"Hawthorne's controversial preface to The Scarlet Letter,
'The Custom-House,' once considered vaguely 'introductory' but nevertheless
irrelevant to the novel itself (and in fact often omitted), is now regarded
as essential to its understanding. First, it clearly dramatizes the author's
own vocational struggle as an imaginative writer in a profession scorned by
his Puritan ancestors and carried out here, in this dust-ridden custom house,
in what he sees as a land of the dead, a society dominated by the past, disdainful
(like the Puritans) of an idle life devoted to fiction, and inclined to honor
only commercial success: not to make money here is to exist without honor, status,
or vocation. Second, the story of Nathaniel Hawthorne among these people in
the nineteenth century is clearly linked by analogy with that of Hester, Dimmesdale,
and Pearl in the seventeenth century (147).
From the very first in the preface, both the Custom House and the town of Salem are presented as places of sterility, emptiness, shadows; places of the living dead….And beyond that, the general life of the community is dead as well, its main street 'lounging wearisomely through the whole extent of the peninsula' and its once lively trade having been allowed to wither. To cap it all off, the most famous historical site is a place of death: Gallows Hill, where they hanged the 'witches' in the seventeenth century. Finally, the Custom House itself is dead…(148).
Not only is the town a place of decay and death; the people who inhabit it are all but dead themselves: ancient men with one foot already in the grave who, when they come to work at all, spend their time snoozing in tipped-back chairs like lizards in the sun (149).
Perhaps as the most ominous aspect of the place, however, the narrator comes to see that his own life is influenced and shadowed by the dead, specifically, by his own ancestors, whom he seems to regard with both shame and pride. They were among the cruelest of the Puritans, especially in their harsh treatment of the Quaker women and the Salem 'witches' (150).
Contrasted with these elements of death in the preface is the prospect of creativity, especially as it is manifest in his imagination-his vocation as a writer. He gives up his literary creativity (which is his rightful vocational 'life') when he leaves Concord and his literary friends to make money in Salem. In 'The Custom-House' he looks back with something like nostalgia to that former life, and he yearns to have a creative, imaginative life again.
It is not until he is fired (which he compares to being beheaded), and so thrown out of the land of the dead, that he is able to resurrect himself as a human being and writer of fiction. Finally, in the last paragraph of the preface, while he contemplates this fully restored life, he replaces the death image of Gallows Hill, where the witches were hung, with the life-giving and renewing image of the town pump, which he believes he has made famous in one of his sketches by that name (152).
'The Custom-House' not only chronicles the author's spiritual suffocation in a stifling environment; it also connects analogously with the novel that follows. In each is a world controlled by age. Old men set in their ways, whose youth is far removed in an ancient past and whose harshness or inertia serve to stifle everything young and creative, determine the tenor of life.
The primary connective occurs when the narrator claims to have climbed into the attic, where, guided by the ghost of the former surveyor, he finds the ragged scarlet letter, along with the story of Hester Prynne in manuscript. Then, placing the faded letter on his breast, he feels it burn (41). The import of this is inescapable: the narrator feels the same inward fire that stirred in Hester Prynne; indeed, metaphorically at least, he wears a scarlet letter of his own. He, like Hester, is a creator, an artist, the kind of person scorned by societies of rigid and immovable old men… (153).
Both these accounts, especially as they involve the narrator and Hester, are stories of survival. While Hester suffers intensely, suppressing her passionate nature, losing her faith, and becoming in many ways deluded about herself and her situation, she is still able to survive…. The narrator of 'The Custom-House,' however, seems troubled by his inability to survive in Salem, this nineteenth-century land of the dead… (154).
The narrator's denial of his past (one might say his 'true') vocation as a
creative writer and his pretense that he is only an editor of The Scarlet
Letter link him inevitably with Dimmesdale, who also attempts to deny
his creative nature by denying that he is Pearl's father. But while Dimmesdale
consciously seeks to be something more than human in trying to simulate sainthood,
the narrator of the preface is terrified that he will become less than human….
There is also a similarity between Dimmesdale's mounting the scaffold at
the end to publicly claim Pearl as his daughter and Hester as his lover and
the narrator's imaginary ascent to the Custom House attic to decide that he
will write the story of Hester Prynne, reclaiming his own true relationship
to his art… (154).
One of the most surprising parallels between the novel and the preface is the similarity between the narrator of 'The Custom-House' and the villain of the novel, Chillingworth. Both men use deception and 'black magic' to achieve revenge. Chillingworth uses his 'black art' to control Dimmesdale, the target of his vengeance. The narrator of the preface uses his 'black art' of writing to hold up to public ridicule the town of Salem as well as the man who worked in the Custom House and who managed to get him fired…" (155).