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Hawthorne at Salem

Literary Career

Welcome to the Novel Section

Title page of 1878 edition of <I>The Scarlet Letter</I>
Title page of 1878 edition of The Scarlet Letter (courtesy of James R. Osgood and Co.)
Hawthorne’s first novel was nearly lost to the world; if Hawthorne had had his way, it would have vanished. He tried to destroy all copies of the book, just as he destroyed drafts of all his fiction and early correspondence. Hawthorne’s first novel, entitled Fanshawe: A Tale was published anonymously by the Boston firm Marsh and Capen in 1828. The setting is a college, not unlike Bowdoin, and the story focuses on the ambition and romance of its loner hero, Fanshawe. In her biography, Hawthorne: A Life, Brenda Wineapple notes that Fanshawe “anticipates Hawthorne’s ethereal loners, the passive clergyman Dimmesdale in The Scarlet Letter and the half-baked poet Miles Coverdale in The Blithedale Romance (65).

After receiving favorable reviews of short stories published in various magazines and in collections, Hawthorne still was struggling financially and unable to support himself and his family through his writing in the early 1840s. In 1846 he accepted a political appointment as Surveyor of the Port at the Salem Custom House, but while he now had a salary, the stultifying atmosphere at the Custom House kept him from doing much writing. A change in the political administration led to his firing from his Custom House position in the summer of 1849, at about the same time of the death of his mother. Perhaps it was the combination of these two events that caused the creative burst shortly thereafter that resulted in the novel The Scarlet Letter, a tale of the public shame of the adulteress, Hester Prynne, the tortured guilt of her lover, the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, and the vengeful prying of Hester’s husband, Roger Chillingworth, a name he takes when he arrives in Boston to disguise his identity when he discovers his wife’s infidelity. The novel, published in 1850, was admired by contemporaries and called by some later critics the first truly American novel.

The creative flood unleashed by The Scarlet Letter produced two more novels in quick succession: The House of the Seven Gables in 1851 and The Blithedale Romance in 1852. The House of the Seven Gables is set in the present, not the past as is The Scarlet Letter, but the past plagues the characters of this novel as a curse handed down from the days of the witchcraft trials, hangs over the Pyncheon family who reside in the house of the title. In The Blithedale Romance, published in 1852, was inspired by Hawthorne’s participation in Brook Farm, a utopian community outside Boston, although in the preface to that novel Hawthorne refutes any direct connection between his life at Brook Farm and the events of the novel. His novel was not, he asserted, meant to stake out a position on socialism. In his biography entitled Nathaniel Hawthorne in His Times, James R. Mellow notes that in this novel Hawthorne “dispensed with much of the heavy machinery of allegory that had encumbered a good deal of his earlier fiction. And, despite the trafficking in spiritualism and séances, there are fewer Gothic devices—no ancestral portraits, no family curses—in The Blithedale Romance” (393). He also observes that “at the moment when Melville (with Hawthorne as exemplar) was becoming openly allegorical, Hawthorne [was] pursuing the fictional possibilities of the actual” (393).

The last novel that Hawthorne completed was The Marble Faun, written while he was in Italy and published first in England under the title Transformation in 1860. Hawthorne draws on his friendship with the American sculptors William Wetmore Story, Louisa Lander, and Harriet Hosmer, all of whom Hawthorne and his wife met while living in Italy, for character portrayals in this novel. The book was favorably reviewed but left some readers bewildered by its uncertain ending. Wineapple says, “Like Rome, then, The Marble Faun is a series of fragments…,” and she adds, “Plotline and character and rumination and guidebook are shored against one another—not just like an unfinished picture but also like the body parts strewn throughout the novel, statues without noses skulls, a model of Hilda’s hand, and the headless Venus discovered in the Campagna” (327).

Three unfinished novels by Hawthorne were published posthumously: Septimius Felton in 1972, The Dolliver Romance in 1876, and Dr. Grimshawe’s Secret in 1883.