Notes to The Custom-House, The Scarlet Letter

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 He has never written a successful novel before (Fanshawe was published anonymously at the author's expense, withdrawn, and almost all copies destroyed), so he plans a collection of old pieces with this new long story.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 writing.

"P.P., Clerk of this Parish" ...slcus.html#g03
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 ...slcus.html#g02
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 explanation.
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 pronunciation.)
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 mythology
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 Hawthorne's characterizations.
man of business ...slcus.html#g27
Hawthorne's friend, Zachariah Burchmore (1809-1894)
Brook Farm and Hawthorne's friends ...slcus.html#g28
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, "The Snow-Image".
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 Romance.
Irving ...slcus.html#g55
"The Legend of Sleepy Hollow", by Washington Irving, 1819.

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.


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