Figurations of Salem in "Young Goodman Brown" and "The Custom-House"
by Rita K. Gollin
Dr. Rita Gollin, SUNY, Geneseo,
photograph by permission of author
Information on Rita K. Gollin. Books by Rita K. Gollin.
(photography by Lou Procopio)
Writers write about what they know. Therefore it is hardly surprising that
Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote about Salem--the town where he was born in 1804 and
where he spent most of the next thirty-three years, the town he returned to
in the fall of 1845 but left forever in the spring of 1850.
There he was born and schooled. There he walked from one end of town to the
other; he clambered along its rocky seacoast and up Gallows Hill; he imbibed
its legends and read about its past. And there in Salem, during what he called
his "twelve lonely years" after graduating from Bowdoin College in
1825, he produced scores of narratives. Among them are self-observing reports
of his own solitary rambles and ruminations including "Foot-prints on the
Sea-shore" and "The
Haunted Mind," genial vignettes of daily life including "A
Rill from the Town-Pump" and "Little
Annie's Ramble," and tales of Colonial Salem including "The
May-Pole of Merry Mount" and "Endicott
and the Red Cross." In many of those tales, he depicts Puritan patriarchs
as self-righteous persecutors of those unlike themselves, Indians and Quakers
among them. And Salem's witchcraft frenzy is central to the darkest of them.
But Hawthorne's densest and most self-revealing yet self-crafting deployment
of Salem materials followed his dismissal as the federally appointed Surveyor
of Customs for the Port of Salem in 1849--the wily introduction to The
Scarlet Letterthat is appropriately yet punningly entitled "The
I. "Young Goodman Brown"
Whatever Hawthorne might have learned
about Salem's witchcraft frenzy during his boyhood, the descendant of
the notorious "witch-judge" John Hathorne pursued the facts
and fantasies of that episode during his post-Bowdoin years--in court
records, in histories including Thomas Hutchinson's History
of Massachusetts Bay (1764), in contemporary
justifications of the episode including Cotton Mather's Wonders
of the Invisible World (1693), in contemporary
vituperations including Robert Calef's More
Wonders of the Invisible World (1700) (which presents John
Hathorne as a ruthless interrogator of the accused), and in Charles
W. Upham's Lectures on
Witchcraft (1831). Not surprisingly, that episode
explicitly surfaces in several of his early narratives.
The autobiographical narrator of the
convoluted tale "Alice Doane's Appeal" informs us that he
often "courted the historical influence" of Gallows Hill,
where the witches were executed. He tells of conducting two young
women there and reading them one of his manuscripts, a melodramatic
tale of patricide, fratricide, and incestuous desire. But he moves
them far more when he conjures up the actual shameful historical
past--a procession of those condemned for witchcraft on their long
walk to Gallows Hill, followed by their frenzied accusers. The
guiltiest is a figure on horseback, so sternly
triumphant, that my hearers mistook him for the visible presence of
the fiend himself; but it was only his good friend, Cotton Mather,
proud of his well won dignity, as the representative of all the
hateful features of his time; the one blood-thirsty man, in whom were
concentrated those vices of spirit and errors of opinion, that
suffered to madden the whole surrounding multitude.
The narrator's virtual procession
abruptly ends at the "barren summit" after he "pictured
the scaffold--" His gentle companions shudder and weep.
Two decades later, in "Main-street"--a
"shifting panorama" of Salem's history contrived by a
"Showman"--Hawthorne would again invoke that same
procession to the scaffold. Another shameful scene precedes it: the
persecution of Quakers, during which a constable "zealous to
fulfill the injunction" of Hawthorne's first American
ancestor--Major William Hawthorne--"puts his soul into every
stroke" on the naked back of Ann Coleman. But far more
horrendous is the procession of accused witches on their way to
Gallows Hill, innocent victims of self-righteous Puritans including
Cotton Mather and William Hawthorne's son John. "The witches!"
the Showman exclaims. "The witches!" Then he invites "us"
to "watch their faces, as if we made a part of the pale crowd
that presses so eagerly about them, yet shrinks back with such
shuddering dread." They feel "horror, fear, and distrust;
and friend looks askance at friend, and the husband at his wife, . .
. as if in every creature God has made, they suspected a witch, or
dreaded an accuser."
But in none of Hawthorne's narratives
is that time of "horror, fear, and distrust" more
powerfully evoked than in a story contemporaneous with "Alice
Doane's Appeal"--"Young Goodman Brown," the story of a
young Puritan who looked "askance" at his wife and came to
suspect that everyone in Salem Village had covenanted with the Devil.
It is a tale structured as a nightmare, one man's but also Salem's.
As one scholar puts it, the breakdown of faith in Salem Village is
enfigured in Goodman Brown, whose willingness to accept spectral
evidence of guilt "could only end in nightmare."
The most specifically personal moment
in the story is pivotal, the moment after Brown has left his Faith
and rendezvoused with the Devil but then wants to turn back. "My
father never went into the woods on such an errand, nor his father
before him," he declares, unnerved by the thought that he would
"be the first of the name of Brown, that ever took this path."
Whether we read the story as a dream vision, a supernatural tale of
witchcraft, a projection of the archetypical Puritan's guilty
fantasies, or all of the above and then some, the Devil's reply is
drenched in Hawthorne's family history: "I have been as well
acquainted with your family as with ever a one among the Puritans. .
. . I helped your grandfather, the constable, when he lashed the
Quaker woman so smartly through the streets of Salem. And it was I
that brought your father a pitch-pine knot, kindled at my own hearth,
to set fire to an Indian village. . . . They were my good friends
both. . . ." Beyond his fictional veil, Hawthorne accuses his
two most eminent ancestors of consorting with the Devil. But the dark
forest where Brown's horrific nighttime adventures occur is more than
the locus of Salem's shameful past, including his ancestors'. It is
also the dark interior of the self in which the author himself often
wandered during his "twelve lonely years" in Salem. The
story's climactic Witches' Sabbath where Salemites await the
initiation of Goodman Brown and his Faith into evil is an analogue of
the Salem witchcraft frenzy. The entire story dramatizes the
either-or mentality which underlay the Puritans' persecution of
Quakers and other non-believers and the events at Gallows Hill. But
it must also be read as a journey into the dark inner reaches of the
During his bachelor years in Salem, as
the occupant of what he called a dream-haunted chamber under the
eaves of his family home on Herbert Street, Hawthorne often took that
journey. By saying so, whether in a tale or a letter, he was mining
his anxieties about his relatively isolated life and his fear that
literary success might forever elude him. Of course, he was
exaggerating a fear that was nonetheless all too pressing, a fear of
psychic self-destruction and separation from healthy community. Years
later, in "The Custom-House," he would put such
self-flagellations into the mouths of his most eminent Puritan
ancestors. But he had found other ways of saying so years before, as
in a letter of 1837 to his college classmate Henry Wadsworth
Longfellow: "By some witchcraft or other . . . I have been
carried apart from the main current of life, and find it impossible
to get back again." "Young Goodman Brown" offers a
variant of that trope. Through Goodman Brown's nightmare journey away
from the main current of life, Hawthorne figured forth the witchcraft
delusions of seventeenth century Salem which he vicariously
experienced. He was also trying to come to terms with what he called
in "The Custom-House" his "inmost Me."
II. "The Custom-House"
Hawthorne wrote "The Custom-House"
at the beginning of 1850--half a year after his ouster as Surveyor
but just before he completed The
Scarlet Letter and a few months before he left Salem
forever. In it, his natal town emerges as a place in decline whose
citizens are in decline, a place whose death in life he had shared,
but from which he has been paradoxically expelled into rebirth. In
that essay, fact is carefully selected and heavily manipulated to
enlist the readers' sympathetic interest and belief. The narrator as
self-described is a genial and apolitical individual who was unjustly
yet providentially ousted from office. The readers he courted had no
way of guessing that his crucial episode of discovering the scarlet
letter--through which Hawthorne was reborn as a writer--was pure
invention. But they could not have missed his scorn for Salem and for
the Salemites who connived in his dismissal as Surveyor.
In his preface to the second edition of
The Scarlet Letter,
which appeared only a month after the first, Hawthorne claimed that
"The Custom-House" was merely a sketch of his "official
life" that had been written in "frank and genuine
good-humor," with no "ill-feeling of any kind, personal of
political." But the many Salemites who attacked the essay in
local periodicals knew better.
In his first two paragraphs, Hawthorne
misleadingly explains why he wrote it. Simply yielding to "an
autobiographical impulse" as he had done in "The Old
Manse," his introduction to the collection of short stories,
Mosses from an Old Manse
(1846), he decided to "seize the reader by the button and talk
of my three years' experience in a Custom-House." Next comes an
absolute falsehood: "a desire to put myself in my true position
as editor, or little more" of The
Scarlet Letter "is my true reason for assuming a
personal relation with the public."
At that point he guides the reader up
to and then into the Salem Custom House. That brick edifice is at the
head of a dilapidated wharf "burdened with decayed wooden
warehouses," he tells us, and above its entrance hovers an
"enormous specimen of the American eagle" who holds, "if
I recollect aright, a bunch of intermingled thunderbolts and barbed
arrows in each claw" and seems apt to "fling off"
those who seek shelter under her wings. The application to his own
case seems all too clear: shelter, and then a wounding ouster. But
whether or not Hawthorne simply misrecollected, the discrepancy
between his description and the actuality might well have been
calculated: the eagle clutches three barbed arrows (and no
thunderbolts) in her left claw; but her right one holds an olive
branch as well as a stars-and-striped shield.
Following up on his initial images of
dilapidation and decay, Hawthorne blames the Port of Salem's decline
on "her own merchants and shipowners, who permit her wharves to
crumble to ruin" by shipping their merchandise through New York
and Boston. But more explicitly insulting is Hawthorne's description
of the soporific Custom House officials lined up in the
entry--ineffectual old men in old-fashioned tipped-back chairs. From
there, Hawthorne takes his "honored reader" into the room
where he worked until he was "swept out of office," again
peppering accurate description (it is about fifteen feet square) with
scornful detail: it is "cobwebbed, and dingy with old paint; its
floor was strewn with grey sand."
In the following paragraphs, Hawthorne
struggles to comprehend the town's emotional hold on him:
Indeed, so far as its physical aspect
is concerned, its flat, unvaried surface, covered chiefly with wooden
houses, few or none of which pretend to architectural beauty,--its
irregularity, which is neither picturesque nor quaint, but only
tame,--its long and lazy street, lounging wearisomely through the
whole extent of the peninsula, with Gallows Hill and New Guinea at
one end and a view of the alms-house at the other,--such being the
features of my native town, it would be quite as reasonable to form a
sentimental attachment to a disarranged checkerboard.
Simply omitting to mention the fine
Federal houses on Chestnut Street, for example, or his own personal
investment in climbing Gallows Hill or walking along the seashore, he
presents his attachment to Salem as a listless, passive response to
his family's "deep and aged roots" there, a "mere
sensuous sympathy of dust to dust."
More important, he still feels haunted
by his first American ancestor, "invested by family tradition
with a dim and dusky grandeur"--William Hawthorne, "who
came so early, with his Bible and his sword, and trode the unworn
streets with such a stately port," a "bitter persecutor"
of the Quakers who "had all the Puritanic traits, both good and
evil." But there is nothing grand or good about William's son
John, who "made himself so conspicuous in the martyrdom of the
witches that their blood may fairly be said to have left a stain upon
him." Next come several surprises. As the descendant of those
ruthless men and in that sense their victim, "the present
writer" takes their shame upon himself and prays that any curse
they incurred--which might account for the family's decline--"may
now be removed." Yet entering their minds and putting words into
their mouths, he berates himself as "a writer of story-books!
What kind of business in life,--what mode of glorifying God, or being
serviceable to mankind. . .,--may that be?" Of course, that
question contains its own implicit answer. Indirectly, Hawthorne was
affirming that whatever his single-minded ancestors might think,
writing was an important vocation. As another twist, the writer who
tells on them also identifies with them: "scorn me as they will,
strong traits of their nature have intertwined themselves with mine."
The notion of hauntedness recurs in
Hawthorne's claim that his return to Salem was a matter of destiny
and doom--as if it were "for me, the inevitable centre of the
universe." He was offering half-truths. In the language of
romance, he said that Providence had brought him to Salem. In the
language of the faculty psychology that he had studied at Bowdoin and
that still permeated his thought, he said it was a healthy change to
"exercise other faculties" at the Custom House than those
of mind and imagination that he had exercised at Concord. But he
failed to say that he had not been able to earn a living wage as a
writer during his idyllic first years of marriage in Concord, and
that he had petitioned influential friends in the Democratic Party
for a patronage job.
Like his explanation of his return to
Salem, Hawthorne's portrayals of Custom Officials are notable for
what they say, how they say it, and what they elide or omit. That
includes his self-presentation as a kindly and apolitical appointee
who "had no great harm in him" and just happened to be a
Democrat, and who did not follow the "received code" that
entitled him to fire Whig appointees. When he casually admits to
abbreviating "the offical breath of more than one"
venerable Custom Official, he omits to mention what party they
belonged to, and ironically claims that he did them a favor: "They
were allowed . . . to rest from their arduous labors. and soon . . .
withdrew to a better world."
Of the three densest portraits in "The
Custom-House," the best known and the most sardonic is the
first--the barely veiled portrait of a man Hawthorne cynically calls
"the patriarch," the "certain permanent Inspector"
whose "moderate proportion of intellect, and the very trifling
admixture of moral and spiritual ingredients" were barely enough
"to keep the old gentleman from walking on all fours," a
man whose most "tragic" memory was of a goose he had carved
twenty or forty years before, so tough that it "could only be
divided with an axe and handsaw." In what was at best a mild
attempt to hide the identity of the still-living William Lee but also
expanding his invective, Hawthorne wrote in his penultimate paragraph
that the Inspector "was overthrown and killed by a horse some
time ago; else he would certainly have lived forever."
James T. Fields--the "literary
partner" of Boston's most eminent publishing firm Ticknor and
Fields, who had secured the unfinished The
Scarlet Letter for publication and convinced Hawthorne to
develop it into a novel rather than publish it in a collection of
stories--heartily welcomed "The Custom-House." Fields was a
shrewd marketer. He knew just what he was doing when he sent advance
sheets to his friend and Hawthorne's, Evert Duyckinck, editor of the
influential New York periodical Literary
World, suggesting that the portrait of the Inspector would
raise roars of laughter. Duyckinck published it and laughter ensued,
though also a roar of complaint. Hawthorne's brag to his friend
Horatio Bridge alludes to the most shameful episode in Salem's past:
his essay had provoked "the greatest uproar since witch-times."
The second of Hawthorne's individuated
portraits--of the venerable General Miller--did not excite uproar.
Beyond the depredations of time, Hawthorne discerned Miller as the
gallant soldier best remembered for his heroic response to a
formidable military assignment in his youth: "I'll try, Sir!"
The third and briefest portrait is of
Hawthorne's unnamed friend Zachariah Burchmore, a man five years his
junior, an honest and efficient "man of business" who was
perfectly adapted to his tasks. But that praise also contains an
implicit criticism: Burchmore was not adapted to anything that
required the higher human faculties of mind and imagination.
As to his own accommodation to his
mind-and-imagination-shrinking Custom House duties, Hawthorne wryly
observes that he had longed to see his name "blazoned on
title-pages," but now "smiled to think" that it was
stencilled on "all kinds of dutiable merchandise" that
moved in and out of the Port of Salem.
At that point, following the multiply
significant pronouncement that "the past was not dead,"
Hawthorne ushers his reader into the "second story" of the
Custom House, literally into a large unfinished room on the second
floor where musty papers were heaped up. This becomes the mise en
scene of a pure invention: Hawthorne's discovery of a package left by
the real Surveyor Pue which included a scarlet letter "A"
twisted about a roll of dingy papers. These papers briefly recounted
the story of "one Hester Prynne, who appeared to have been
rather a noteworthy personage in the view of our ancestors."
According to Surveyor Hawthorne, his "eyes fastened themselves
upon the letter and would not be turned aside"; and he felt
burning heat when he "happened to place" the scarlet letter
on his breast. For anyone who has read The
Scarlet Letter, all these statements resonate with irony.
By the time that Hawthorne made them,
he had already completed all but the final chapters of The
Scarlet Letter, which was unalterably set in Boston. But
the real Surveyor Pue had worked in the Salem Custom House, and
(according to Surveyor Hawthorne), Pue himself had stored the story
of Hester Prynne there. Hawthorne therefore performed a geographical
sleight of hand that seems to have gone unnoticed until now. Instead
of saying that Hester Prynne had lived in Boston, he simply said she
"had flourished between the old days of Massachusetts and the
close of the seventeenth century." By blurring the distinction
between Boston and Salem, Hawthorne was associating his fictive
victim of Boston Puritans with Salem's martyrs of the witchcraft
delusion, and also with another Salem victim--himself.
The invented incident of discovering
Hester Prynne's story recalled his "mind, in some degree, to its
old track," Hawthorne claimed. As he also claimed, he responded
to Surveyor Pue's exhortation to bring that story "before the
public" with words that echo the heroic General Miller's but go
even further. Instead of saying merely "I'll try, sir,"
Hawthorne "said to the ghost of Mr. Surveyor Pue,--`I will!'"
Next comes his memorable and decidedly
autobiographical account of the writer's block he suffered during his
Surveyorship. Not even a sea-shore walk or a country ramble could
revive his imagination, he said--the truth, though not the whole
truth, since he did create the powerful "Ethan Brand" as
well as "Main-street" before his ouster. But his
imagination was simply not up to par, not even on evenings when he
sat alone in a room illumined by a coal-fire and moonlight, striving
"to picture forth imaginary scenes, which, the next day, might
flow out on the brightening page. . . ." In a sense, the Custom
House Surveyor was back in the dream-haunted Salem chamber of his
bachelor days, albeit with a crucial difference. As his references to
a child's shoe, a doll, and a hobby horse suggest, he was now a
husband and father, no longer in danger of being "carried apart
from the main current of life."
Then after expatiating on his
depressing consciousness that his mind and imagination were dwindling
away from disuse--a dreary prospect "for a man who felt it to be
the best definition of happiness to live throughout the whole range
of his faculties and sensibilities"--Hawthorne ironically
celebrated what he called Providence's "better things"--his
ouster from office as a consequence of the Whigs' Presidential
victory. He said nothing about the financial predicament created by
losing his job, and nothing about his repeated attempts to regain it
by making a few truth-stretching claims through influential friends.
His appointment was a consequence of his literary stature rather than
his identity as a Democrat, he assured those friends, and he insisted
that had never used his office to serve the Party. But through a few
truth-stretching claims of their own, a few accurate claims, and a
few outright lies, local Whig leaders convinced their superiors that
Hawthorne had indeed served the Democratic party, and Hawthorne's
ouster was not reversed.
In "The Custom-House,"
Hawthorne masked his bitterness at what he called the Whigs'
"bloodthirstiness" through a black comic depiction of
himself as a martyr. If his images of decapitation invoke the worst
excesses of the French Revolution, his self-presentation as the
martyred victim of bloodthirsty persecutors also invokes the worst
excesses of Salem's witchcraft frenzy. That frenzy was still on his
mind when he told Horatio Bridge that his essay had provoked "the
greatest uproar since witch-times."
But because one of the purposes of his
essay was to balance the sombreness of the novel it introduced,
Hawthorne provided a kind of Grimm's fairy tale ending, declaring
that the decapitated Surveyor--himself--survived his political
guillotining and was restored to what he in fact had always wished to
be--"a literary man." And since he had thereby exorcised
the ghosts of Salem within himself, his condemning Puritan ancestors
among them, he could now become "a citizen of somewhere else."
In a parting shot, Hawthorne said he
had never found in Salem "the genial atmosphere which a literary
man requires, in order to ripen the best harvest of his mind."
He ended with a whimsical hope that is nonetheless drenched in irony:
future Salemites might think kindly of him as the scribbler of "A
Rill from the Town-Pump" (a gentle sketch of Salem's dull
dailiness spoken by the pump, "talking through its nose").
Of course, it goes without saying that
Hawthorne did not really leave Salem even after he moved away in
April 1850. "I must confess, it stirs up a little of the devil
within me, to find myself hunted by these political bloodhounds,"
he had told Longfellow in June 1849, before his ouster was final. If
they succeeded in getting him out of office, he might "select a
victim, and let fall one little drop of venom on his heart, that will
make him writhe." This he did in his second novel, The
House of the Seven Gables, written after he left Salem for
the Berkshires. Its present day villain--the hypocritical Judge
Pyncheon--is based on the Whig leader who had most actively connived
in his ouster from office--Charles W. Upham, a man who until then
Hawthorne had considered his friend. The malevolent Judge
reincarnates a malevolent Puritan ancestor who had incurred a curse
from his victim, the man he had contrived to have executed for
witchcraft during Salem's darkest days. But Hawthorne's portrait of
Judge Pyncheon is only one of the many ways that in his second novel
as in "Young Goodman Brown" and "The Custom-House,"
he configured the town that had shaped him.