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Hawthorne Biography
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Nathaniel Hawthorne
Biography Chronology

Biography (1804-1864)

Nathaniel Hawthorne
Nathaniel Hawthorne in an undated photograph, probably taken—judging from his hollow cheeks and gray hair—near the end of his life. Reproduced by permission of  CORBIS/Bettmann.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, who once described himself as "the obscurest man of letters in America", achieved success as a writer only after a steady and intense struggle. During the early years of his career, this self-assessment was mostly accurate, but the publication of The Scarlet Letter in 1850 marked the beginning of Hawthorne’s reputation as a major American writer. His novels and short stories have entertained and challenged generations of readers; they have wide appeal because they can be read on many levels. Hawthorne skillfully creates an atmosphere of complexity and ambiguity that makes it difficult to reduce his stories to a simple view of life. The moral and psychological issues that he examines through the conflicts his characters experience are often intricate and mysterious.

Hawthorne’s personal history was hardly conducive to producing a professional writer. Born in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1804, Hawthorne came from a Puritan family of declining fortunes that prided itself on an energetic pursuit of practical matters such as law and commerce. This Puritan strain in Hawthorne’s upbringing and his own deep suspicion that a literary vocation was not serious or productive work would become a recurring theme in his writing.

Despite these misgivings, Hawthorne was determined to become a writer. He found encouragement at Bowdoin College in Maine and graduated in 1825 with a class that included the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Franklin Pierce, who would be elected president of the United States in the early 1850s. After graduation Hawthorne returned to his mother’s house in Salem, where for the next twelve years he read New England history as well as writers such as John Milton, William Shakespeare, and John Bunyan.

During this time he lived a relatively withdrawn life devoted to developing his literary art. Hawthorne wrote and revised stories as he sought a style that would express his creative energies. Writing did not provide an adequate income, so like nearly all nineteenth-century American writers, Hawthorne had to take on other employment. He worked in the Boston Custom House from 1839 through 1840 to save money to marry Sophia Peabody, but he lost that politically appointed job when administrations changed. In 1841 he lived at Brook Farm, a utopian community founded by idealists who hoped to combine manual labor with art and philosophy. Finding that monotonous physical labor left little time for thinking and writing, Hawthorne departed after seven months.

After their marriage in the summer of 1842, Hawthorne and his wife moved to the Old Manse in Concord, Massachusetts, where their neighbors included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Amos Bronson Alcott, and other writers and thinkers who contributed to the lively literary environment of that small town. Although Hawthorne was on friendly terms with these men, his skepticism concerning human nature prevented him from sharing either their optimism or their faith in radical reform of individuals or society.

Hawthorne worked in the Salem Custom House from 1846 until 1849, when he again lost his job through a change in administrations. Free of the Custom House, Hawthorne was at the height of his creativity and productivity during the early 1850s. In addition to The Scarlet Letter and The Blithedale Romance, he wrote The House of the Seven Gables (1851); The Snow-Image and Other Twice-Told Tales (1852); a campaign biography of his Bowdoin classmate, The Life of Franklin Pierce (1852); and two collections of stories for children, A Wonder Book (1852) and Tanglewood Tales (1853).

Hawthorne’s financial situation improved during the final decade of his life. In 1853 his friend President Pierce appointed him to the U.S. consulship in Liverpool, England, where he remained for the next four years. Following a tour of Europe from 1858 to 1860, Hawthorne and his family returned to Concord, and he published The Marble Faun (1860), his final completed work of fiction. He died while traveling through New Hampshire with ex-President Pierce.


1804 Born on July 4 in Salem, Massachusetts.

Hawthorne’s father, a sea captain, dies in Surinam, Dutch Guiana, leaving the family dependent on relatives.


Attends Bowdoin College in Maine. Franklin Pierce (later to become president) and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow are classmates. Graduates eighteenth in a class of thirty-eight.

1828 Publishes Fanshawe: A Tale anonymously at his own expense.

Publishes numerous stories in periodicals anonymously or pseudonymously, collected in Twice-Told Tales.

1838 Becomes engaged to Sophia Peabody.
1839–40 Works in Boston Custom House.
1841 From April to November, lives at the utopian Brook Farm Community.
1842–45 Marries (eventually has three children) and lives at the Old Manse in Concord, Massachusetts, where he meets Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.
1846–49 Works as a surveyor in the Salem Custom House.
Publishes his second collection of stories, Mosses from an Old Manse.
1850 Publishes The Scarlet Letter; becomes a friend of Herman Melville.
1851 Publishes The House of the Seven Gables; The Snow-Image and Other Twice-Told Tales; and True Stories from History and Biography.
1852 Publishes The Blithedale Romance; A Wonder Book for Girls and Boys; and The Life of Franklin Pierce, a campaign biography.
1853–57 Serves as United States Consul at Liverpool on appointment by President Pierce.
Publishes Tanglewood Tales.
1857–59 Lives in Rome and Florence.
1860 Publishes The Marble Faun; returns to Concord.
1863 Publishes Our Old Home: A Series of English Sketches.
1864 Dies on May 19 at Plymouth, New Hampshire.

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