Hawthorne sets his story in the early eighteenth century in Massachusetts’ Bay Province, and his two principle characters, Margaret and Mary, learn of their husbands’ fate through men who visit them at their home. As one can imagine, news traveled slowly more than three hundred and fifty years ago. British censors kept a tight grip on what could be printed, and attempts to disseminate information that was not sponsored by the British government was forbidden. In 1690, for example, the governor of Massachusetts shut down Benjamin Harris’s independent newsletter, Publick Occurrences, Both Foreign and Domestick, almost immediately because of its perceived threat to power. The first successful newspaper publisher in the colonies was William Campbell, postmaster of Boston, whose News-Letter was launched in 1704 to keep people in the Bay Colony apprised of world events. This changed to the Boston Gazette in 1719. Benjamin Franklin’s older brother, James, who printed the Boston Gazette, founded Boston’s New England Courant in 1724. By the middle of the century, two dozen newspapers flourished in the colonies including the Philadelphia American Weekly Mercury, the Pennsylvania Gazette, the Maryland Gazette, the Charlestown South Carolina Gazette, and the NewYork Gazette. As newspapers spread, the colonies began to assert their freedoms and separate themselves from Britain. In 1735, John Peter Zenger, the publisher of the New-York Weekly Journal, was acquitted of criminal libel, something virtually unheard of in England. “Freedom of speech or of the press” was to become part of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1791.
French and Indian War
The “Canadian warfare” in which Margaret’s husband supposedly dies refers to the numerous conflicts and wars between the British and the French for control of North America. Both allied themselves with different Indian tribes, among them the Iroquois and the Algonquin. In the early eighteenth century, France held claim to most of what is now Canada and the land along the Mississippi River, extending all the way down to Louisiana. The British, seeking to wrest control from the French, often staked claim to the same land. English and French hostilities led to the outbreak of Queen Anne’s War, which lasted from 1702 until 1713. Hostilities erupted again with the outbreak of King George’s War (1744-1748), and then the French and Indian War (1754-1760). Much of the fighting in Canada took place in Nova Scotia and Cape Breton, parts of New France that had been ceded to England by a previous treaty. A few years after King George’s War, the French began building forts in the Ohio River Valley and positioning troops in Canada, and the British sent expeditions against them. As colonists from Pennsylvania southward battled in the Appalachian region, colonists from New York and New England fought the French and Indians in Canada. Driving the French from Canada became crucial if Britain was to continue its expansion in North America.
Nineteenth-Century Literary Culture
“The Wives of the Dead” was initially published in The Token, a publication known as a giftbook. Gift-books flourished in nineteenth-century America and England from the 1820s through the 1850s. They contained poetry, prose, and illustrations, and were elegantly produced, often with colored plates. The Token came out in the fall but had the coming year on its cover, so shoppers could buy it for either Christmas or the New Year season. In addition to Hawthorne, writers such as Edgar Allan Poe and Ralph Waldo Emerson published in giftbooks, often anonymously. Women edited many gift-books. For example, Lydia Maria Child edited Looking Towards Sunset (1865) and The Oasis (1834); Sarah Josepha Hale, who penned the children’s poem “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” edited The Opal in 1845,1848, and 1849; and Lydia Sigourney edited the Religious Souvenir in 1839 and 1840. Though these books were popular, their authors were often poorly paid. Hawthorne himself struggled throughout his life to make money at his writing, while writers of sermons, sentimental novels, and patriotic essays often fared much better. Hawthorne vented his anger and expressed his envy of the success of women writers such as Maria Susanna Cummins in the 1850s when he wrote to his publisher complaining of the ‘ ‘damned mob of scribbling women.” Ironically, literary historians and critics mark the span 1828-1865 as the American Renaissance in literature, as writers such as Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, Harriet Wilson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Herman Melville, Hawthorne, and Edgar Allan Poe helped to carve out a distinctly American body of work.
Carol Ullmann (Editor) Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 15, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Published by Gale, 2002.