When in his middle age Nathaniel Hawthorne had become recognized at last for his two full-length romances, The Scarlet Letter (1850) and The House of the Seven Gables (1851), he began to dream an old dream from many years before. In this dream he was still at college, or back at school, where he had been for what seemed a terribly long time while his contemporaries had all left and moved on. It was as if he were arrested in time. And in this dream, he would meet his fellow school-mates or college contemporaries in the street, and he would feel ashamed. At this point the dream would end.
He himself attributed the dream to a phase in his life when, after graduating from Bowdoin College at the age of 21, he returned to his birthplace at Salem, Massachusetts with a vague intention of writing something – stories perhaps – while working in the office of a stage-coach line owned by his maternal uncles, and maybe travelling one day to distant countries. But it seemed to him, as it must have seemed to others, that he had done none of these things, and that he had achieved nothing. The work in his uncles’ office was indefinitely deferred. He never did get to travel overseas until much later. And such writing as he did seemed to him deeply disappointing. He had a juvenile novel called Fanshawe published anonymously, at his own expense, and then recalled as many copies as he could get hold of and burned them. (He became as clear-headed a critic of his own work as anyone has been since.) He wrote sketches and tales, but could not get a publisher interested in putting out a collection of them. He burned the manuscript of another prospective book, and finally seems to have given up hope of publication in book form altogether, settling for piecemeal publication in magazines and Christmas annuals, neither of which paid very well. Moreover, the annuals printed contributions anonymously, so that he could not even acquire a reputation by which to get published more substantially.
He lived with his widowed mother and his two sisters on the third floor of the house owned by one of the uncles, for a period that turned out to be twelve years. His immediate family had been left without means when his father, a ship’s captain, like his father before him, and his father before him, had died of yellow fever in Surinam when he was four years old. Thereafter, the family had to turn to the support of his mother’s family, the Mannings, who were another ancient Massachusetts family like the Hawthornes, but rather more prosperous. It was his Manning uncles who had paid for his education, which consisted of very little of schooling, but did include a college education at Bowdoin, at the time a small new college up in the woods of Maine.
During those years in the Manning house in Salem he began to read, among the annals of the earliest years of settlement in New England, the deeds of his earliest Hawthorne ancestors, brave and stern Puritans as they were – even cruelly so, as it seemed to him. This is as much as to say, the history of the American nation was also, in its earliest beginnings, his own family’s direct history – a family now in long decline, and reduced in his own generation to a condition of dependency. Most of the tales that he wrote are set in New England, either in the 18th century, in the years before the Revolutionary War, as for example “My Kinsman, Major Molineux”, or a hundred years earlier still, as for example “Young Goodman Brown,” which must be set in the period somewhere about the year 1690, just before the communal madness of the notorious Witch Trials. Others such as the ‘Endicott’ stories (“Endicott and the Red Cross;” “The Maypole of Merry Mount”) reach back further still, to the primeval forest of New England, when the first marks that the Puritans made on the North American continent were still raw scars.
Henry Longfellow, a classmate at Bowdoin, and already on the way to becoming the most loved poet in the nation, wrote him a letter in commendation of his first book to be published, Twice-Told Tales (1837). In it, he alluded to Hawthorne’s “lark’s nest” (as he called it) in Salem. “More like an owl’s nest,” Hawthorne wrote in reply; and like the owl, he seldom ventured abroad till after dark:
By some witchcraft or other— for I really cannot assign any reasonable why and wherefore— I have been carried apart from the main current of life, and find it impossible to get back again. Since we last met— which, I remember, was in Sawtell’s room… —ever since that time, I have secluded myself from society; and yet I never meant any such thing, nor dreamed what sort of life I was going to lead. I have made a captive of myself and put me in a dungeon, and now I cannot find the key to let myself out— and if the door were open, I should be almost afraid to come out.
His sense of bemusement is moving. Yet the accounts that he gives of himself do not quite correspond to the observations of others – just as they overlook certain qualities in himself, perhaps because he takes them for granted. With Hawthorne, it is difficult to know where fact stops and imagination begins, as, in the tales, it is difficult to know where the natural daylight world ends and the twilight supernatural world begins, in stories such as “Young Goodman Brown”, “My Kinsman, Major Molineux”, and “The Wives of the Dead.” But his years in Salem were not quite so secluded as he says, neither within the Manning house, where he was in the company of his sisters and their visitors, nor outside of it, where he frequented the Salem bookstore that stocked the latest novels and enjoyed the company of his Salem friends of the Democratic Party. There would seem also to have been flirtations, and in one case a near-duel over a young woman. And in summer he would ride the stage coaches that his uncles owned, all over New England. Some of his friends later would speak of the silences in his company. These silences un-nerved Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was his neighbour – but then Emerson was already a noted orator. And even Emerson would say that there was no unease in Hawthorne’s silences. Much later in life he was appointed to the post of American consul in Liverpool, the principle British port to the Americas. The post was a responsible one, and among other things required of him social as well as administrative skills. He never looked forward to the speeches and the social occasions required of him, and even had to prime himself in order to face them. But just as significant of the man was his complete sufficiency for whatever the position required. The appointment had been a political one, the gift of a college friend who had become President of the nation, but it was a notably successful one.
During the period of his long engagement to his future wife (a long engagement made necessary by their lack of the means), he wrote in a letter:
Here sits thy husband [to be] in his old accustomed chamber, where he used to sit in years gone by, before his soul became acquainted with thine. Here I have written many tales— many that have been burned to ashes— many that doubtless deserved the same fate. This deserves to be called a haunted chamber; for thousands upon thousands of visions have appeared to me in it; and some few of them have become visible to the world. If ever I should have a biographer, he ought to make great mention of this chamber in his memoirs, because so much of my lonely youth was wasted here, and here my mind and character were formed; and here I have been glad and hopeful, and here I have been despondent; and here
I sat a long, long time, waiting patiently for the world to know me, and sometimes wondering why it did not know me sooner, or whether it would ever know me at all— at least, till I were in my grave. And sometimes (for I had no wife then to keep my heart warm) it seemed as if I were already in the grave… But oftener I was happy—at least as happy as I then knew how to be, or was aware of the possibility of being. By and by, the world found me out in my lonely chamber, and called me forth— not, indeed, with a loud roar of acclamation, but rather with a still, small voice; and forth I went, but found nothing in the world that I thought preferable to my old solitude, till at length a certain Dove was revealed to me….
The ‘Dove’ of course is Sophia herself. I note that the playfulness with which he refers to her and himself, here in this letter, but he does not back away either from the tenderness of feeling or the nobility of the love that she has opened up for them both. Hawthorne is a writer who meditates his subject; he turns it around and looks at it from different sides. Here, he is coolly aware of himself in that room as a slightly funny, slightly sad spectacle, waiting for the world to hear of him, but coolly aware of the danger of self-pity or self-justification also. In that room he did burn some of his stories, as we have seen. But others of them were tales such as “Young Goodman Brown” and “My Kinsman, Major Molineux” which, though published later, were written there during those twelve years of seclusion, and doing – so he says – nothing much but read, and sit, and then go walking, and they are tales beyond compare. The qualities of the letter to his wife, above, are qualities that he was able to bring to bear on the strange inner states of the characters in his stories: sympathetic, but ever watchful, even of himself. He says that this room in his uncle’s house was his ‘haunted chamber.’ Well yes, perhaps it would have seemed so when it was the place where in his imagination he had penetrated into so many haunted souls, Goodman Brown’s; Reuben Bourne’s, (“Roger Malvin’s Burial”) – even young Robin’s, in “My Kinsman Major Molineux,” or Margaret and Anne’s in “The Wives of the Dead.” (As for Wakefield’s ‘soul,’ in the story of that name, one does not quite know what to say; but whatever it is, he has penetrated it – a sort of condition of soullessness.) It is in Hawthorne’s measure of greatness to understand the paradoxes of the human soul, his own included; and to understand in his own soul that it is possible even a ‘haunted’ state might just be a form of happiness as well.
Hawthorne died in 1864, with the Civil War still continuing, sickened by the supporters of both sides, and by a war which perhaps contributed to a sense of the futility of the last romances that he had been trying to finish.
According to the note that Emerson made in his journal, the Rev. Clarke, who conducted the funeral service said in his address: “Hawthorne had done more justice than any other to the shades of life, shown a sympathy with the crime in our nature, and, like Jesus, was the friend of sinners.” His remarks are no doubt appropriate to the occasion. But they are also seriously worth pondering. What are we to make of the word “crime”, in the phrase “the crime in our nature”?
 Hawthorne called his full-length stories romances, as distinct from novels.
 An ancestor had been one of the hanging judges at the Salem Witch Trials.