Poverty in “The Minister’s Black Veil” and in Hawthorne’s Life
How many readers have considered that the utter simplicity within the Nathaniel Hawthorne short story, “The Minister’s Black Veil,” might be an expression or reflection of the utter poverty within the life of Hawthorne? It is the purpose of this essay to clarify this issue.
Hawthorne’s impoverishment probably began with the untimely death of his father, and continued until 1857. He had no money for a college education. Gloria C. Erlich in “The Divided Artist and His Uncles” states that “Robert Manning made the essential decisions in the lives of the Hawthorne children and is well known as the uncle who sent Hawthorne to college” (35). After graduation from Bowdoin College Hawthorne spent twelve years in his room at home in an intense effort to make something of himself literarily. The Norton Anthology: American Literature states:
Hawthorne’s years between 1825 and 1837 have fascinated his biographers and critics. Hawthorne himself took pains to propagate the notion that he had lived as a hermit who left his upstairs room only for nighttime walks and hardly communicated even with his mother and sisters (547).
Sculley Bradley, Richmond Croom Beatty and E. Hudson Long in “The Social Criticism of a Public Man” consider his poverty a determining influence in his life: “…a young man engrossed in historical study and in learning the writer’s craft is not notably queer if he does not seek society or marriage, especially if he is poor” (47-48). Fame was slow in coming for the author, likewise prosperity. Clarice Swisher in “Nathaniel Hawthorne: a Biography” explains in great detail the unfortunate financial uncertainty which he survived due to help from a friend:
But when His second set of tales was ready for publication, again Hawthorne could find no one to publish them as a collection. He sent them to Samuel G. Goodrich, the editor of Token, an annual gift book, but Goodrich was interested only in individual stories. Goodrich published one story in 1831, and in 1832 he published “The Gentle Boy” (for which he paid Hawthorne thirty –five dollars) and three others. . . . Though he was getting his work published, Hawthorne complained to Horatio Bridge in 1836 that he could earn no more than three hundred dollars a year by writing stories for magazines and annual gift books. A third collection of tales organized as a collection, The Story Teller, had also failed to win acceptance from a publisher. To supplement his income, Hawthorne worked for a short time as a magazine editor. . . .Hawthorne clearly needed a higher income than he was earning by selling individual stories. Horatio Bridge persuaded him to prepare a collection of his best tales and publish them. . . . Twice-Told Tales, and submitted them to Goodrich. Without Hawthorne’s knowledge, Bridge guaranteed Goodrich $250 against losses. . . . (17).