SALEM, Mass. – The statue of Nathaniel Hawthorne stares toward the sea, stern and humorless as he surveys a hometown for which he had little fondness, but has no chance of ever leaving.
Two hundred years after his birth, Hawthorne remains alive in Salem, as in literary circles everywhere, a topic of debate as enduring as his stony downtown visage.
It’s no surprise to scholars that a man whose work Herman Melville considered “deep as Dante” remains relevant while contemporaries have faded from view. His appeal, they say, is partly rooted in the inscrutability of both his life and his writings.
Hawthorne was famously ambiguous when writing about prevailing American morals. The author himself also remains difficult to pin down. Was he a dark loner or political hack? Creator of America’s first feminist character or a sexist? A family man or a neglectful husband?
The answers change from one biographer to another and Hawthorne himself might not have known, according to his wife, Sophia.
“Mr. Hawthorne hid from himself even more cunningly than he hid himself from others,” she wrote.
The 200th anniversary of Hawthorne’s birth has brought a new occasion to tackle his legacy.
Already, in Greater Boston, lecture series are under way, and more events are planned leading up to a July 1-4 conference of the Nathaniel Hawthorne Society, which 200 scholars are expected to attend in Salem.
“His literary stock has never gone down,” said Brenda Wineapple, author of a new biography, “Hawthorne: A Life.”
“The academy, for better or worse, credits him in some ways with inventing the American novel,” she said.
“The Scarlet Letter,” Hawthorne’s 1850 tale of adultery and hypocrisy, was praised as the first major American novel. He later wrote “The House of Seven Gables,” “The Blithedale Romance,” and “The Marble Faun.”
He also wrote sketches and short stories, including “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” “The Minister’s Black Veil,” “The Birth-mark,” and “Young Goodman Brown.”
Hawthorne was born in Salem on July 4, 1804, and lived there much of his life until 1850. But he was disenchanted by a chilly social atmosphere and famously referred to one of three houses he lived in the city as “Castle Dismal.”
Hawthorne did allow for some affection for Salem because of deep roots there, but wrote, “It is not love, but instinct.”
Hawthorne’s ambivalence about Salem isn’t shared. The custom house he described in an essay introducing “The Scarlet Letter,” and the mansion that inspired “Seven Gables” are tourist attractions today.
“This place is intent on claiming him,” said Salem State College professor Arthur Riss, a Hawthorne scholar. “It’s not quite clear how much Hawthorne is interested in claiming Salem.”
Hawthorne was a descendant of John Hathorne, the unrepentant judge who condemned accused witches to death during Salem’s infamous witch trials of 1692.
Hawthorne is said to have added the “w” to his name because of shame about his ancestry, but there’s little evidence to back that up. Others have suggested he did it simply to emphasize how his name is pronounced.
It’s one example of many things we can’t know about Hawthorne, Riss said.