History In The Headlines

10 Things You May Not Know About Nathaniel Hawthorne

By Christopher Klein
Nathaniel Hawthorne died at the age of 59 on May 19, 1864. On the 150th anniversary of his death, explore 10 surprising facts about the famed American novelist.

Nathaniel Hawthorne

Nathaniel Hawthorne

1. A former president of the United States discovered Hawthorne dead.
With the author’s health failing in the spring of 1864 as a likely result of gastrointestinal cancer, Hawthorne’s old college friend, former president Franklin Pierce traveled with him to New Hampshire’s White Mountains with the hope that the region’s rarified air could be an elixir. On the evening of May 18 inside the Pemigewasset House hotel in Plymouth, New Hampshire, Hawthorne retired early after a dinner of toast and tea. During the night, Pierce awoke to check on his friend in the adjoining room. The former president placed his hand upon Hawthorne’s forehead and found that he was dead. Pierce’s presence fulfilled a passage in Hawthorne’s novel “The Blithedale Romance”: “Happy the man that has such a friend beside him, when he comes to die!”

2. He was the college classmate of another famous writer.
In addition to meeting Pierce while attending Maine’s Bowdoin College, Hawthorne was a fellow member of the Class of 1825 with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The pair remained lifelong friends. Longfellow served as a pallbearer at Hawthorne’s funeral and later penned the poem “The Bells of Lynn” in his honor.

3. He changed his last name in part to hide his family’s dark past.
The novelist’s great-great-grandfather, John Hathorne, was a leading judge of the Salem witch trials, and Hawthorne was haunted by his ancestor’s shameful past. Shortly after graduating from Bowdoin, the author added a “w” to his last name in part to make the spelling match the pronunciation and also to disassociate himself from a figure of whom he wrote was “so conspicuous in the martyrdom of the witches, that their blood may fairly be said to have left a stain upon him.”

4. Hawthorne was the founding member of a utopia.
In 1841, Hawthorne became a charter member of Brook Farm, an agricultural collective founded by Unitarian minister George Ripley near Boston. The author expected that farm life would free up more time for him to write, but he quickly soured on the Transcendental commune as he laboriously cut straw, milked cows and shoveled a hill of manure that Ripley called the “gold mine.” Hawthorne’s blistered hands hampered his writing, and he wondered how anyone could “expect pretty stories from a man who feeds pigs.” Disillusioned, he left after just a few months at the commune, which later inspired his 1852 novel “The Blithedale Romance.”

5. He lived in the same houses as two other famed Transcendental authors.
In 1842, Hawthorne and his newlywed wife, Sophia, moved into the Old Manse in Concord, Massachusetts, a homestead in which Ralph Waldo Emerson had previously composed the first draft of “Nature,” the essay that launched the Transcendental movement. Another Transcendental leader, Henry David Thoreau, planted an heirloom vegetable garden for the Hawthornes when they moved into the Old Manse. A decade later, the Hawthornes moved into another Concord house with a literary past—the Wayside, the childhood home of author Louisa May Alcott.

6. Zachary Taylor’s election led to the publication of “The Scarlet Letter.”
Struggling financially as a writer, Hawthorne through his connections with the Democratic Party procured a political appointment in 1846 to be a Custom House surveyor in his hometown of Salem, Massachusetts. Following the 1849 inauguration of Taylor, the president’s fellow Whig Party members accused Hawthorne of “corruption, iniquity and fraud.” Hawthorne’s fierce fight to retain his government job was covered by partisan newspapers around the country, but he was ultimately let go in June 1849. After his dismissal, the novelist immersed himself for months in writing “The Scarlet Letter,” considered by many to be his best work.

7. “The Scarlet Letter” was an instant best-seller—but not for the reason you think.
When “The Scarlet Letter” was published in the spring of 1850, the initial print run of 2,500 copies sold out in only 10 days. However, given the publicity that had surrounded Hawthorne’s firing the year before, readers were initially less interested in the tale of Hester Prynne than they were in the novel’s introduction, “The Custom-House,” in which Hawthorne’s barbed pen skewered his political enemies.

8. He served as an American diplomat.
Shortly after Hawthorne completed writing “Tanglewood Tales” in 1853, the Senate approved his nomination by the newly inaugurated Pierce to be a United States consul in Liverpool, England, among the most lucrative of diplomatic positions. During his four years in the diplomatic corps, Hawthorne did not publish any major works.

9. Hawthorne’s youngest daughter has been proposed for sainthood.
Rose Hawthorne, who initially pursued a literary career like her father, converted to Roman Catholicism with her husband. Following the death of her 5-year-old boy and her husband, she moved into a tenement in an impoverished New York City neighborhood and began nursing incurable cancer patients. She then joined a religious order and became a nun, Mother Mary Alphonsa. In 1900, she co-founded the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne to continue her work with impoverished cancer patients. In 2003, she was nominated for sainthood.

10. Hawthorne was separated from his wife for 142 years.
Seven years after Sophia Hawthorne buried her husband in Concord’s Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, she passed away in London. She was interred an ocean away from her husband along with their daughter Una when she died in 1877. In 2006, the bodies of Hawthorne’s wife and daughter were unearthed from London’s Kensal Green Cemetery and reinterred next to his side.

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Categories: Literature, Writers