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Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Scarlet Letter

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For more than a century and a half, The Scarlet Letter has been an icon of U.S. literature. It has been summarized, analyzed and discussed so extensively, that any further words about it seem to be dispensable — all that preoccupation with this fascinating book, however, should not distract from the simple fact that, even more than being studied, it deserves to be read.

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About the Author

Nathaniel Hawthorne was born in Salem, Massachusetts in 1804, the son of a sea captain who died when Hawthorne was 4 years old, and the great-great-grandson of one of the leading judges at the Salem witch trials of 1692/93, the only one who is reported never to have repented his actions. Hawthorne later added a “w” to his birth name, which had been Hathorne, to distance himself from this heritage.

Hawthorne’s satirical essay The Custom-House, which serves as an introduction to The Scarlet Letter, is largely autobiographical, though it makes no mention of his family. Hawthorne had married the painter Sophia Peabody in 1842; both being reclusive persons, their marriage turned out to be a long and happy one, and at the time of his dismissal from the Custom-House job, two of their three children had already been born.

Hawthorne had long been a writer of short stories, and had, at the age of 24, anonymously published a novel, Fanshawe (which he later disowned), but it was The Scarlet Letter that, in 1850, became an immediate success and established him as one of the major American writers. He wrote two more novels, The House of the Seven Gables (1851) and The Blithedale Romance (1852), before moving to England with his family, where from 1853 to 1856 he held the prestigious and well-paid position of U.S. consul in Liverpool, due to his friendship with the newly elected president Franklin Pierce. After this appointment ended, for one and a half years Hawthorne and his family traveled through France and Italy, where he found inspiration for his last novel, The Marble Faun (1860).

At the time of their return to Massachusetts in 1860 Hawthorne’s health had begun to fade. Hawthorne died in 1864, on what had been meant to be a recuperative trip, which he had been taking together with his friend Pierce.

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