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The Birthmark

Nathaniel Hawthorne

Context

Table of Contents

Plot Overview

Nathaniel Hawthorne was born in 1804 in Salem, Massachusetts, to a family descended from Puritans. He was born Nathaniel Hathorne but changed the spelling of his name out of shame after learning that his paternal grandfather, John Hathorne, had been a judge at the Salem witch trials. When Hawthorne was four, his father, a sea captain, died in Dutch Guinea. Hawthorne spent much of his childhood in Maine with his mother, alone and sheltered. He attended Bowdoin College, earning his degree in 1825. Among his fellow classmates were several men who would go on to achieve great things, including poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and President Franklin Pierce. Hawthorne returned home after graduation and tried his hand at writing fiction, calling his efforts “articles” and “tales” rather than stories. Genre fiction was popular at the time, but Hawthorne was interested in going beyond the Indian stories and ghost stories that many magazines were publishing. In 1828, Hawthorne self-published a novel called Fanshawe, which failed to sell many copies and prompted Hawthorne to try to destroy every copy he could find. He succeeded in publishing some of his stories in the United States Democratic Review and the Token, among other publications.

In 1837, Hawthorne published a collection of stories entitled Twice-Told Tales. Two years later, U.S. senator and fellow Bowdoin alumnus Jonathon Ciley appointed Hawthorne to a post at the Boston Custom House. While at this post, Hawthorne became interested in transcendentalism, a philosophical movement led by Ralph Waldo Emerson that emphasized the individual over organized religion. For a time Hawthorne lived at Brook Farm, a utopian community near Boston that attempted to support itself via agriculture. In 1842, Hawthorne married his fiancée, Sophia Peabody, and moved to Concord, Massachusetts, which was also the home of Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Louisa May Alcott. The Hawthornes had three children: Una, who was mentally ill and died young; Julian, who was eventually convicted and jailed for defrauding the public; and Rose, who founded a Roman Catholic group called the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne.

Hawthorne published his second collection of stories, Mosses from an Old Manse, in 1846, which was also the year he quit writing for a time and began working as a surveyor for the Salem Custom House to better provide for his family. His experiences as a surveyor inform his romance The Scarlet Letter (1850), which opens with a description of customs house business. Perhaps his most famous novel, The Scarlet Letter tells the story of a young woman who bears the illegitimate child of a preacher, keeps the father’s identity secret, and is ostracized by her community. During the next several years, Hawthorne published what would become some of his best-known works, including The House of the Seven Gables (1851), The Blithedale Romance (1852), and The Marble Faun (1860). His other works include the children’s books A Wonder-Book (1852), Tanglewood Tales (1853), Grandfather’s Chair: A History for Youth (1841), and Our Old Home (1863). “The Birthmark,” like much of Hawthorne’s work, is set in New England and has a Puritan sensibility. Along with “Young Goodman Brown” (a favorite of Stephen King’s), it is one of Hawthorne’s best-known and most frequently anthologized stories.

In 1850, Hawthorne met the author Herman Melville. The two men were close friends for a time, so close that Melville dedicated his masterpiece, Moby-Dick, to Hawthorne. When his old college friend Franklin Pierce ran for president of the United States, Hawthorne wrote his campaign biography. Pierce rewarded Hawthorne in 1853 after winning the election by naming him the American consul in Liverpool, England. Hawthorne died in his sleep in 1864 at age sixty while taking a trip to the White Mountains with Franklin Pierce.

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