The life of Nathaniel Hawthorne began on July 4, 1804 in the infamous town of Salem, Massachusetts. It was on this day that he was born to Nathaniel Hathorne, Sr. and Elizabeth Clarke Manning. It was not until well into his adulthood that he changed the spelling of his last name from Hathorne to Hawthorne. It is uncertain why he made this change but many believe it was to detach his self from the ancestors who haunted him (North Shore Community College).
The ancestors in particular that haunted him were John Hathorne and Major William Hathorne. John Hathorne was known for his dealings and prosecutions at the Salem witchcraft trials. “Hathorne believed the devil could use witches to undermine the purpose of the church and do harm to people. Because of this belief, Hathorne and another justice of the peace, Jonathan Corwin, took very seriously complaints about suspected witches” (University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law). Hathorne was quick to judge anyone who was accused of witchcraft. Major William Hathorne had been known for his remorseless persecution of the Quakers. Nathaniel Hawthorne was ashamed of these ancestors and the things they had done. These ancestors are shown in his book “The House of the Seven Gables” (North Shore Community College).
Hawthorne also relinquishes his ancestral guilt through his short work, “Mrs. Hutchinson”. In this work he writes about Anne Hutchinson, the woman famous for preaching her beliefs who was then exiled to Rhode Island. In this narrative it is written that Mrs. Hutchinson came to Massachusetts from the Old World and began preaching her beliefs. Soon she was brought to trial and finally exiled to Rhode Island for heresy and preaching. Hutchinson died in a massacre during prayer. Hawthorne adds a note of guilt at the end, when he writes, “It was a circumstance not to be unnoticed by our stern ancestors, in considering the fate of her who had so troubled their religion, that an infant daughter, the sole survivor amid the terrible destruction of her mother's household, was bred in a barbarous faith, and never learned the way to the Christian's Heaven. Yet we will hope, that there the mother and the child have met” (Hawthorne). It is at this point that we learn that Hawthorne felt guilty about his own ancestors in relation to the persecution of Anne Hutchinson.
Hawthorne communicated his guilt in several other works, including “Young Goodman Brown”. This short story was part of several included in “Mosses from an Old Manse”, published in 1846. “Young Goodman Brown” is often thought to be “perhaps the greatest tale of witchcraft ever written” (C-SPAN American Writers). Even the Scarlet Letter “reveals both Hawthorne's superb craftsmanship and the powerful psychological insight with which he probed guilt and anxiety in the human soul” (Encarta).
Hawthorne’s life-long struggle with the guilt of his ancestors’ actions inspired several of his works. His “dark, brooding, richly symbolic works, reflecting his Puritan heritage and contrasting sharply with the optimism of his Transcendentalist neighbors, achieve a depth and power that make them one of the greatest legacies in American literature” (C-SPAN American Writers). Hawthorne believed that “every individual has a place to fill in the world, and is important, in some respect, whether he chooses to be so or not” (World of Quotes). His portrayals of some of the bleakest times in American culture make certain that he filled his place in the world.
Please click here to read several of Hawthorne's works