Nathaniel Hawthorne


Nathaniel Hawthorne was one of the greatest Anti-Transcendentalist writers of
all time. He utilized his writings to express his dark, gloomy outlook on life.
Hawthorne, a descendant of a puritan family, was born in Salem,
Massachusetts. Some of his ancestors included a judge known for the harsh
persecution of Quakers, and another judge who played an important role in the Salem
witchcraft trials. Hawthorne’s attitude was molded by a sense of guilt, which he traced
to his ancestor’s actions. After college, Hawthorne lived, secluded, for 12 years in his
mother’s house. He then published Twice Told Tales which didn’t sell very well, yet at
the same time, established him as a well known and respected author. He became
good friends of two Transcendentalist writers of the period -- Ralph Waldo Emerson
and Henry David Thoreau. He also taught the only other Anti-Transcendentalist writer
of his period -- Herman Melville. His most popular book, The Scarlet Letter, earned
Hawthorne international fame. He died in his sleep while on a walking tour in New
Hampshire.
The period of time during which Hawthorne wrote was the New England
Renaissance in America. By the year 1840, it was clear that the American experiment
in Democracy had succeeded. England, trying again to retake their old land in ‘The
Second American War for Independence’, was no longer a threat to the survival of the
republic. Andrew Jackson, the first “people’s president”, had served 2 terms in office.
New states were entering the Union. One French observer stated that Americans
had, “a lively faith in the predictability of man”, and that they, “admit that what appears
to them today to be good may be superseded by something better tomorrow.”
There were two types of writing styles during Hawthorne’s life --
Transcendentalism and Anti-Transcendentalism. Many of the authors of the period
were influenced by the transcendental movement, which was flourishing at the time.
Transcendentalists believed that intuition and the individual conscience transcend
experience and were therefore better guides to truth than are the senses and logical
reason. They respected the individual spirit and the natural world, believing that
divinity was present everywhere. Anti-Transcendentalists, like Hawthorne and his
apprentice Melville, focused instead on the limitations and potential destructiveness of
the human spirit, rather than on it’s possibilities. The major reason that Hawthorne
was an Anti-Transcendentalist was that, haunted by the cruelty and intolerance of his
Puritan ancestors, Hawthorne viewed evil as one of the dominant forces in the world.
Some of that evil is portrayed in his stories by his use of allegories --
characters, settings, and events that have a symbolic meaning. Allegories are usually
used to teach or explain moral principal universal truths. Dimly seen and mysterious
truths were the ones to be found in Hawthorne’s allegories. He sought for those truths
in an area that has hardly been explored even today -- the human heart and mind.
Hawthorne believed that the natural world around us, as well as ordinary humans,
contained dark places that the cold light of reason alone could not break through.
Relating directly to allegories is Hawthorne’s use of symbolism in his stories. This is
very evident in The Scarlet Letter where he uses setting and characterization to create
an image of the various characters who each symbolize a different human trait.
The Minister’s Black Veil is the first of Hawthorne’s stories in which the
confrontation of a central symbol generates a principle of dramatic coherence and
organization. The story is primarily about the effects and meaning of the Reverend
Mr. Hooper’s veil. It takes this meaning from what it signifies about the human
condition, the consequences is has on Hooper, and the characters who try to interpret
it’s meaning. The focus in the story is on the meaning of the veil, not on Hooper’s
motives for wearing it. Because Hooper donned the veil, his emotional life was then
ended, and the areas of human experience in which he might have participated in,
effectively extinguished. Exemplifying the “power of blackness” in Hawthorne’s work
was Young Goodman Brown. The main purpose of this narrative tale is to move the
protagonist toward a personal and climatic vision of evil, leaving in it’s a rubble and
prevailing feeling of distrust. From Goodman Brown’s dream vision or his spectral
adventure in the