Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman (the chairmen of Transcendentalism) wrote from personal insights gained through direct experience. Nathaniel Hawthorne painted portraits of America’s colonial past. Dissatisfied with the stagnating, etiquette-ridden culture of his time, he wrote of the plight of the Native American, the state of the environment, and the need for human individuality amidst the stifling demands of society.
Born in Salem, Mass. on the 4th of July, 1804, Hawthorne was a gifted storyteller, though he didn’t learn to read until 1815. Developing into a young renaissance-man, Hawthorne left Salem and studied at Bowdoin College in Maine, where he became friends with other promising young men such as the future poet Longfellow and the future President Franklin Pierce. After college, Hawthorne spent years writing and wandering throughout the Massachusetts countryside. Settling in Waymouth, he self-published his first novel, Fanshawe, in 1828.
With no assistance of any kind, Hawthorne lived in poverty; the book went unnoticed. His short stories had more success, and the publication of Twice Told Tales launched him into the ranks of “miniature celebrity”, validating his all too recently unknown writings.
Critical and popular acclaim was no longer an obstacle, but Hawthorne concluded that fame did not suit him. Moving to the Brook Farm Transcendentalist commune in 1841, Hawthorne developed “The Essayist within”, as he once put it, meeting and collaborating with Ralph Waldo Emerson on “The Dial” magazine.
Hawthorne left the commune and took residence in Concord in 1942. It is here that he completed and published The Scarlet Letter (1850), easily his pies de resistance.
Hawthorne maintained a life-long friendship with Franklin Pierce, who shared his charitable consience. Pierce offered Hawthorne a diplomatic position in Europe in 1853, days after being sworn into office.
Traveling the continent, promoting peace, understanding and non-violence, Hawthorne wrote a new novel that dealt with war’s atrocities. Entitled War of the Roses, it would not be published until years after his death, alongside a second unpublished work composed mostly of essays written during a varying span.
During his autumn years, Hawthorne began writing memoirs. He died of causes which remain unknown to this very day, at the age of 59. By the end of the 1860s, War of the Roses, Articles, Additional Articles and Memoirs had all been published.
Hawthorne’s polite cynicism has become a valuable litmus test for critical authors of all shapes and sizes, up to and including the modern age.