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Nathaniel Hawthorne - Biography

Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864)
Commentary by Karen Bernardo

Nathaniel HawthorneNathaniel Hawthorne is best-known as a novelist, the author of such seminal works as The Scarlet Letter. Yet few people realize that he was also one of the early masters of the modern short story. Like his novels, Hawthorne's stories often deal with the issues of sin and guilt. His obsession with this topics may well derive from his Puritan ancestry; a great-great uncle was actually a judge in the Salem witch trials. Another of his favorite topics was the nineteenth-century obsession with science, which he deeply distrusted.

Whatever the theme, however, Hawthorne's writing tends to be deeply symbolic, bypassing the conscious, logical mind to tap into the more dream-like processes below. For this reason, his work formed a philosophical bridge between the excesses of the Gothic imagination and the clear-thinking optimism of Transcendentalists such as Emerson. On the one hand, like the Gothic writers of his day, Hawthorne wants to pack as much subconscious meaning as possible into the story, because in this way it will strike deeper into our psyches and hang on for dear life. On the other hand, he wants us to recognize that it is more than a story; it is a parable, and it is told with the intention that we should consciously decode the symbolism in the story and reform our lives accordingly. And like the Transcendentalists, he believed that each one of us has within our hearts the power to do so.

But his position in literary history is not what makes Hawthorne worth reading today. More subtle than his contemporary Edgar Allan Poe and in some ways anticipating Henry James, Nathaniel Hawthorne virtually invented the psychological horror story. Nearly two hundred years later, those stories have as much power to work their magic as they did the day they were written.

Would you like to read Nathaniel Hawthorne's stories in their entirety? Click here! Nathaniel Hawthorne : Tales and Sketches...

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