Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Struggle and Romance with Salem

by Nancy Brewka Clark

Nathaniel Hawthorne called himself a writer of romances or allegorical tales of times long past with supernatural overtones. Yet many of the stories he wrote came right out of the pages of his own family history in Salem, Massachusetts. Hawthorne was still struggling to relieve himself of the heavy psychic burden of his family’s past. Puritanism had shaped his first full-length romance written in 1850, The Scarlet Letter, with its emphasis on secret sin, pride, vengefulness and shame. The House of the Seven Gables, in 1851, continued to deal with this burden in its opening lines that described a witch’s curse on a Puritan magistrate who choked to death on his own blood.

Hawthorne said he felt guilty for sharing the blood of not only witchcraft judge John Hathorne but also of sadistic Puritan magistrate William Hathorne. Nathaniel restored the Elizabethan ‘w’ to the name when he was in his twenties. He felt even more shame for not measuring up to their concept of success. These two ghosts of his Calvinist Protestant ancestors haunted Hawthorne with their creed that God rewarded His chosen people with prosperity.

In “The Custom House,” his introduction to The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne imagined his 17th century forefathers sneering at him as “a writer of story-books,” calling him an “idler” who disgraced the family tree, a “degenerate fellow” whose occupation is little better than “a fiddler’s!”

If he believed being a writer was a less than honorable profession in the long-dead eyes of his Puritan ancestors, Hawthorne still consoled himself with the thought that he had inherited their determination to succeed. Unfortunately, unlike them, Nathaniel Hawthorne believed he couldn’t succeed in Salem. He felt the town was suffocating him, and blighting his spirit.

Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil.

His roots went deep in Salem soil, back to when the town was just a handful of thatched huts in the midst of a former Native American settlement called Naumkeag, when Englishman William Hathorne made his way up from Boston to join original settler Roger Conant there in the 1630s.

William made a name for himself in the Massachusetts Bay Colony as a stern magistrate of the Crown’s justice when he ordered the public whipping of Quakers whose only crime was daring to infringe on Puritan turf, their ultimate solution being finally to flee to Rhode Island. He was also a shrewd businessman who made a fortune in the fur trade and purchased vast tracts of land stretching up into what is now Maine.

William’s son John was one of three specially appointed judges to preside at the Salem witch trials of 1692. When the court allowed spectral evidence from a handful of hysterical teenaged girls who then testified that the disembodied spirits of the accused had tortured them physically, twenty men and women, were executed.

Although Judge John Hathorne died a wealthy man in 1717, his successors lost both money and land with each passing generation until it really did seem as if the family name had been cursed. Nathaniel’s grandfather, known in local folklore as Bold Dan’l, was an 18th century privateer, a legalized pirate who was encouraged by the rebellious provisional government of Massachusetts to attack British ships and plunder them during the Revolution, but even he couldn’t refill the family coffers.

By the time Nathaniel was born on the 4th of July 1804, the family holdings had dwindled to a gambrel-roofed two-family dwelling on rough-and-tumble Union Street, one block up from the wharves.

His mother, Elizabeth Clarke Manning Hathorne, lost even that house; it’s now on the grounds of the House of the Seven Gables complex on Turner Street, when her sea captain husband, also named Nathaniel, died of a fever in Surinam in 1808, leaving her with Elizabeth, six; Nathaniel, four; and an infant, Mary Louisa.

Swathed in the widow’s weeds she would wear for the rest of her life, Elizabeth Manning Hathorne moved back to her parents’ place on Herbert Street. It was literally a trip of just a few feet, since she had married the boy next door, but for her son, it was light years away from the life he had known with a once-happy mother.

The Manning house may not have had a curse on it but Nathaniel always called it Castle Dismal, reflecting the way he saw his life from the age of six years on. Years later when his mother lay dying, Hawthorne confessed in his journal in an entry dated July 29, 1849:

I love my mother; but there has been, ever since boyhood, a sort of coldness of intercourse between us, such as is apt to come between persons of strong feelings if they are not managed rightly.

Somewhere in the course of the forty-one years of widowhood remaining to her after she moved to the Herbert Street house, Elizabeth Hathorne was given the appellation “madame,” perhaps in a veiled reference to her aloofness.

Nathaniel’s sea-faring father, described by a Salem sailor as “the sternest man that ever walked a deck,” had actually written poetry about his once-vivacious beauty of a wife in the margins of the logbooks he kept as captain of his brother-in-law’s vessels. Perhaps the irrepressible urge for creative writing was passed down through his genes, because as a teenager Nathaniel tried his hand at writing poetry too, churning out rhymes such as:

I saw where in the lowly grave
Departed genius lay;
And mournful yew-trees o’er it wave,
To hide it from the day

This early example of Hawthorne’s outlook, if not his style, was mailed to his uncle Robert Manning’s house near Sebago Lake in Raymond, Maine, where Madame Hathorne and his two sisters had been living since 1816. Because the Manning family operated a successful livery service between Boston, Salem, and points north, there was money to spare for a country home. The only problem was that the four Manning brothers were always too busy working to take a vacation.

Madame Hathorne had taken advantage of the situation and moved herself and all three of her children out of dusty, clamorous Herbert Street to the wholesome air of the northern woods. In 1816, Nathaniel was still recuperating from a serious foot injury received while playing stickball in Herbert Street over a year before, and the family believed, rightfully as it turned out, that he would regain his health in Maine

Nathaniel always remembered with great wistfulness how he lived for a time in a boy’s paradise of hunting, skating, fishing and swimming. He also read the books his uncles provided, his favorites being Puritan Paul Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, the novels of Sir Walter Scott, Shakespeare, and the Bible.

Eventually his foot healed and the sketchy education Nathaniel was receiving in Maine met with the disapproval of his Uncle Robert, who was willing to foot the bills to send his only nephew to college. The protesting Nathaniel was shipped back to Salem to be tutored for admission to Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, an institution with a much cheaper tuition than nearby Harvard’s and a strong Protestant Congregationalist bent.

In a letter to his mother dated March 13, 1821, even though Nathaniel began by saying, “I have not yet concluded what profession I shall have,” the sixteen-year-old went on to make it crystal clear what he planned to do when he grew up, and it didn’t have anything to do with churches:

Being a minister is of course out of the question. I should not think that even you could desire me to choose so dull a way of life. Oh, no, mother, I was not born to vegetate forever in one place, and to live and die as calm and tranquil as a puddle of water….Oh that I was rich enough to live without a profession! What do you think of my becoming an author, and relying for support upon my pen? Indeed, I think the illegibility of my handwriting is very author-like. How proud you would feel to see my works praised by the reviewers…. But authors are always poor devils, and therefore Satan may take them.

In due course, Hawthorne went off to Bowdoin, where his major accomplishment, along with receiving his bachelor’s degree in 1825, was making two lifelong friends, Horatio Bridge and Franklin Pierce. Both men would bail him out of financial and emotional difficulty time and again as Hawthorne struggled with his career choice. As to why he wanted to be a writer, even he himself couldn’t explain it.

In 1828 he self-published Fanshawe, a romance about college days, but regretted it to the point where he burned every copy he could find and demanded his family and friends do the same. “When we see how little we can express,” he wrote in his journal years later, “it is a wonder that any one ever takes up a pen a second time.”

In that 1853 autobiography, Hawthorne reflected,

I had read endlessly all sorts of good and good-for-nothing books, and in the dearth of other employment, had early begun to scribble sketches and stories, most of which I burned. My long seclusion had not made me melancholy or misanthropic, nor wholly unfitted me for the bustle of life; and perhaps it was the kind of discipline which my idiosyncrasy demanded, and chance and my own instincts, operating together, had caused me to do what was fittest.

The letters of Hawthorne’s college friend Horatio Bridge do much to spell out the misery Hawthorne was suffering during this period of creative incubation, as well as the letters from the editors of the struggling publications to which he was submitting his work.

S.G. Goodrich, publisher of The Token Magazine in Boston, wrote on May 31, 1831, “I have made very liberal use of the privilege you gave me as to the insertion of your pieces. As they are anonymous, no objection arises from having so many pages by one author, particularly as they are as good, if not better, than anything else I get.”

The short stories appearing anonymously in that issue, “The Wives of the Dead,” “Roger Malvin’s Burial,” “Major Molineaux,” and “The Gentle Boy,” all harked back to Puritan times and the repressive atmosphere of gloom which hung over the little outposts of the New World.

Goodrich, the publisher who had shown a mild interest in what came to be Twice-Told Tales, dragged his feet, discouraging the insecure Hawthorne. On October 16, 1836, Bridge wrote to Hawthorne, “You have the blues again. Don’t give up to them, for God’s sake and your own and mine and everybody’s. Brighter days will come, and that within six months.” On October 22nd, he was writing, “I have just received your last [letter], and do not like its tone at all. There is a kind of desperate coolness in it that seems dangerous. I fear that you are too good a subject for suicide, and that some day you will end your mortal woes on your own responsibility.”

It was Bridge who secretly backed the publication of Twice-Told Tales and persuaded fellow Bowdoin graduate Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to review it for Boston’s elite readership. The book even got a favorable review in London, much to Hawthorne’s astonishment and satisfaction. In the journal he kept alongside the other papers in his little room beneath the eaves of the Herbert Street house, he commemorated the publication with the comment, “In this dismal chamber Fame was won.”

But neither fame nor fortune favored the book and on Christmas Day 1836, Bridge was writing to Hawthorne, “Whether your book will sell extensively may be doubtful, but that is of small importance in the first book you publish. At all events, keep up your spirits till the result is ascertained; and my word for it, there is more honor and emolument in store for you from your writings than you imagine.”

Bridge felt the urge to delve further into his feelings about his good friend’s pessimism. “It seems to me that you never look at the bright side with any hope or confidence. It is not the philosophy to make one happy.”

Then, in a change of tone, Bridge brought up a subject with a fascinating history. “I doubt whether you ever get your wine from Cilley. His inquiring of you whether he had really lost the bet is suspicious.” The reference is to Jonathan Cilley, a Bowdoin classmate who, upon their graduation back in 1825, had wagered a barrel of Madeira wine that Nathaniel Hawthorne would be married by November 14, 1836.

Even though he was painfully shy, Hawthorne was so handsome that he had stopped a Gypsy woman dead in her tracks on a snowy road in Brunswick, something his friends had witnessed and never stopped ribbing him about, endlessly repeating her awestruck words, “Is he a man or an angel?” Such good looks were bound to ensnare Hawthorne in an early marriage, his friends teased.

Hawthorne’s bachelor state was about to change, however. Sophia Peabody, a Salem artist whose family had once lived next door to the Hathornes on Union Street prior to her birth, came into his life just when the bitter gloom of the previous twelve years was lifting with the publication of Twice-told Tales.

Sophia’s bluestocking sister Elizabeth Palmer Peabody recognized the name of this rising literary star as someone their mother had once taught in her neighborhood dame school, and invited Hawthorne to the Peabody house on Charter Street. (The old colonial, now a run-down boarding house, is still standing right next door to the Charter Street Burial Ground where Judge John Hathorne’s grave is a tourist attraction.)

When Hawthorne finally arrived, it had actually taken him a full year to get around to it, on a chilly night in the November of 1837 accompanied by his two unmarried sisters, Elizabeth dashed upstairs to tell Sophia that the reclusive author was “handsomer than Lord Byron,” but Sophia didn’t think that was a good enough reason to get out of bed.

At twenty-eight, Sophia Amelia Peabody had experienced several schoolgirl crushes on older men, including her doctor and her minister, and a handful of prospective suitors that left her stone-cold. Plagued by wrenching headaches which her father, a failed physician, attributed to the arsenic and opium he had dosed her with as a cranky teething baby, she had vowed never to marry.

One of six children in a family dominated by their educated mother, another Elizabeth, Sophia had been encouraged to develop her painting and drawing with tutors in both Salem, where she had lived as a girl, and in Boston, where the family had lived off and on ever since. Her father, mild-tempered, absent-minded and never one to pursue a patient for an unpaid fee, had actually been one of the physicians who had failed to cure little Nathaniel of his limp, which did nothing for his lack of self-esteem or his wife’s opinion of his abilities.

Although she had shown little imagination in her artwork, Sophia had become an excellent copyist, and had even lived on her own briefly in a suburban Boston boarding house before succumbing to her mother’s pressure to return home. Mother Peabody favored Sophia over all her children, because Sophia was sweet, obedient, and never mustered enough energy to rebut her opinions, as her two older daughters, Elizabeth and Mary, did.

At the age of twenty-five, to restore her failing health Sophia had traveled with her older sister Mary to Cuba where Mary was to be a governess. Sophia had promptly perked up and, when invited to stay on as Mary’s assistant, started to keep a highly entertaining record of her life. In a gushing letter to her mother, she confessed that she had even learned to waltz. It was a mistake- Mrs. Peabody promptly forbade further exertion and ordered both ‘girls’ to come home.

When she returned to Salem the aches and pains had returned, and Sophia resigned herself to an early death, an accomplishment her own mother agreed would be a tribute to her saintliness, according to her sister Elizabeth’s reminiscences to Julian Hawthorne.

On Hawthorne’s second visit to Charter Street, Sophia came downstairs wearing a white wrapper with her fair hair in an aura about her, and Hawthorne was transfixed. After admiring her illustrated Cuban journal he offered to take her to a play, but she told him she never went out at night. Since he had rarely gone out during the day for the past twelve years, the couple compromised and started going for strolls in late afternoon. Sometime during late 1838, they became secretly engaged, believing that neither family would ever even consider that a marriage between two such unworldly souls would work.

Driven by his desire to marry, Hawthorne finally took a job as a measurer at the Boston Custom House in 1839. In 1840, he published three children’s books, Grandfather’s Chair, Famous Old People, and Liberty Tree, but made no money.

“How happy were Adam and Eve!” he wrote to Sophia on April 21, 1840. “There was no third person to come between them, and all the infinity around them only served to press their hearts closer together. We love one another as well as they; but there is no silent and lovely garden of Eden for us.”

In 1841 he became a partner in what sounded like Eden, the Transcendentalist commune Brook Farm outside of Boston, but soon learned shoveling manure all day wasn’t conducive to writing at night. Worse, he lost his investment when the farm failed.

On July 9, 1842 Hawthorne finally married Sophia even though money matters hadn’t improved. The two vowed to live as simply as possible in their Concord farmhouse, the Old Manse, rented from Ralph Waldo Emerson and with an old garden freshly spaded by neighborhood eccentric Henry David Thoreau. Although the birth of daughter Una on March 3, 1844 only added to their joy, the bills were mounting up. Hawthorne took on the editing of Horatio Bridge’s book, Journal of an African Cruiser, but still couldn’t make ends meet.

In October of 1845, the Hawthornes were forced to return to Castle Dismal. Expecting a cold reception, Sophia was humbly grateful when her reclusive mother-in-law and her two odd, bookish sisters-in-law welcomed toddler Una with open arms.

Frantic machinations among his old college friends, especially Franklin Pierce and Horatio Bridge, finally landed Hawthorne the Salem Custom House job of Surveyor of the Port in the April of 1846. Although Salem’s once-mighty shipping trade had declined steadily since the War of 1812, Hawthorne finally had a steady income.

In early 1847, Hawthorne rented a three-story house on Mall Street off Salem Common for his wife, their two children, his mother and his two sisters, were finally leaving Castle Dismal behind. But his newfound sense of security didn’t last.

Hawthorne was fired from the Custom House on trumped-up charges of political chicanery on June 7, 1849. Arriving home in the middle of the day, Hawthorne had been stunned when Sophia hugged him, showed him a drawer full of money she had saved from her household expenses, and said simply, “Good. Now you can write your book.”

On July 31, however, his mother died after an illness of a few dark, miserable, hot days and stagnant nights, described by nurse Sophia to her mother in painful detail. In his journal entries, Hawthorne noted the suffering of his mother in contrast to the cheerful, little voices of his children, and then confessed about five-year-old Una,

There is something that almost frightens me about the child. I know not whether elfish or angelic, but, at all events, supernatural. She steps so boldly into the midst of everything, shrinks from nothing, has such a comprehension of everything, seems at times to have but little delicacy, and anon shows that she possesses the finest essence of it now so hard, now so tender; now so perfectly unreasonable, soon again so wise.

Hawthorne began to write relentlessly that autumn with the full support of Sophia, who painted decorative fire screens and lampshades for her sister Elizabeth to sell in Boston. Her work sold for as much as twenty-five dollars an article, a huge sum but not enough to feed a family of six. Yet, Hawthorne knew that if he tried to finish the book while hunting for work, or worse, put off writing The Scarlet Letter until he could afford to write, he would never finish it at all.

He communicated some of this agony to his friends, who anonymously raised five hundred dollars from “fellow writers in New England and New York in acknowledgment of the debt we owe you for what you have done for American literature,” as his friend George Hillard tactfully put it in his letter accompanying the check. Hawthorne wrote back that it must have been the wind that brought tears to his eyes when he stood on his stoop to open the envelope.

In March 1850 his publishers, Ticknor and Fields, brought out The Scarlet Letter. In May the Hawthornes moved to Tanglewood Cottage in the little town of Lenox in the Berkshires upon the advice of William Ticknor, which was seconded by the same friends who had sent the five hundred dollars. Hawthorne had been exhausted by his Custom House experience, and his mother’s death, and sought relief from these last horrific memories of Salem. But escaping those memories would prove to be impossible. In a little red house with a large farmyard, Hawthorne wrote his Salem classic, The House of the Seven Gables, published in 1851. Having befriended the younger writer Herman Melville, who was living one town over in Pittsfield, Hawthorne and his family called the former whaler ‘Omoo’ after his novel of the same name.

Melville’s rousing reaction to Hawthorne’s latest romance was to write him a fan letter saying, “There is the grand truth about Nathaniel Hawthorne. He says NO! in thunder; but the Devil himself cannot make him say yes.”

But eventually the friendship between the two men faded, as did Hawthorne’s feelings for the Berkshires. Where he had sought peace, he now found boredom. Where he had sought inspiration, he now found truant memories of Salem.

Hawthorne moved his family to West Newton, outside of Boston, but when everyone detested it he looked around for a permanent place and settled on Bronson Alcott’s place, The Wayside, back in Concord. In the meantime, he had published The Wonder-Book and The Blithedale Romance, a slimly disguised version of Brook Farm, and finally had enough money to purchase the run-down but scenic homestead.

When Franklin Pierce became President in 1853, he appointed Hawthorne U.S. Consul to Liverpool, England. The Hawthornes were ecstatic, since Hawthorne wanted to see if his English roots would inspire some new romances and Sophia wanted to see the European masterpieces she had only admired in prints.

The position was not only prestigious, but also lucrative-or had been, until Hawthorne took it on. Since the shipping his salary was based on was declining in Liverpool, Hawthorne’s income was reduced accordingly.

He also spent more of his income than was wise on assisting down-and-out Americans stranded in the battered port, and became an advocate of the common seaman after documenting the physical abuse an American sailor endured. (Melville, whose Moby Dick, dedicated to Hawthorne, had come out to either puzzled or indignant reviews, could have told him that.)

When Pierce was voted out in 1857 Hawthorne was ousted too. Based on the slow but steady sales of his books he thought his publishers, Ticknor and Fields, were investing back in the States, Hawthorne decided to take his family on a grand tour of Europe.

Entranced with Italy, Sophia and Nathaniel were befriended in Rome by Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Inspired by Italian culture and medieval alchemy, Hawthorne had just begun to write The Marble Faun when Una was struck down by a fever that almost killed her. After four months she was well enough for the Hawthornes to resume a social life but the joys of Italy had been much tarnished.

His son Julian Hawthorne was to write many years later, “In fact, after freeing himself from Salem, Hawthorne never found any permanent rest anywhere.”

When the Hawthornes and their three children returned to Concord and The Wayside in 1860, they had been renting the house at cost to Sophia’s brother, Nathaniel discovered the income he had counted on from sales and investments was much smaller than expected. Although he hoped The Marble Faun would finally vault him into the best-seller category, book-buyers disagreed.

Hawthorne had started to show signs of fatigue and weight loss after Una’s brush with death in Rome. Back in Massachusetts for good, he tried to write about Europe but found himself in his imagination back on Charter Street in Salem. In both “Dr. Grimshawe’s Secret” and “The Dolliver Romance,” two tales he somehow couldn’t bring himself to finish, the old graveyard where the bones of his ancestors lay moldering featured prominently.

In a letter written from Beverly, Massachusetts, where he and his son Julian had gone for the sea air in the July of 1861, Hawthorne shared with Una his feelings about achieving the fame he had once dreamt about: “O ye Heavens! How absurd that a man should spend the best of his years in getting a little mite of reputation, and then immediately find the annoyance of it more than the profit.”

The next two years would find him sinking further into a decline, which his closest friends believed was due, in great part, to the Civil War. Never politically astute, Hawthorne had ignored the rancor with which his own relatives addressed his dear friend Franklin Pierce, who had come down on the side of states’ rights during his term as President. Now, hearing daily of the terrible battles destroying thousands of families, Hawthorne found himself having to defend slavery to his wife’s passionately abolitionist sisters.

Thinking a short vacation with his publisher would refresh him in the terrible spring of 1864, the equally oblivious Sophia urged him to travel south. Hawthorne was instead driven deeper into illness when Ticknor died in Philadelphia. After three weeks of prolonged depression and physical weakness, Hawthorne went on what his anxious family hoped would be a healing vacation with Franklin Pierce up north.

Instead, Nathaniel Hawthorne died in his sleep in Plymouth, New Hampshire on May 19. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, John Greenleaf Whittier, James Russell Lowell, Franklin Pierce, and Ralph Waldo Emerson were among the mourners at his funeral in Concord’s Sleepy Hollow Cemetery on May 23, on a small, piney ridge now called Authors’ Row because Thoreau, Emerson, and Louisa May Alcott are also buried there.

Unable to afford The Wayside, Sophia Hawthorne eventually moved to Europe, believing she could live more cheaply there. For seven years she edited her husband’s journals, preparing them ever more reluctantly for publication in the States. Suffering from a recurrent lung infection, she died in London, her daughters at her side, in the February of 1871 and was buried in Kendal Green, an ocean away from the beloved husband who had once written to her during their long, agonizing courtship:

Sometimes, during my solitary life in our old Salem house, it seemed to me as if I had only life enough to know that I was not alive. But, at length, you were revealed to me, in the shadow of a seclusion as deep as my own. I drew nearer and nearer to you, and opened my heart to you, and you came to me, and will remain forever, keeping my heart warm and renewing my life with your own.

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  1. Pilgrim’s Progress was written by John Bunyan, Paul Bunyan is a lumberjack figure in North American folklore. With a mistake that significant, It makes it difficult for me to take the rest of your material at face value.