The sea-going Puritan line of Nathaniel Hawthorne ran from somewhere close to 1630 all the way down to Nathanielís backbone when he was born on the 4th of July 1804. Hawthorneís great-great-great-grandfather, William Hawthorne, left the Church of England and became a Puritan, moved to the Massachusetts Bay Colony and became a much-feared judge and magistrate. With others he attempted to establish the kingdom of God in and around what came to known as Salem and part of that job included flogging Quakers and when the occasion arose hanging a few of them. His son John Hawthorne followed the fatherly example except that he specialized in the killing of witches (having fallen in love with and marrying a Quakerís daughter). He dug up the evidence against these people and left the court to try and then hang them while he sat on his horse watching the executions. Nineteen of them were hanged, both men and women, and eighty-year old Giles Cory was pressed to death. Nathaniel Hawthorne never got free from what he considered was the family guilt and ancestral shame. He himself cared little for Quakers but he despised the hard Calvinistic Puritanism and took more than one occasion in his literary career to flay the movement with his verbal whip. In his short story The Maypole of Merry MountHawthorne didnít exactly takes sides with the revelers whom he knew had to be brought into line but neither did he make the Puritans the heroes. Their life and religion was too much death and suppression of life for Hawthorne.
On Nathanielís motherís side there had been scandal that shook the entire area when it occurred. His mother was Elizabeth Clarke Manning and the brother of her great-grandfather was Nicholas Manning whose wife accused him of incest with his two sisters. Nicholas skipped town before the trial and his two sisters had to appear in public and to go to church with the word INCEST pinned to their bonnets.
Hawthorne spent about ten years reading, scribbling and preparing himself for a writing career and because it was so long in coming he gained the reputation locally as a shiftless idler. He met, fell in love with and a few years later married Sophia Peabody in 1842. He had been hoping by this time that he would have been established as a writer but financial security was long in coming and when it did it didnít stay long. He had written some pieces for newspapers and magazines but the income was meagre. Good friends stood by him, worked hard for him and got him a job as Surveyor of Revenue in Boston but when the Whigs got Zachary Taylor voted in as President, Hawthorne, a Democrat, was kicked out of the jobóunemployed again and now with a wife and two children. It was at this troublous time that he wrote The Scarlet Letter. This was the book that made his name and the one by which we know him today.
He became a friend of Herman Melville who was later to become famous with Moby Dick and Billy Budd and other books. Melville needed Hawthorne more than the more the reserved Hawthorne needed him but it was Hawthorne that opened up a realism that Melville had been groping toward. Both men were well acquainted with Ralph Waldo Emersonís worship of Man and his boundless optimism that he built on the innate goodness of Man. But Hawthorne retained too much of his ancestral guilt to stomach Emerson for too long and then there was the testimony within his own family that corruption ran deep even in the best of men and women. Melville was too dependent and spoke too freely of their friendship and that didnít suit Nathaniel who for years had wandered around at dusk in Salem hardly speaking to anyone but his widowed mother. In the Custom House sketch that opens The Scarlet Letter he shows that he isnít at all in favour of too much personal disclosure. They drifted apart and the last time they met was when Hawthorne was in England doing consular work for America and they met as though they were strangers. Hawthorne returned to America and his health deteriorated. He died when he was sixty. There was a darkness about Hawthorne, and an unspoken need, that may be more than hinted at in his writing and revealed in his withdrawn choice of limited socializing.
As The Scarlet Letter and his other work reveal, Hawthorne hated the Puritan suppression of Nature and all things natural. He despised the religious intolerance, the vindictive spirit and its capacity to generate cruelty in people. He made a hero of a woman who exposes a Puritan community for the bitter and cruel colony it is and in doing this he exposes the hyper-Calvinistic God. (What kind of God can create children for no other purpose than to eternally consciously torment them because it pleases him to do so?) The adulterous woman who has natural desires woven into her character compares favorably with her chaste neighbors and their life-denying religion. The heart-broken and cowardly (and yet genuine) young minister Arthur Dimmesdale is so suffocated by his Puritan religion that he cannot even profess hope about his eternal salvation. This was Hawthorne's verdict on Calvinism!