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Featured Books

Scarlet Letter (Centenary Edition of the Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Vol 1)Summary and Reviews of Scarlet Letter (Centenary Edition of the Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Vol 1)
The House of the Seven GablesSummary and Reviews of The House of the Seven Gables
The Blithedale Romance (Dodo Press)Summary and Reviews of The Blithedale Romance (Dodo Press)
The Marble Faun: or, The Romance of Monte Beni (Penguin Classics)Summary and Reviews of The Marble Faun: or, The Romance of Monte Beni (Penguin Classics)
Nathaniel Hawthorne: Tales and Sketches (Library of America)Summary and Reviews of Nathaniel Hawthorne: Tales and Sketches (Library of America)
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Nathaniel Hawthorne

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Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) would have liked the modern reading public to think that he rose from obscurity to become one of the most important writers in American literature.  While he did struggle to break free of the commercial environment he was born into, he was hardly obscure, attending Bowdoin College with the likes of Longfellow, a future popular poet, and Pierce, a future President of the United States.  He began writing while he worked in a stagecoach office just before college, and he paid to have his first novel published.  That novel was small and is practically forgotten now, but it in combination with tales published in popular magazines and gift-books made him a popular writer with editors, even if he was hardly a household name.

That all changed with the publication in 1837 of Twice-told Tales.  Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Hawthorne's former classmate who had already established himself as a major poet, reviewed this volume favorably.  Other critics took Longfellow's lead, and Hawthorne's career as a writer began to blossom.  Twice-told Tales did not sell well, but it did not include Hawthorne's more complex early stories, "My Kinsman, Major Molineux" or "Young Goodman Brown."  No one knows how the inclusion of these two major stories would have affected the volume's sales, but Hawthorne certainly appealed to a more unsophisticated audience by not including them.  The strategy may have backfired.

Also in 1837, Hawthorne met a part-time artist Sophia Peabody, and he reluctantly sought and gained appointment as Measurer in the Boston Custom House to pay the bills and save enough to marry Sophia.  As he had when he worked for the stagecoach company, he complained that the routine of a regular job stunted his imagination.  He only produced two collections of stories, Grandfather's Chair and Famous Old People, while he held this position so he was probably right.

In 1840, Hawthorne changed his environment again and moved to the Utopian community Brook Farm.  Brook Farm was linked to Transcendentalism, which links Hawthorne to Transcendentalism.  However, Hawthorne viewed Brook Farm as simply a place where he could write without the pressure of routine; he did not embrace the socialist philosophies of the community entirely.  Besides, he left after 6 months because it turned out he had to do so much farm work that he had no time to write.

For three years after he left Brook Farm, Hawthorne lived his dream.  He married Sophia and moved into a house in Concord, Massachusetts.  Again, modern scholars get the impression from this period that he was sympathetic to Transcendentalism because he spent a lot of time with both Emerson and Thoreau.  Whatever his curiosity and level of agreement with the Transcendentalist philosophy, he was always at least ambivalent about it.  The best way for a modern scholar to decide how much of a Transcendentalist Hawthorne was is to read his work.

The period 1842 to 1844 allowed Hawthorne to produce a large quantity of work.  He published twenty pieces during this period, but it did not ultimately allow him to support his family, which by 1844 included a daughter.  Hawthorne again sought appointment by the government and became Surveyor of the Salem Custom House in 1846.  He published Mosses from an Old Manse, Old Manse being the name of his home in Concord, and his son was born that summer.  Hawthorne lost his job, though, because of a change in political power, and this freed his imagination and led to his writing his first novel and master work, The Scarlet Letter.

Between 1850 and 1853, Hawthorne lived with his family in Lenox, Massachusetts.  He had a close relationship, during this time, with Herman Melville who favorably reviewed Mosses from an Old Manse and who dedicated Moby Dick to Hawthorne.  He also wrote his next two novels, The House of the Seven Gables and The Blithedale Romance, which was based on his time at Brook Farm.  In 1853, President Franklin Pierce, his former classmate, appointed Hawthorne consul to Liverpool so he sailed there with his family.  While he held this position, routine hindered him again, and he wrote almost nothing until he moved to Rome then Florence and wrote his last romantic novel, The Marble Faun.

Hawthorne returned to Concord in 1860, and he tried to write more.  However, the Civil War soon began, and this interrupted Hawthorne's romantic inspirations.  The war troubled Hawthorne because he did not believe that it would accomplish much.  Though he did think slavery was wrong, he thought that abolitionist reformers were wasting their time.  He did publish a report of the war from his own observations, but besides that he only published a series of sketches taken from the English portion of the notebooks he had recorded his thoughts in during his lifetime.  His wife, Sophia, would edit and publish the American portion of the notebooks after Hawthorne's death on May 19, 1864, and his children added their own perspectives to his life by publishing memoirs soon after.  Hawthorne's stories and novels are complex and defy obvious and clear interpretation, and this has kept literary critics busy ever since his death.

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