Fun facts from the life of the great nineteenth-century American writer, Nathaniel Hawthorne
1. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s great-great-grandfather, John Hathorne, was one of the judges at the Salem witch trials. Nathaniel added the ‘w’ to his family name in an attempt to distance himself from this controversial ancestry. The young Hathorne – later rechristened ‘Hawthorne’ – spent several childhood years living in Salem, Massachusetts, though his mother also lived in Maine as well. (Nathaniel’s father had died when his son was just aged four in the Dutch colony of Suriname.) Alongside Hathorne was one Andrew Elliott, ancestor of the poet T. S. Eliot.
2. He injured himself playing cricket as a child. At age thirteen, young Nathaniel injured his foot in a cricket match and was laid up at home for the best part of a year. On his mother’s side, Hawthorne was descended from the illustrious Manning family. One of Hawthorne’s ancestors, Nicholas Manning, had been found guilty of incest with two of his sisters in 1681. In the 1980s, it was speculated that Hawthorne himself enjoyed a closer-than-proper relationship with his sister, ‘Ebe’ (Elizabeth). He and Ebe certainly grew close as children, particularly following Nathaniel’s cricket accident, but whether there was anything improper in their relationship remains unproved. However it would, as scholars have noted, explain a lot about Hawthorne’s work, and his obsession with sin.
3. After he graduated from university, he essentially ‘locked’ himself away in an attic for a decade. In order to try his hand at writing, the reclusive Hawthorne retreated to the attic in his mother’s house – his ‘haunted chamber’ – and began to write. His loyal sister Ebe ran errands for him to Salem public library, fetching the books he needed. His early efforts would be published as Twice-Told Tales, including the brilliantly macabre ‘The Minister’s Black Veil’.
4. Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne were neighbours for a time. Melville dedicated his most famous novel, Moby-Dick, to his friend and neighbour.
5. He produced his most celebrated novels in a few years in the early 1850s, shortly after his mother’s death. Not only The Scarlet Letter (1850) but also The House of the Seven Gables (1851) and The Blithedale Romance (1852) were produced in a couple of years. How much the death of Hawthorne’s mother had to do with this is a curious question. But the fact that Hawthorne chose to write a novel, The Scarlet Letter, with a mother as its protagonist so soon after his own mother’s death is suggestive. You can read more about Nathaniel Hawthorne’s life here.
Image: Portrait of Nathaniel Hawthorne by Mathew Brady, c. 1860; Wikimedia Commons.