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Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1804-1864

[Online editor's note: Introduction to Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter by Katherine Lee Bates, pp v-xvi, New York: Thomas Y. Crowell's Company, 1902.]


By Katherine Lee Bates

Professor of English Literature,
Wellesley College


THE sight of the Salem Custom-house gives one the same prick of amazed indignation which comes with the vision of fourteenth-century London, "small, and white, and clean," where "nigh the thronged wharf Geoffrey Chaucer's pen" moved "over bills of lading." Yet Hawthorne welcomed his appointment as Surveyor of Customs. It was, he deemed, more necessary to be a man than to be an author. Mosses from an Old Manse did not pay the modest bills of the Old Manse. Hawthorne knew not only present want and the smart of shame before his creditors, but harassing anxiety for the future of those whose protection he had taken upon himself. Blithely and bravely Mrs. Hawthorne wrote to her mother of the household straits: "The other day, when my husband saw me contemplating an appalling vacuum in his dressing-gown, he said he was 'a man of the largest rents in the country, and it was strange he had not more ready money.' Our rents are certainly not to be computed; for everything seems now to be wearing out all at once, and I expect the dogs will begin to bark soon, according to the inspired dictum of Mother Goose." A few months later, in September, 1845, she wrote that Hawthorne's disturbance of mind over his affairs persisted even in face of that philosophy of acquiescence and optimism preached to him by his transcendental neighbor: "It is wholly new to him to be in debt, and he cannot 'whistle for it,' as Mr. Emerson advised him to do, telling him that everybody was in debt, and that they were all worse than he was." The appointment to the Salem Surveyorship, at a salary of twelve hundred dollars, was made the following March, in Polk's administration. Hawthorne was not freed from financial worry, however, until ten years later, when, at last, he could write back to Bridge from Liverpool, "If I die, or am brain-stricken, my family will not be beggars, the dread of which has often troubled me in times past."

Hawthorne seems to have been a Democrat by inheritance rather than by conviction. His father was a Democrat, and as for himself, he nonplussed inquirers by the response, "I don't understand history till it's a hundred years old, and meantime it's safe to belong to the Democratic party." The Whigs had the wealth and culture of New England on their side, and a literary Democrat was still so rare a bird that Hawthorne had already been admitted to a share in the spoils of office. In Van Buren's day, the teller of Twice-Told Tales had spent two years in the Boston Custom-house as weigher and gauger, becoming convinced in that "unblest" employment,--a "profession," he called it, "somewhat akin to that of a chimney-sweep," that "Christian's burden consisted of coal." Lovely fantasies had haunted him even there, on the clattering wharves and on the grimy decks of foreign schooners, but the Journal soon confesses: "I do detest all offices,--all, at least, that are held on a political tenure. And I want nothing to do with politicians. Their hearts wither away, and die out of their bodies. Their consciences are turned to india-rubber, or to some substance as black as that, and which will stretch as much. One thing, if no more, I have gained by my custom-house experience, to know a politician." Yet his knowledge was not so complete, even after his loss of the Boston office on Harrison's succession, but that a movement for his dismissal from the Salem Custom-house, carried through by leading Whigs of the town promptly on Taylor's election, took him by surprise. The stealthy charges against him he could, when be was able to find out what they were, easily refute, but meanwhile his Surveyorship was gone, ill feeling was aroused, and Salem had become to him an "abominable city."

Hawthorne's valediction to his native place constitutes the introductory sketch to The Scarlet Letter, deeply resented by some of his fellow-townsmen, especially by those connected with the Custom House. Hawthorne seems to have been hardly aware, in advance, of how keen an edge his quiet vengeance carried, although he stoutly refused, in his preface to the second edition, to withdraw a single word. He wrote to Bridge, February 4, 1850, while The Scarlet Letter was in press: "There is an introduction to this book giving a sketch of my custom-house life, with an imaginative touch here and there, which may, perhaps, be more widely attractive than the main narrative. The latter lacks sunshine." Perhaps Bridge, when he had read the book, expressed some misgivings about the introductory chapter, for we find Hawthorne writing, April 13: "I am glad you like 'The Scarlet Letter.' . . . As to the Salem people, I really thought that I had been exceedingly good-natured in my treatment of them. They certainly do not deserve good usage at my hands after permitting me to be deliberately lied down--not merely once, but at two several attacks--on two false indictments--without hardly a voice being raised on my behalf; and then sending one of the false witnesses to Congress, others to the Legislature, and choosing another as the mayor.

"I feel an infinite contempt for them--and probably have expressed more of it than I intended--for my preliminary chapter has caused the greatest uproar that has happened here since witch-times. If I escape from town without being tarred and feathered, I shall consider it good luck. I wish they would tar and feather me; it would be such an entirely novel kind of distinction for a literary man. And, from such judges as my fellow-citizens, I should look upon it as a higher honor than a laurel crown."

In that "infinite contempt" discernible beneath what Hawthorne, in his second preface, styled the "frank and genuine good-humor" of this chapter, he betrays, as occasionally in his later work, the warp of his recluse habits. He was not companionable. His mental attitude toward people whom he found distasteful was arrogant. He writes of his associates in the Custom-house as coolly as an entomologist might write of fossil insects. He had observed their sluggish age and incapacity with an amusement which he seems to think that they, and those who loved them, ought to share. That such a "set of wearisome old souls," such an old "animal" of an Inspector, had families, had feelings, had their own human pathos and sacredness, would appear not to have occurred to Hawthorne. In the course of a few months, they had become "but shadows" in his view, "white-headed and wrinkled images," which his fancy "used to sport with" and then "flung aside forever."

Mr. James hails this prefatory chapter as "one of the most perfect of Hawthorne's compositions, and one of the most gracefully and humorously autobiographic." Mr. Lathrop is surprised that "its good-nature and harmless humor" should have "raised great ire in some of the Salem people, who recognized the sketches it contained of now forgotten officials." But Mr. Conway, at pains to note that the old Inspector was dead when The Scarlet Letter came out, and that Hawthorne "may not have known that he had left two daughters," does not fully approve, if only on artistic grounds, this deliberate portrayal of the old man's poverty of spirit. This biographer justifies the general tenor of the sketch as "the earliest exposure of the vicious 'spoils' system," which he considers an ingrain blemish of our "presidential monarchy."

What would have been cold-hearted cruelty in a man of the world comes with a different emphasis from a dreamer, hardly persuaded of reality even in his own little boy and girl. His journal for March, 1848, muses over Una and Julian, just gone to bed: "Thus ends the day of these two children,--one of them four years old, the other some months less than two. But the days and the years melt away so rapidly that I hardly know whether they are still little children at their parents' knees, or already a maiden and a youth, a woman and a man. This present life has hardly substance and tangibility enough to be the image of eternity. The future too soon becomes the present, which, before we can grasp it, looks back upon us as the past. It must, I think, be only the image of an image. Our next state of existence, we may hope, will be more real,--that is to say, it may be only one remove from a reality. But, as yet, we dwell in the shadow cast by time, which is itself the shadow cast by eternity." This is a familiar strain in Hawthorne's Note-Books, even so far back as 1837, when he jotted down: "On being transported to strange scenes, we feel as if all were unreal. This is but the perception of the true unreality of earthly things, made evident by the want of congruity between ourselves and them."

It is a relief to turn from the public aspects of Hawthorne's dismissal to the beautiful story of what it wrought in his intimate circle, where he is always without shadow of reproach.

When Hawthorne came home--not, apparently, on "that wintry day" mentioned in Mr. Conway's biography, but, as the published letters and journals demonstrate, on June 8, 1849--and said to his wife, "I am turned out of office," she bore it as he, going to her with the doomful telegram, had predicted that she would bear it, "like a woman--that is to say, better than a man." His troubled mind was already striving to beat out a new way to a livelihood, "some stated literary employment, in connection with a newspaper, or as corrector of the press to some printing establishment," "perhaps there may be some subordinate office connected with the Boston Athenæm," "writing a schoolbook--or, at any rate, a book for the young," but his wife met his tidings with a smile. "Oh, then, you can write your book "--not a schoolbook, but his book, the romance which, as she knew well, had long been haunting him. But where, he asked, were their bread and rice to come from, while he was writing. And then, in perhaps the proudest moment of her life, Mrs. Hawthorne opened a little drawer and displayed a pile of gold pieces, amounting to one hundred and fifty dollars, which she had miraculously saved out of the small weekly sum allotted her for household expenses. And while her husband still sat amazed before the unsuspected treasure, a gleam as of the Arabian Nights across his clouded way, she had slipped into his study, set out pen and ink and paper,--Mr. Conway will have it that she made a fire, too,--and that. very afternoon Hawthorne began The Scarlet Letter.

He had done very little writing since they had moved, three years before, to Salem. In the house on Herbert Street, "Castle Dismal," where Hawthorne had at first placed his wife and children under the same roof with his mother and sisters, he had been without a study, and separate quarters for the younger family on Chestnut Street proved still too narrow for such a luxury. But in the autumn of 1847 the two Hawthorne households made a united home on Mall Street, where an upper room was reserved for literature. The wife's exultation found expression in a letter to her mother: "My husband's study will be high from all noise, and it will be to me a Paradise of Peace to think of him alone and still, yet within my reach. He has now lived in the nursery a year without a chance for one hour's uninterrupted musing, and without his desk being once opened! He--the heaven-gifted Seer--to spend his life between the Custom House and the nursery!" In this retreat Hawthorne had written a few articles,--a review of Evangeline, The Snow Image, Main Street, Ethan Brand, The Great Stone Face, and he seems to have planned The Scarlet Letter as the principal tale in a volume somewhat akin to the Mosses.

The illness and death of his mother darkened those summer days, and the progress of the romance was interrupted, for while his wife kept the long, sad vigils by the sickbed, the care of the children devolved upon Hawthorne. Some of his most sensitive writing may be found in his July Journal, where he notes the strange mimicry of the two little ones, acting over together, as a new, fascinating play, the scenes of their grandmother's suffering and death. His close observation of Una, the leading spirit in these innocent dramatics, seems to have gone toward shaping his conception of Little Pearl. "There is something," he writes of Una, "that almost frightens me about the child--I know not whether elfish or angelic, but, at all events, supernatural. She steps so boldly into the midst of everything, shrinks from nothing, has such a comprehension of everything, seems at times to have but little delicacy, and anon shows that she possesses the finest essence of it,--now so hard, now so tender; now so perfectly unreasonable, soon again so wise. In short, I now and then catch an aspect of her in which I cannot believe her to be my own human child, but a spirit strangely mingled with good and evil, haunting the house where I dwell. The little boy is always the same child, and never varies in his relation to me."

In the autumn Hawthorne, overworn by the trouble and grief of the summer, fell ill. The financial strain had become tense, but was relieved, in January, by a liberal check, whose amount had been quietly made up by a few friends. Their faith in both his genius and his character was well founded. To Hawthorne, proudest of a proud race, this timely aid was bitter as well as sweet. "The only way in which a man can retain his self-respect," he wrote in reply, "while availing himself of the generosity of his friends, is by making it an incitement to his utmost exertions, so that he may not need their help again."

During the unremitting brain toil of the next three and a half years,--years in which Hawthorne published three of his four romances, a new collection of tales, and his two chief books for children,--the sense of this obligation spurred him on, and he was scarcely installed in his Liverpool consulate before, " the miserable pinch" at last over, he sent back the full sum, with interest, to its donors.

Among the friends moved to seek Hawthorne out in the hour of his distress was the genial publisher, James T. Fields, who tells his own story too well for interruption:--

"In the winter of 1849, after he had been ejected from the Custom House, I went down to Salem to see him and inquire after his health, for we heard he had been suffering from illness. He was then living in a modest wooden house in Mall Street, if I remember rightly the location. I found him alone in a chamber over the sitting-room of the dwelling, and as the day was cold, he was hovering near a stove. We fell into talk about his future prospects, and he was, as I feared I should find him, in a very desponding mood. 'Now,' said I, 'is the time for you to publish, for I know during these years in Salem you must have got something ready for the press.' 'Nonsense,' said he; 'what heart had I to write anything, when my publishers have been so many years trying to sell a small edition of "Twice-Told Tales"?' I still pressed upon him the good chances he would have now with something new. 'Who would risk publishing a book for me, the most unpopular writer in America?' 'I would,' said I, 'and would start with an edition of two thousand copies of anything you write.' 'What madness!' he exclaimed; 'your friendship for me gets the better of your judgment. No, no,'. he continued; 'I have no money to indemnify a publisher's losses on my account.' I looked at my watch and found that the train would soon be starting for Boston, and I knew there was not much time to lose in trying to discover what had been his literary work during these last few years in Salem. I remember that I pressed him to reveal to me what he had been writing. He shook his head and gave me to understand he had produced nothing. At that moment I caught sight of a bureau or set of drawers near where we were sitting; and immediately it occurred to me that hidden away somewhere in that article of furniture was a story or stories by the author of 'Twice-Told Tales,' and I became so positive of it that I charged him vehemently with the fact. He seemed surprised, I thought, but shook his head again; and I rose to take my leave, begging him not to come into the cold entry, Saying I would come back and see him again in a few days. I was hurrying down the stairs when he called after me from the chamber, asking me to stop a moment. Then quickly stepping into the entry with a roll of manuscript in his hands, he said: 'How in Heaven's name did you know this thing was there? As you have found me out, take what I have written, and tell me, after you get home and have time to read it, if it is good for anything. It is either very good or very bad,--I don't know which.' On my way up to Boston I read the germ of 'The Scarlet Letter'; before I slept that night I wrote him a note all aglow with admiration of the marvellous story he had put into my hands, and told him that I would come again to Salem the next day and arrange for its publication. I went on in such an amazing state of excitement when we met again in the little house, that he would not believe I was really in earnest. He seemed to think I was beside myself, and laughed sadly at my enthusiasm. However, we soon arranged for his appearance again before the public with a book."

There must have been some Salem witchcraft about the bureau drawers in that Mall Street house, with their hid treasures of golden coin and still more golden romance; but Mr. Fields defied the Black Art and, better than his word, published the following March (1850) The Scarlet Letter in an edition of five thousand copies. This edition was sold out in ten days, for the book had taken the House of Fame by storm.

The seeds of Hawthorne's magic flowers are usually found, on investigation, to have been sown long before their season of blossoming. His imagination would brood a suggestion for years. When or where be had heard of the Puritan penalty about which this romance centres is not definitely known. Lathrop says: "A friend asked Hawthorne if he had documentary evidence for this particular punishment, and he replied that he had actually seen it mentioned in the town records of Boston, though with no attendant details." Lathrop searched out a law of Plymouth Colony, enacted in 1658, which of itself gives sufficient historical confirmation to the romance: "It is enacted by the Court and the Authoritie thereof that whosoever shall committ Adultery shal bee severly Punished by whipping two several times viz: once whiles the Court is in being att which they are convicted of the fact, and the second time as the Court shall order, and likewise to were two Capitall letters viz: A D cut out in Cloth and sewed on their upermost garments on their arme or backe; and if at any time they shal bee taken without said letters, whiles they are in the Gov'ment soe worne, to be forthwith Taken and publicly whipt."

This grim bit of antiquarian lore, the germ of The Scarlet Letter, had been folded deep in Hawthorne's thought for at least a dozen years, since it is used to add a touch of color to his tale of Endicott and the Red Cross, contributed to The Token of 1838. Here we are made to see a rude meeting-house in the wilderness, with the head of a wolf nailed on the porch. Near by are whipping-post, pillory, and stocks. A man, labelled A Wanton Gospeller, stands on the church steps, beside a woman with a cleft stick on her tongue. In the crowd about are men with cropt ears, slit nostrils, branded cheeks, and one with a halter worn about his neck. "There was likewise a young woman, with no mean share of beauty, whose doom it was to wear the letter A on the breast of her gown, in the eyes of all the world and her own children. And even her own children knew what that initial signified. Sporting with her infamy, the lost and desperate creature had embroidered the fatal token in scarlet cloth with golden thread and the nicest art of needle-work; so that the capital A might have been thought to mean Admirable, or anything rather than Adulteress."

Roger Chillingworth, too, soul-shrivelled by his lurid hate, was no new conception for one who had written in the Note-Book of 1836: "To show the effect of gratified revenge. As an instance, merely, suppose a woman sues her lover for breach of promise, and gets the money by instalments, through a long series of years. At last, when the miserable victim were utterly trodden down, the triumpher would have become a very devil of evil passions,--they having overgrown his whole nature; so that a far greater evil would have come upon himself than on his victim." Several notes of 1837 point toward Arthur Dimmesdale:--

"Insincerity in a man's own heart must make all his enjoyments, all that concerns him, unreal; so that his whole life must seem like a merely dramatic representation."

"A story to show how we are all wronged and wrongers, and avenge one another."

"A man living a wicked life in one place, and simultaneously a virtuous and religious one in another."

In 1838 the Note-Books show that Hawthorne's imagination was still probing the hypocrite:

"Character of a man who, in himself and his external circumstances, shall be equally and totally false: his fortune resting on baseless credit,--his patriotism assumed,--his domestic affections, his honor and honesty, all a sham. His own misery in the midst of it,--it making the whole universe, heaven and earth alike, an unsubstantial mockery to him."

By 1842 the Note-Book is close upon the guilty track of the pale young minister who carried his hand upon his heart:--

"To symbolize moral or spiritual disease by disease of the body; as thus,--when a person committed any sin, it might appear in some form on the body,--this to be wrought out."

And wrought out it was, in The Scarlet Letter, with a terse intensity of horror. Five years later, Hawthorne recalled how he read the last scene to his wife, just after writing it,--" tried to read it rather, for my voice swelled and heaved, as if I were tossed up and down on an ocean as it subsides after a storm." As for Mrs. Hawthorne, that reading "broke her heart, and sent her to bed with a grievous headache,"--a consummation which her husband looked upon as "a triumphant success."

This book, with its compelling tragic power, was no product of eight months, although pen was set to it the eighth of June and, despite mourning, illness, and sordid care, the last sheets went to the printer the third of February next. Its main elements had long been taking form in the mysterious depths of Hawthorne's mind. Its characters are hardly men and women for whose dooms we grieve. They are such stuff as souls are made of,--quintessence of conscience and despair. Open shame and secret sin, waywardness born of broken law, anguish, cowardice, revenge,--these are the midnight glooms so strangely melted into a dream of austere and terrible beauty.


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