"Mr. Hawthorne's distinctive trait is invention, creation, imagination, originality—a trait which, in the literature of fiction, is positively worth all the rest," wrote a literary critic named Edgar Allan Poe in a review of Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1846 story collection, Twice Told Tales. "The style is purity itself. Force abounds. High imagination gleams from every page. Mr. Hawthorne is a man of the truest genius."3 Herman Melville echoed Poe's assessment. "There is no man, in whom humor and love, like mountain peaks, soar to such a rapt height, as to receive the irradiations of the upper skies; there is no man in whom humor and love are developed in that high form called genius,"4 wrote Melville, a devoted fan of Hawthorne's.
For Hawthorne, who for years wrote in obscurity, penning stories and novels in the hours after his boring desk job, the praise must have been welcome. Yet despite his success as a writer, friends and acquaintances noticed a brooding side to his character, as though he was haunted by something darker. "In his conversation, as in his books, you feel that there is some bitter fairy, which is biting him all the time, and which he is unable to conceal,"5 his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson said of him. Melville agreed: "For spite of all the Indian-summer sunlight on the hither side of Hawthorne's soul, the other side—like the dark half of the physical sphere—is shrouded in blackness, ten times black. … whether there really lurks in him, perhaps unknown to himself, a touch of Puritanic gloom—this I cannot altogether tell."6
Nathaniel Hawthorne lived most of his life in and around Massachusetts, a place caught between optimistic, forward-looking reform and the strict morality of its Puritan past. The descendant of Puritans, Hawthorne was always conscious of his history. He was painfully shy, rarely socializing with anyone but his beloved wife Sophia. He considered himself too much of a realist to believe in the reforms championed by his Transcendentalist neighbors like Henry David Thoreau and Margaret Fuller. In his fiction, he dwelt on the idea that human nature was fundamentally flawed. Not only would individuals inevitably fall, but the people assigned to judge them were sinners as well. It is a testament to Hawthorne's talents as a writer that he was able to take his pessimistic view on life and turn it into stories that grab our attention with their power and truth.