1845.
  • Returned to government service in 1846 as surveyor of the Salem customhouse; lost that job through a change in political administrations in 1849. Lived briefly in the Berkshires near his friend and admirer, Herman Melville.
  • Wrote the campaign biography of his college friend, Franklin Pierce (1852) and was appointment consul to Liverpool, England, after Pierce's election to the presidency. Served as consul until 1857, when he moved to Italy where he spent two years collecting materials for The Marble Faun (1860).
  • Returned to Concord (1860); died in Plymouth, New Hampshire, while traveling with Franklin Pierce.


  • Began writing (primarily historical and allegorical tales) soon after he left college; many published anonymously in magazines like The Token, New-England Magazine, and The Knickerbocker Magazine.
  • First recognized as a leading writer with the publication of Twice-told Tales (1837), a collection of several previously published stories, appearing under his own name.
  • Continued his analysis of the Puritan mind in Mosses from an Old Manse (1846), a collection of tales written during the time he lived at the Old Manse.
  • Period of greatest productivity followed his dismissal from the surveyorship of the Salem customhouse in 1849 and included, among other works, The Scarlet Letter (1850), The House of the Seven Gables (1851), and The Blithdale Romance (1852).
  • Although Hawthorne worked wrote diligently throughout his life and was recognized by contemporaries as a major American author, none of his writing, not even The Scarlet Letter, afforded him more than a temporary stay against the fear of poverty that dogged him all his life.

Major Writings

Twice-Told Tales (1837)
Grandfather's Chair (1841)
Mosses from an Old Manse (1846)
The Scarlet Letter (1850)
The House of the Seven Gables (1851)
The Snow Image (1852)
The Blithedale Romance (1852)
Tanglewood Tales (1853)
The Marble Faun (1860)

Biographical and Critical Information

  • Print resources for Hawthorne
    Nathaniel Hawthorne's Tales : Authoritative Texts, Backgrounds, Criticism (Norton Critical Edition), ed. James Macintosh, 1987.
    The Scarlet Letter : An Authoritative Text Essays in Criticism and Scholarship (Norton Critical Edition), ed. Seymour Gross, Sculley Bradley, and Hudson Long.
    The Salem World of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Margaret B. Moore, 2001
    Nathaniel Hawthorne in His Times, James R. Mellow, 1998.
    Nathaniel Hawthorne's the Scarlet Letter : Bloom's Reviews Comprehensive Research & Study Guides (Bloom's
    Reviews), Harold Bloom, 1998.
    Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter (Modern Critical Interpretations), Harold Bloom and William Golding, 1988.
    Nathaniel Hawthorne, Arlin Turner, 1980.
    The Shape of Hawthorne's Career, Nina Baym, 1976.
    The Sins of the Fathers: Hawthorne's Psychological Themes, Frederick C. Crews, 1966.
    Nathaniel Hawthorne, Terence Martin, 1965, rev. 1983.

Retired Discussion Series

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