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Young Goodman Brown

Nathaniel Hawthorne

Context

Table of Contents

Plot Overview

Nathaniel Hawthorne was born in 1804 in Salem, Massachusetts, and raised by a widowed mother. His ancestors were some of the earliest settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. John Hathorne (the original spelling of the family name), one of his great-grandfathers, had served as a judge at the Salem witch trials of 1692 and condemned twenty-five women to death. Hawthorne felt both fascination with and shame for his family’s complicity in the witch trials and incorporated those feelings into his fiction, much of which explores the social history of New England and the Puritans.

Hawthorne attended Bowdoin College in Maine, where he met Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who would go on to become a famous poet, and Franklin Pierce, who would become president of the United States. After college, he also met several other important New England writers of the early nineteenth century, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Herman Melville, and Henry David Thoreau. Melville dedicated his masterpiece Moby-Dick (1851) to Hawthorne in appreciation for the help Hawthorne gave him in writing it. Emerson and Thoreau were active in transcendentalism, a religious and philosophical movement of the early nineteenth century that was dedicated to the belief that divinity manifests itself everywhere, particularly in the natural world. It also advocated a personalized, direct relationship with the divine in place of formalized, structured religion. Hawthorne incorporated many elements of transcendentalism into his writing, including the belief in free will as opposed to divine intervention. In 1842, he married a fellow transcendentalist, Sophia Peabody.

Hawthorne held a variety of jobs after college, including editor and customs surveyor, while he began developing his writing. Hawthorne first published “Young Goodman Brown” anonymously in New England magazine in 1835 and again under his own name in his short-story collection Mosses from an Old Manse in 1846. Like most of the stories in Mosses, “Young Goodman Brown” examines Hawthorne’s favorite themes: the loss of religious faith, presence of temptation, and social ills of Puritan communities. These themes, along with the story’s dark, surreal ending, make “Young Goodman Brown” one of the Hawthorne’s most popular short stories. The story is often seen as a precursor to the novels Hawthorne wrote later in his life, including The Scarlet Letter (1850), The House of the Seven Gables (1851), The Blithedale Romance (1852), and The Marble Faun (1860).

In 1853, Pierce, Hawthorne’s college friend, became president and appointed Hawthorne a United States consul. Hawthorne moved to Europe for six years and died in 1864, shortly after returning to America.

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