In this long introduction Hawthorne accomplishes several tasks.
He has just been fired from his job, his mother has died, and he
has a family to support, but in the past he has never been able to
provide for his family by writing alone. He has never written a
successful novel before (Fanshawe was published anonymously
at the author's expense, withdrawn, and almost all copies
destroyed), so he plans a collection of old pieces with this new
long story. Although it seems that Hawthorne intends to make the
book big enough to sell by enlarging this introduction, he had
already written (to Longfellow) that he planned a revenge in print
for his firing. The sketch was given to the publisher January 15, 1850, along with
most of the novel--the final three chapters made it long enough,
and were finished February 3. He bases the book on what is familiar
to him in his birthplace, Salem, Massachusetts, though the story
itself takes place in Boston (where he has also lived).
Hawthorne's first commercially successful book, Mosses from an Old
Manse, appealed to readers because of its engaging
introduction. Readers wanted some way to identify with an
author's personality, and to be able to state that American
authors could be as good as British. So the introduction here
adopts the same intimate tone, and it brings in issues that were
pertinent to Americans of the day--a time when society was changing
rapidly with industrialization, talk of changing roles for women,
revolutions in Europe, blind partisan politics in a democracy at
home, and so on.
Readers were not completely comfortable with a strong work of
pure fiction, though--so Hawthorne makes up a little story about
finding the scarlet letter in an attic. He constructs some fake
authenticity--in fact, all through the book the author plays with
the difference between truth and illusion or fiction--he states
opinions as a narrator firmly and then smudges the impression by
pointing out that readers can have different interpretations. (If
Hawthorne writes that the lighting is poor, that something is
"glimmering" or "dusky," does that mean he is
suggesting you look more carefully at it?) The introduction also
sets a mood for beginning the book.
The author, then, depicts a little society in the Custom House
as degenerate--much too weak and unsatisfactory compared with the
goals and achievements of their Puritan forefathers. In the story
he presents some moral paradoxes that challenge the social
complacency of progress and stability. To write this story
Hawthorne does not report facts, he paints an artistic picture--he
writes what he calls a Romance (note the subtitle of the book).
Thus the book serves both as social criticism by those who see that
in the text, and as a work of art that will outlast the petty
concerns of everyday political life in Salem. However, the
political controversy around Hawthorne's firing, and the
reaction of Salem readers to the telling descriptions of some old
Custom House employees, no doubt boosted initial sales of the book.
In the end, The Scarlet Letter: A Romance was a big
success, the first American novel that made money by popular sales,
and helped to support the author for a few years until he could get
another political job. This introduction is a necessary part of the
work and in itself an example of the best of Hawthorne's
- "P.P., Clerk of this Parish"
- reference to the talkative hero of a literary parody ascribed
to the British author Alexander Pope (1688-1744) or his Scriblerus
Club. The work is part of Memoirs of the Extraordinary Life,
Works and Discoveries of Martin Scriblerus (New Haven: Yale,
1950) Probably Hawthorne read it in the Works of Alexander
Pope, as he checked out the 1808 edition from the Salem
Athenaeum in 1828. Incidentally, in this work P.P. admits to
fathering an illegitimate child.
- tales that make up this volume
- The publisher, James T. Fields, reported that Hawthorne did plan a volume of tales to
include this work, but that he persuaded the author to lengthen the
one story instead (there is some controversy among literary
historians about whether that accounts for the three final
chapters, and thus whether there ever was a shorter version of the
novel). The introduction was not changed, although a footnote was added in
- King Derby ...slcus.html#g03
- "King" Derby (Elias Hasket Derby, 1739-1799) was a
successful Salem merchant who built a large wharf and traded with
China, India, and Russia. The street between the Custom House and
the wharves is named Derby Street after him. By Hawthorne's
day, Derby had been succeeded by other merchants--Simon Forrester
was the richest--but Salem trade dwindled for various reasons,
including disputes with the British navy, and silting problems that
rivals Boston and New York did not have.
- Old Manse ...slcus.html#g01
- The Old Manse (see
"manse") was the scene of a genial
sketch introducing Hawthorne's earlier work, Mosses from an Old
Manse. See also our
web page on the Old Manse.
- Surveyor ...slcus.html#g06
- The Surveyor was the chief civilian officer of the Customs
House, the place where taxes were paid on trade goods. The post was
held by a representative of the King in colonial days, and then
taken over by the federal United States government as a main source
of income (the reference to "Uncle Sam" is to the U.S.
government). Hawthorne was appointed Surveyor in 1846 by President James Polk, a
Democrat, and removed from office after Zachary Taylor, a Whig,
became president in
1849. While Surveyor, Hawthorne laid off a couple of
inspectors, incurring the anger of some political bosses.
- that first ancestor ...slcus.html#g08
- William Hathorne (born 1606 or 1607) came to Salem as a Puritan
Pilgrim in 1630. He signed a warrant for the whipping of a woman.
His son, John Hathorne (1641-1717) was not actually judge at any
witchcraft trial, but did conduct some preliminary hearings.
(Nathaniel changed the spelling of his last name after he graduated
from college, perhaps to make it correspond better with the
- political background
- The politics of the day governed Hawthorne's job as
Surveyor. Hawthorne was a Democrat and supporter of Presidents
Jackson, Polk, and Pierce. Most of the Salem voters belonged to the
Whig party, the successor to the old Federalist Party of John Adams
("the elder Adams" to distinguish him from his son John
Quincy Adams). Hawthorne was also considered by some to be a
radical Democrat (called "Locofoco" after a brand of
matches--in one political meeting in New York someone had turned
off the lights and the meeting was held by matchlight). Even though
Hawthorne tried to use his political connections to get and keep
political jobs, he didn't actively campaign for candidates, and
so here he claims that he was not really an active Democrat. Salem
neighborhoods of the period were more or less controlled by
political machines, complete with parades, clubhouses, newspapers,
elaborate rallies, and jobs for workers.
- Salem background
- Hawthorne, born in Salem July 4, 1804, used hometown
locations for many of his writings (most
famously, The House of the Seven Gables). Here he
gives only a few, none really significant. Gallows Hill is a long
walk to the west of the downtown, and is where some Salem witches
supposedly were hung (see "The
Gentle Boy" for one other reference). New Guinea and the
alms-house were to the east of town, along Derby Street, which goes
east-west between the Custom House on the north side and the wharfs
on the south. The Charter
Street Burying Ground is nearby, next to the house occupied at one
time by the Peabody family, Hawthorne's in-laws. Main Street is
a reference to his story,
"Main Street", 1852 (it was not published with this
novel, in spite of the plan noted here). The Town Pump is a reference to his sketch, "A Rill
from the Town Pump", 1837. Many illustrations are included
in an 1884 article by Julian Hawthorne on "The Salem of Hawthorne".
- American eagle ...slcus.html#g03
- the bald eagle is the symbol of the United States of America
("Uncle Sam"); a gold-painted statue of an eagle is
placed above the front of the Custom House in Salem. Such carved
wooden figures were of course common as ships' figureheads.
Hawthorne wrote a story (in 1844) about one, "Drowne's Wooden Image".
- Matthew, Burns, Chaucer ...slcus.html#g05 ...slcus.html#g30
- Besides Hawthorne, there were other famous revenue agents and
authors: the gospel author Matthew (Matt 9:9), the Scottish poet
Robert Burns, and Geoffrey Chaucer, author of "The Canterbury
Tales". Herman Melville was another, not named here.
- Boreas ...slcus.html#g13
- Boreas, the north wind, or the God of the north wind in Greek
- a certain permanent Inspector ...slcus.html#g17
- William Lee, appointed 1814.
- General Miller ...slcus.html#g12
- General James F. Miller (1776-1851), Collector for 20 or 24
years, was a hero of the War of 1812 on the border with Canada and
is supposed to have uttered the words, "I'll try,
Sir!" when asked to capture a British position. Chippewa and
Fort Erie as well as Fort Ticonderoga are other battlegrounds.
Hawthorne had visited the area and written about it some 20 years
earlier. The familes of both Lee and Miller were deeply offended by
- man of business ...slcus.html#g27
- Hawthorne's friend, Zachariah Burchmore (1809-1894)
- Brook Farm and
- Brook Farm was a Utopian community near Boston where Hawthorne
briefly lived. In contrast to spiritless Salem, Hawthorne had lived
in Concord in the midst of the literary and philosophical ferment
of Transcendentalism. Among his friends there were William Ellery
Channing, Ralph Waldo Emerson, George Hilliard, Henry David
Thoreau, and Bronson Alcott. The poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
had been a fellow student at Bowdoin College and also lived nearby in
Cambridge. Hawthorne took canoe trips with Channing on the Assabet
River in Concord and picked up arrowheads with Thoreau. (See "The Old Manse").
- my name should be blasoned ...slcus.html#g31
- Hawthorne's name, as Surveyor, was stenciled on boxes of
trade goods--see the
picture of an 1847 stencil from the Custom House.
- archives ...slcus.html#g34
- The Massachusetts colonial archives (official records) were
removed from Boston in the evacuation of British troops after
Washington beseiged the city, and taken to the British naval base
at Halifax, Nova Scotia.
- 'Change ...slcus.html#g35
- meaning the Exchange, place where trade was conducted
- Pue ...slcus.html#g35
- This whole tale about Surveyor Pue is fictitious. There was no
scarlet letter, and Hawthorne never found one nor gave it to the
Essex Historical Society. Hawthorne did read the Salem history
book, "Felt's Annals", which says Pue died March 24,
1760, having assumed Surveyorship in 1752. Pue's gravestone can
still be found in the foreyard of St. Peter's Church (just
north of the Peabody-Essex Museum), though not his frizzled wig.
William Shirley served as colonial governor of Massachusetts,
1741-49 and 1753-6. Hawthorne has Pue say that in his time the job
of Surveyor was not political but held for a long time, perhaps by
contract, perhaps for life.
- snow-image ...slcus.html#g46
- A snow-image is what we now call a snowman, a figure made of
snow. See Hawthorne's short story,
- form ...slcus.html#g52
- The verb "form" has been added to the text in
accordance with Ce0162p 279
- decapitated ...slcus.html#g55
- 'decapitated' means having one's head cut off. Of
course, Hawthorne as Surveyor had been civilian head of the Custom
House. He was also head of his family, which was in need of money
now that he was without a job. Besides the allusion to Irving,
there are a few other overtones here. First, the American republic
had managed to transfer power from one President to another fairly
peacefully, while in old Europe kings sometimes had their heads cut
off when they were deposed, as for example in England and France.
Second, 'decapitations' were popular public spectacles for
traveling magic shows in America at that time--shows that often
featured hypnotism and other feats that Hawthorne alludes to in
this work and elsewhere, especially The Blithedale
- Irving ...slcus.html#g55
- "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow", by Washington Irving,
Summary. The author wanders around like a genial host
showing his flowers. He tries to establish a point of view as
narrator, but not so much a creator of fiction as an editor of a
fictitious narrative found in an attic. Meanwhile, he goes on at
length in what appears to be a humorous sketch of his surroundings
in his workplace, the Custom House, but which in fact is a
concealed attack on his political enemies and a self-jusification
as a man and a novelist. He also attempts to give some hints to the
reader about what a Romance is intended to be. This whole scene of
a sleepy, backward port, in a nation in a decay of democracy, will
be contrasted shortly with the vigorous and righteous Puritan
society that was founded to escape from such corruption. Although
Hawthorne was victimized by being fired--just as Hester was made a
victim--he turns the bad event around and writes a great book. But
the book will not be about the dismal reality of this Custom House,
but through his great art, a world existing only in his
imagination, that reflects on his world and on our present one.
Suggested MLA citations to this web page,
HTML code and text.
Use as in ?Help? page citation guide.
Eldred, Eric. <cite>Notes to Introduction, The Scarlet
Letter.</cite> <br />
1999. 23 Sep. 1999. <br />
Eldred, Eric. Notes to Introduction, The Scarlet
Letter. 1999. 23 Sep. 1999.
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