Skip to Main Content

Hawthorne at Salem

Literary Career

Welcome to the Section on Children’s Books by Nathaniel Hawthorne

"Midas' Daughter Turned to Gold" illustration by Walter Crane (opposite p. 62) (courtesy of Terri Whitney)
Hawthorne began writing his first children’s stories in 1840 and published them in a volume at the end of that year entitled Grandfather's Chair: A History for Youth. According to one Hawthorne biographer, it was “a woman at the House of the Seven Gables [who] suggested that Hawthorne write about ‘that old chair in the room; it is an old Puritan relict and you can make a biographical sketch of each old Puritan who became in succession the owner of the chair’” (qtd. in Miller 172). The original edition was only 3”x5” as it was designed to fit in the hands of a child. It did not feature any illustrations, but the subsequent printings did.

It was Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, Sophia’s sister, who published these stories when the original publisher, Nahum Capen, withdrew for some reason; Brenda Wineapple reports that it was because of the amount of time it was taking Hawthorne to complete the work (143). Peabody, who seems to have been the one who encouraged Hawthorne to write children’s books, urged Hawthorne to continue the series, which he did, producing Famous Old People: Being the Second Epoch of Grandfather's Chair and Liberty Tree: With the Last Words of Grandfather's Chair, both published in 1841.

While garnering favorable reviews in the Salem press and praise from Margaret Fuller in the Dial as well as from Evert Duyckinck in Arcturus, these works sold few copies. Fuller said about A History for Youth: “We are glad to see this gifted author employing his pen to raise the tone of children’s literature; for if children read at all it is desirable that it should be the production of minds able to raise themselves to the height of childhood’s innocence, and to the airy home of their free fancy” (qtd. in Idol and Jones 47). Fuller does end the review, however, by saying, “Yet we must demand from him to write again to the older and sadder, and steep them in the deep well of his sweet, humorous musings” (qtd. in Idol and Jones 47). After quoting some lines from Grandfather's Chair: A History for Youth, Duyckinck declares, “We might go on and quote the whole volume with pleasure, for never can there be better words on our page than those of Nathaniel Hawthorne!” (qtd. in Idol and Jones 48).

In 1842 Ticknor, Reed, and Fields published another history book for children by Hawthorne, Biographical Stories for Children, which features historical figures such as Benjamin Franklin, Sir Isaac Newton, Samuel Johnson, and the painter Benjamin West. While this work also met with disappointing sales, all of Hawthorne’s children’s tales thus far enjoyed greater success when Ticknor, Reed, and Fields reissued them all under a new title: True Stories from History and Biography.

Hawthorne finished his next book for children, a rendering of mythological tales entitled A Wonder-Book for Girls and Boys, in the summer of 1851, the same time that Melville was completing Moby-Dick. Fields published a version with engravings by Hammat Billings in 1852. As John L. Idol explains in the lecture he prepared for the Hawthorne in Salem Website, this book was published in many editions which featured drawings by highly regarded illustrators such as Walter Crane (1892), Maxfield Parrish (1910), Arthur Rackham (1922), and Valenti Angelo (1927).

The narrator for these tales is Eustace Bright, a student at Williams College; she recounts the Greek myths of Perseus, Midas, and Pandora, among others, to children whom Hawthorne gives names reminiscent of the fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Milkweed, Buttercup, Sweet Fern, Squash-Blossom, and Periwinkle. Unlike his early children’s books, this book sold well, and so in the summer of 1852 Hawthorne conceived a sequel: Tanglewood Tales for Girls and Boys: Being a Second Wonder-Book, but he did not write that book until November, after he completed the campaign biography for his friend from Bowdoin days, Franklin Pierce.

Tanglewood Tales was published in America in 1853 by Ticknor, Reed and Fields and in England by Chapman and Hall. In this volume Hawthorne presents six myths: “The Minotaur,” “The Pygmies,” “The Dragon’s Teeth,” “Circe’s Palace,” “The Pomegranate Seeds,” and “The Golden Fleece.” Hawthorne seems to have been quite pleased with the result as he boasts that these tales are “’done up in excellent style, purified from all moral stains, re-created as good as new, or better—and fully equal, in their way, to Mother Goose. … I never…did anything else so well as these old baby stories…’” (qtd. in Miller 388). In 1921 the Penn Publishing Company in Philadelphia printed an edition with lovely illustrations by Virginia Frances Sterrett.

Note: In 1837 Hawthorne also edited Peter Parley’s Universal History on the Basis of Geography, a two-volume work published by Samuel G. Goodrich. This book was used by schools, and many copies were sold over a period of twenty years. Peter Parley, a pseudonym, was listed as the author, and the title page said, “For the use of families and schools.” Engraved map illustrations were by A.G. Findlay.

Works Cited

  • Idol, Jr., John L, and Buford Jones. Nathaniel Hawthorne: The Contemporary Reviews. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994. Web.
  • Miller, Edwin Haviland. Salem Is My Dwelling Place. Iowa City: U of Iowa Press, 1991.
  • Wineapple, Brenda. Hawthorne: A Life. NY: Knopf, 2003.