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BACKGROUND INFORMATION - BIOGRAPHY
Nathaniel Hawthorne, a short story writer and novelist, was one of the foremost writers in America. He was born on July 4, 1804 in Salem, Massachusetts. His Puritan ancestors were the first settlers in the state and included two prominent judges, one of whom was active in the persecution of Quakers in the 1630's and the other in the witch trials. By Hawthorne's time, the family had retired from public eminence. Both his father and grandfather were captains of merchant ships. Nathaniel was a quiet, meditative child and a good student. In 1825, he graduated from Bowdoin College, where his classmates described him as aloof. After college he settled in Salem, like his relatives, and began to write. Much of his fiction is set against the somber background of Puritan New England, the world of his ancestors. His short stories and novels are known for their insight into human nature, especially its darker side.
Between 1825 and 1850, Hawthorne wrote more than 100 stories and sketches for periodicals, many of which were collected into a book called Twice Told Tales, first published in 1837. In 1839, he obtained a position as an inspector at the Boston Custom House, weighing and measuring the goods shipped in and out of the harbor. Distracted from doing any substantive literary work during this period, Hawthorne was glad to be relieved of his job when the administration changed in 1840. In 1841, he moved to Brook Farm Institute of Agriculture and Education, a communal experiment founded by a group of idealistic writers and thinkers associated with the Transcendentalists. There he intended to establish a "mode of life, which should combine enchantment of poetry with the facts of daily experience." He left Brook Farm after eight months. In 1842, he married Sophia Peabody. They took up residence at the famous Old Manse, a house built by Ralph Waldo Emerson's grandfather in Corcord, Massachusetts. The writer was greatly influenced by the atmosphere and history of Old Manse.
During his period in the Old Manse, Hawthorne published his most well known work The Scarlet Letter in 1849. In the spring of 1850, he moved to Lennox, Massachusetts where he began writing The House of the Seven Gables, which was more varied in tone and less somber than The Scarlet Letter. During this period, he also wrote The Snow Image and Other Twice Told Tales (1851), A Wonder Book for Boys and Girls (1851), The Blithesdale Romance (1852), and Tanglewood Tales (1853). Hawthorne was appointed as Consul to England from 1853 to 1857. He was dissatisfied with the job and moved to Italy where he wrote his last complete novel, The Marble Faun, which was published in 1860. He became ill in the spring of 1864 and died in Plymouth, New Hampshire on May 18 of the same year. His body was taken to Concord and buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.
For his novels, Hawthorne drew on Puritan orthodox thought to examine the individual and the collective consciousness under the pressures of anguish and suffering. He sought to dramatize such Themes as sin, guilt and retribution. His writing is marked by introspective depth and an urge to get inside the character he created. As a result, his writing has remained popular and is often taught in high school and college.
During the seventeenth century, there was a widespread belief in witchcraft. Thousands of people were executed and the trials became famous as the "witchcraft trials." Hawthorne's great-great grandfather, John Hawthorne, was one of the judges at the Salem witchcraft trials in 1692. One of the persons who was accused of practicing witchcraft was Sarah Good. She was asked by the judge to confess to being a witch. She denied being a witch and cursed the minister, Mr. Noyes, with the words "God would give him blood to drink." This incident is the basis of Maule's curse in The House of the Seven Gables.
There is a curse upon the house of the Pyncheons and the curse cannot be broken until the sin is expiated. Each generation has a chance to exercise free will to break the curse, but fails to do so. It is only in the nineteenth century that Phoebe helps to bring expiation with her genial and sunny nature. She helps in the transformation of the two Pyncheons occupying the house, Clifford and Hepzibah. They step out of the isolated confines of the house and participate in the common cause of humanity, thus breaking the curse. The Pyncheon clan was deluded into believing that they were superior and important. It was this belief that had made the old Colonel accuse Matthew Maule of witchcraft and seize his property. He died for this sin. Judge Pyncheon too, though seemingly a genial and philanthropic person, has the same trait of greed, and he too dies in a mysterious manner.
Hepzibah and Clifford, though they have never committed any sin, have inherited guilt as their birthright. They believe that they are above the common rung of humanity. The belief in the power of aristocracy would have caused them to suffer further but for the fact that both of them, influenced by Phoebe, change their stance. Holgrave, a Maule, has inherited the gift of prophecy and mesmerism from his ancestors. He does not use this to any evil purpose and is, therefore, saved. Instead of yielding to the temptation of bewitching Phoebe, as his ancestor had done to Alice, he proposes to her, giving her the choice to refuse his offer. He thus saves himself from sin in the eyes of God. In the chapter entitled "Flower of Eden," the death of the Judge releases the innocent from the curse, and the Maule and Pyncheon families are united.