It’s almost a rite of passage in high school: your English teacher takes out Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic American novel The Scarlet Letter, and you, as a student, have to slog through the antiquated prose and story for several weeks. Friends and family don’t remember the book fondly, but recently, I’ve begun to understand just how critical The Scarlet Letter and its author was within the larger canon of American literature, but also to the foundations of the American speculative fiction tradition.
Born on July 4th, 1804 in Salem, Massachusetts, Hawthorne was a direct descendant of some of the first European colonists to settle in the United States from England. His ancestors were Puritans, and his great-great-grandfather, John Hawthorne, presided over the Salem witch trials in the 1690s. As an adolescent, Hawthorne enjoyed writing, and studied at Bowdoin College in Maine. After he graduated, he continued to write, sending stories to magazines, such as “Young Goodman Brown,” “The Minister’s Black Veil,” and “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment,” many of which were set in Puritanical New England, and which carried some vaguely supernatural or speculative elements. In 1837, he collected a number of short stories, into a well-received collection called Twice-Told Tales, and began work at the Boston Customs House in 1839.
Hawthorne relied on his job at the Customs House for a reliable income, but it was a politically-appointed position. When the Whig Party won in the 1848 Presidential Election, his fortunes changed, and he was fired. His mother died a week later, and he fell into a deep depression. It was in this mindset that he began to write his most famous novel, The Scarlet Letter. In the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition, Washington University professor Robert Milder writes that Hawthorne wrote the novel in six weeks, “which he wrote with a speed and intensity astonishing in light of what he recalled as his ‘very nervous state’ and his typically labored literary practices.” He completed the book in February 1850, and it went on sale that spring.
Hawthorne published his book as the publishing industry was taking off in the United States. The 1840s saw the introduction of new technologies and dedicated publishers that provided editing and book-binding for authors, according to Philip F. Gura in Truth’s Ragged Edge: The Rise of the American Novel. Moreover, books could be mass printed, transforming a labor-intensive process into a mechanized one. The United States was also experiencing a revolution in infrastructure, which allowed for said books to be distributed to a growing nation. Authors such as Hawthorne and Washington Irving were able to take advantage of these changes to distribute their books throughout the country, which likely accounts for some of their influence: they were more widely read by their contemporaries than their predecessors.
Hawthorne’s novel sold out its initial 2500 volume print run immediately and was reprinted. The Scarlet Letter was well-received by critics, who proclaimed that Hawthorne was one of the most important figures in the country’s literary community, and a worthy successor to Irving.
The novel is set in 1642 in Puritanical New England, where a young woman named Hester Prynne is forced to wear a red letter A on her dress as punishment for adultery. She’s publicly humiliated by her community, but refuses to name the father of her child. Her husband — thought lost at sea — returns and tries to discover who the father is, interrogating Hester and a minister, whom he begins to suspect is the culprit. The novel examines themes of guilt and seduction and how those closed-knit Puritanical communities dealt with those who stepped outside of acceptable boundaries. Hawthorne drew on his own family’s history with these themes, and growing up in Salem, he would have been familiar with these practices.
Hawthrone passed away on May 19th, 1864 in Plymouth, New Hampshire, but his legacy would long outlive him: his stories and their themes would prove to be incredibly important in the growing canon of American Literature. Writing in the introduction of his Library of America anthology American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to the Pulps, author Peter Straub reflected on the Puritans and their lives in New England at the founding of the country, and how that influenced the later strains of speculative fiction centuries later: “These grim, suspicious people lived in small communities located at the edge of the original first-growth American climax forest. In every way, this seems to me of crucial importance. What did they see in that forest, in that teeming darkness? Everything, we might say, that was not themselves, everything that threatened them most profoundly.” He goes on to outline that these experiences were critical to the stories of authors such as Hawthorne, and others, such as Herman Melville, Robert E. Howard, and Clark Ashton Smith. Similarly, celebrated author Joyce Carol Oates explains in her own introduction to American Gothic Tales, that the Puritanical experience and worldview provided plenty of material for the country’s earliest authors and helped to form the basis of the Gothic literary tradition in America. These stories included elements of the supernatural, but acted as morality stories, with authors such as Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe spinning out stories that blended the supernatural with the moral beliefs of the Puritans and their descendants. The combination makes this tradition more than just mere ghost stories: they function as social, religious, and moral commentary. In his book, Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction, Brian Aldiss notes that Hawthorne largely falls outside of the realm of the modern genre, but explains that “the theme of evil’s permanent existence in a society dedicated to the idea of infinite progress is obviously of central relevance to SF today.”
Thus, Hawthorne and his contemporaries can be considered early forerunners to the authors who would go on to define the Gothic and Weird traditions, such as Robert E. Howard or H.P. Lovecraft, who would become monumentally important to horror fiction in the 20th Century. Later authors, such as Stephen King, Margaret Atwood, (who’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale owes much to Hawthorne and the Puritanical experience) and Shirley Jackson owe much to their forbearers, often reinterpreting and updating the genre by writing about the horrors in closed-knit communities, and the people who run afoul of them.