Witchcraft at Salem Village. Engraving. The central figure in this 1876 illustration of the courtroom is usually identified as Mary Walcott. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Sometimes famous quotes are clandestinely autobiographical as illustrated, perhaps, by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s famous, “Families are always rising and falling in America.” My own theory as to why Hawthorne might have said that lies in his own past.
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Nathaniel himself was a direct descendant of one of the judges in the 1692 Salem Witch Trials, William Hathorne. However, by the time Nathaniel was born in Salem in 1804, the family had lost its wealth and prominence in the community and Hawthorne required the financial assistance of his uncle in order to attend college. Specifically, Hawthorne attended Bowdoin College where he was elected to the Phi Beta Kappa society.
Wikipedia describes his journey to school and the people he met while there:
On the way to Bowdoin, at the stage stop in Portland, Hawthorne met future president Franklin Pierce and the two became fast friends.Once at the school, he also met the future poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, future congressman Jonathan Cilley, and future naval reformer Horatio Bridge.
Hawthorne added a ‘w’ to his name, presumably in order to disassociate himself from his famous ancestry who had been Puritans and ranking officials in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. At the age of 46, Nathaniel Hawthorne published The Scarlet Letter.
Wikipedia describes the Scarlet Letter’s publication:
“Hawthorne returned to writing and published The Scarlet Letter in mid-March 1850, including a preface which refers to his three-year tenure in the Custom House and makes several allusions to local politicians, who did not appreciate their treatment. One of the first mass-produced books in America, it sold 2,500 volumes within ten days and earned Hawthorne $1,500 over 14 years.The book was immediately pirated by booksellers in London and became an immediate best-seller in the United States; it initiated his most lucrative period as a writer.One of Hawthorne’s friends, the critic Edwin Percy Whipple, objected to the novel’s “morbid intensity” and its dense psychological details, writing that the book “is therefore apt to become, like Hawthorne, too painfully anatomical in his exhibition of them”,though 20th century writer D. H. Lawrence said that there could be no more perfect work of the American imagination than The Scarlet Letter” ‘
Nathaniel Hawthorne is a household name due to the man’s talent, work ethic, and also to the dynamics of American culture which enabled him to meet interesting people in college and climb the socioeconomic ladder. The name Hathorne, by contrast, has largely been lost to history.
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One of my favorite parts of American culture is its love of meritocracy and with that comes individualism. In the Roman Empire it was also true that families would rise and fall, but it didn’t often happen within a generation as it did with Hawthorne. That, I believe, is what Nathaniel was observing.