"The most valuable example of the American genius.” The American novelist and short story writer Nathaniel Hawthorne

4 July 1804,  the American novelist and short story writer Nathaniel Hawthorne was born in Salem, Massachusetts. 

“Hawthorne's career was probably as tranquil and uneventful a one as ever fell to the lot of a man of letters; it was almost strikingly deficient in incident, in what may be called the dramatic quality. Few men of equal genius and of equal eminence can have led on the whole a simpler life... He produced, in quantity, but little. His works consist of four novels and the fragment of another, five volumes of short tales, a collection of sketches, and a couple of story-books for children. And yet some account of the man and the writer is well worth giving. Whatever may have been Hawthorne's private lot, he has the importance of being the most beautiful and most eminent representative of a literature. The importance of the literature may be questioned, but at any rate, in the field of letters, Hawthorne is the most valuable example of the American genius.” (Henry James)

A photograph of Nathaniel Hawthorne, taken by Matthew B. Brady
in the early 1860s, a few years before Hawthorne’s death in 1864.

America’s predilection for freedom since the days of the Revolution proved to be a fertile ground for the ideas of the Romantic Movement. And with New England’s Puritan tradition, there was certainly enough constraining religious-cultural tradition on the spot to rebel against and follow in the footsteps of Byron and Shelley. And having an already mystified frontier, noble savages and a dramatic, primordial landscape right in their own backyard, a distinctive American Romanticism began to form already a generation after the nation’s independence, parallel to the movement in Europe and authors like Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper and later Poe emerged as trailblazers of American literature that climaxed into the Transcendentalism of Thoreau and Emerson and the epochal Romantic works of Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Speculations about truth, belief and justification and a profound metaphysical skepticism run like a red thread through Hawthorne’s novels and short stories, centered around the dark places of the individual soul as well as society, crime, punishment, intolerance and alienation. Stemming from old Puritan New England stock, Hawthorne added a “w” to his ancestor William Hathorne’s name, who used to whip Quakers through the streets of Salem and his son’s, John Hathorne, who became the “Hanging Judge” of Salem’s Witch Craze of 1692. Along with the “w”, John’s great-great-grandson Nathaniel superimposed the Romantic perspective on his family’s history and that of New England, and among the heritage of houses with seven gables, goodmen, goodwives, scarlet letters and Puritan obsession with sin and religion, a genuine form of American literature was formed. And Hawthorne’s tales, of “weird and subtle beauty”, as John Greenleaf Whittier put it, and his familiarity with deeper psychology made it a formative act with a bang, heard through world literature to this day.

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