"The Birth-Mark" is one of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s most revered and gripping short stories. Published in the March 1843 edition of The Pioneer, the story examines human sin, evokes the perils of overweening ambition, and theorizes about gender...
Nathaniel Hawthorne was born on July 4, 1804, in Salem, Massachusetts. He was a descendant of a long line of Puritan ancestors including John Hathorne, a presiding magistrate in the Salem witch trials. In order to distance himself from his family's shameful involvement in the witch trials, Hawthorne added the "w" to his last name while in his early 20s. Also among his ancestors was William Hathorne, one of the first Puritan settlers who arrived in New England in 1630.
After his father, a ship captain, died of yellow fever at sea when Nathaniel was only four, his mother became overly protective and pushed him toward relatively isolated pursuits. Hawthorne's childhood left him shy and bookish, which molded his life as a writer.
Hawthorne turned to writing after his graduation from Bowdoin College. His first novel, Fanshawe, was unsuccessful and Hawthorne himself later disavowed the work as amateurish. He wrote several successful short stories, however, including "My Kinsman, Major Molineux," "Roger Malvin's Burial," "The Birth-Mark," and "Young Goodman Brown"—arguably Hawthorne's most famous short story.
In 1839, his insufficient earnings as a writer forced Hawthorne to work at the Boston Custom House, where he weighed and measured goods. After three years, Hawthorne quit his job with the Salem Custom House and joined Brook Farm, an experiment of communal living inspired by the ideas of Transcendentalism (the idealistic philosophical movement that developed in late 1820s New England). By 1842, his writing finally provided him enough income to marry Sophia Peabody and move to The Manse in Concord, MA, one of the epicenters of Transcendentalism. The couple had three children. Una, the eldest, was born in 1844 and named in reference to Sir Edmund Spenser's epic poem The Faerie Queene. Their second child, a son they called Julian, was born in 1846. The third child, Rose, was born in 1851 and referred to by Hawthorne as his "autumnal flower."
Throughout the 1840s, Hawthorne devoted himself to his most famous and acclaimed novel, The Scarlet Letter. He zealously worked on the novel with a previously untapped determination. His intense suffering infused the novel with imaginative energy, leading him to describe it as a "hell-fired story." On February 3, 1850, Hawthorne read the final pages to his wife. According to him, Peabody had an immensely emotional reaction to the work: "It broke her heart and sent her to bed with a grievous headache, which I look upon as a triumphant success."
The Scarlet Letter's immediate success allowed Hawthorne to dedicate his life completely to writing. He left Salem for a temporary residence in Lenox, a small town in the Berkshires, where he completed the romance The House of the Seven Gables in 1851. While in Lenox, Hawthorne met with Herman Melville and became a major proponent of Melville's work, but their friendship later became strained. Hawthorne's subsequent novels, The Blithedale Romance—based on his years of communal living at Brook Farm—and the romance The Marble Faun were both considered disappointments. Hawthorne supported himself through another political post, the consulship in Liverpool, which he was given for writing a campaign biography for Franklin Pierce.
In 1852, after the publication of The Blithedale Romance, Hawthorne returned to Concord and bought a house called Hillside, owned by Louisa May Alcott's family. Hawthorne renamed it The Wayside. He briefly proceeded to travel and live in France and Italy, but he returned to The Wayside just before the Civil War began. He published an article entitled "Chiefly About War Matters" for the Atlantic Monthly just before he fell ill, detailing the account of his travels to the White House and the Virginia battlefields of Manassas and Harpers Ferry.
At the age of 59, Hawthorne passed away on May 19, 1864 in Plymouth, New Hampshire, after a long period of illness during which he suffered severe bouts of dementia. By this time, he had completed several chapters of what was to be a romance, which was published posthumously as The Dolliver Romance.
Hawthorne was buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, Massachusetts. Transcendentalist poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson, a neighbor of Hawthorne's, described the life of his acquaintance as one of "painful solitude." Hawthorne had maintained a strong friendship with Franklin Pierce, but otherwise he had had few intimates and lacked any semblance of a social life.
A number of Hawthorne's unfinished works were published posthumously. His works remain notable for their treatment of New England Puritanism, personal guilt, and the complexities of moral choices. Though Hawthorne was perpetually dissatisfied with his body of work throughout his life, he remains lauded as one of the greatest American writers.
Study Guides on Works by Nathaniel Hawthorne
The Blithedale Romance is Nathaniel Hawthorne’s third novel, one that is sometimes overlooked by readers but is nonetheless considered one of his most critically important works. Hawthorne wrote the novel in 1851 while staying at Horace Mann’s...
Published in 1850, The Scarlet Letter is considered Nathaniel Hawthorne's most famous novel--and the first quintessentially American novel in style, theme, and language. Set in seventeenth-century Puritan Massachusetts, the novel centers around...
Young Goodman Brown and Other Short Stories consists of tales that were all published in newspapers and periodicals before they were later compiled and published in short story collections during Hawthorne's lifetime. These works were written...