Thursday, October 8, 2009

More Literary Tour -- Nathaniel Hawthorne

Nathaniel Hawthorne was born in Salem, MA, and you can tour his birthplace. Normally I think the "birthplace" tours are stupid. I mean, what possible influence can a place of birth have on a writer, unless that writer is born, say, on the back seat of a Greyhound bus, or in a royal bed somewhere. What does it matter?

In Hawthorne's case, though, I have to make an exception. His great-great-great grandfather, William Hathorne, was one of the Puritans to come to the Massachusetts Bay Colony after the first wave of colonists. He quickly became a judge in Salem, and if the Puritans had been given to levity at all, his name would have been Hanging Bill. He was widely known for the harsh penalties he doled out. His son, John, was one of the judges in the witch trials, and not surprisingly, given who his father was, the only judge who never repented of his actions. Not a snuggly family.

By the time Nathaniel's father, Nathaniel Sr., came along, the family was in rather reduced circumstances, and Nathaniel Sr. was the captain of a merchant ship. He died in Suriname when his son was quite young, and from then on, the family lived in a variety of places in New England, with a variety of relatives. None of them stuck in Nathaniel's mind quite like Salem.

When he was in his twenties, Hawthorne added the "w" to his name for reasons he declined to specify, at least anywhere we can find them. Most people feel he was trying to distance himself from his Puritan ancestors and their harsh ideas about justice. If this was the case, he certainly didn't avoid the topic of Salem, Puritanical hypocrisy, or injustice masquerading as morality. Most of his short stories and novels deal with some form of those topics.

A lot of high school students have to read The Scarlet Letter, and because they are young and (we hope) haven't had much experience of a.) adultery, b.) Puritans, and c.) subtle psychological torture, they miss most of the fine points. The short story "Young Goodman Brown," also a high school favorite, shares many of these same components, with a large dollop of allegory thrown in for free. Hawthorne was very gifted at subtle plot gestures, which is why people still read him.


  1. AWESOME!! I was hoping that you would go here, because Hawthorne is one of my favorite authors, particularly for his short stories. "The Birthmark" and "Rappachinii's (sp??) Daughter" come to mind as favorites. I will have to reread some of his stories, because after all our work with the witch trials I am sure that I will pick up on a lot of things that I missed before.
    Hope you're having a great trip, and I can't wait to see all of your pictures!

    Have you gone to the Old North Church yet??

  2. Genny:
    I find it so crazy how tense the family relations were. But, I guess it makes since. If my grandfather partook in the witchcraft trials I'm sure I wouldn't be to cuddly either. I'm just not sure I'd be able to cut of the ties such as changing the spelling of my last name. I guess as the saying goes, to each their own. Hope you have/had a wonderful trip!!!

  3. Chris
    I find it interesting that Nathanial Hawthorne would add a W into his name to be changed. Why else would he Change it if not to escape the terrible actions his forfathers have done.

  4. Personally, I don't blame the guy. Man, he had some tough historical shoes to walk around in...and they weren't very stylish. His writing was great, and I very much enjoy reading it, but could his merit have been trampled a little perhaps by his link to the big bad wolf coven of Salem? I think so. BUT I think it was meant to be, that he was related to them. It's been said that he wrote some of the things he wrote, trying to atone for the demons haunting him about his family, and if he'd been raised by the Cleaver family, it may have affected his writing...and I don't believe that Nathaniel Ha(w)thorne would have been as interesting writing about sunflowers.

  5. That's pretty cool that his great great great grandpfather was one of the first waves of immigrants to come to America. Also, with his his other descendant being a judge during the salem witch trials, it gives his family history a lot of meaning.