Nathaniel Hawthorne was born on July 4, 1804, in Salem, Massachusetts, to a family that had been prominent in the area since colonial times. Hawthorne’s father died when he was only four years old. At the age of fourteen, Hawthorne moved with his mother to a lonely farm in Maine. He later attended Bowdoin College, graduating in 1825. Hawthorne spent several years after college writing, eventually self-publishing his first novel, Fanshawe, anonymously in 1828. The novel was a failure, and by the late 1830s Hawthorne was forced to support himself by working at the Boston customhouse. Nevertheless, by the mid-1830s Hawthorne had managed to become part of New England’s literary scene, spending much of his time with the leaders of the influential Transcendentalist movement. His circle of friends included Transcendentalist pioneer Ralph Waldo Emerson and Herman Melville. Hawthorne lived at a time of restlessness and transition, and his writing reflects American society on the move. The House of the Seven Gables is filled with predictions of sweeping change, particularly of a world made more mobile by trains and the telegraph. A few of the characters even state that they see their world shifting toward a more connected, mobile age.
In 1842 Hawthorne married Sophia Peabody, a friend of Emerson and other Transcendentalist writers, and the newlyweds settled in Concord, Massachusetts, where Hawthorne resumed writing. In 1850 he published The Scarlet Letter, which enjoyed critical acclaim and became an instant commercial success. The House of the Seven Gables appeared the following year and fared even better—its initial sales exceeded even those of The Scarlet Letter. Ultimately, however, The House of the Seven Gables proved less popular with both readers and critics. Nonetheless, the two books together made Hawthorne a wealthy man.
The Transcendentalists were nonconformists who placed great faith in the capacity of human thought. They believed spirituality existed most profoundly in nature and reason. The Scarlet Letter is considered one of the leading literary works of the Transcendentalist age. Yet Hawthorne was not a devoted follower of Transcendentalism, and he had difficulties with the movement’s optimism and idealism. Compared with Melville’s Moby-Dick and Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, one of the works that defined Transcendentalism, Hawthorne’s work seems closer to the American Gothic movement of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century.
The Gothic genre preoccupied itself primarily with dark brooding themes of romance, passion, and human fallibility. A mildly cynical and pessimistic view of human nature pervades Hawthorne’s novels, and he frequently explores human flaws like hypocrisy and immorality. The Scarlet Letter, for example, has an adulterous preacher as one of its main characters, and the Pyncheon family at the center of The House of the Seven Gables holds many dark, deadly secrets, despite their social prominence. The novel also boldly blends realism and fantasy. Hawthorne himself called The House of the Seven Gables a romance, arguing that romances were not bound by the ordinary course of human experience.