MY title should be explained, I wish to approach Hawthorne’s masterpiece through “The Old Manse” and “The Custom House,” the two great prefaces he wrote. In those prefaces, the one composed by way of introduction to “Mosses from an Old Manse” (1846) and the other as “introductory to The Scarlet Letter” (1850), Hawthorne unforgettably sketched himself as author. In terms of actual composition, “The Scarlet Letter” lies somewhat between the prefaces, for, although Hawthorne did not write all of “The Scarlet Letter” before composing “The Custom House” (as once was thought), he clearly wrote enough of it so that it could be said to lie between the two in the order of writing. Yet chronology of composition is not so important as the order of form. The one is the life of the artist ; the other is the life of art.
When we think of the life of art we are thinking about what for Hawthorne was primary and causal, not secondary and resultant. It is just this audacity of Hawthorne which Frederick Crews in “The Sins of the Fathers,” an excellent book on Hawthorne, does not fully face. He will have Hawthorne’s life the cause of his art, even though his book is primarily concerned with Hawthorne’s fiction, not his life. Thus, for all his illuminating treatment of the fiction, Crews is probing the motives behind the characters’ action, peering through the veil to read the unwritten scroll, and as he fixes on the motives of the characters he is both implying and implicating a shadowy Oedipal figure of Hawthorne behind the tales.
I have no intention of complaining about these implications. Crews has made his interpretation, an interpretation is a choice, and the tangled area of dark prior motive, will, decision, and doubt is precisely the world which Hawthorne invented. If Hawthorne himself could read Crews, were he not too shy to offer a comment, he would welcome the interpretation as a distinct possibility, for he would find in Crews’ peering scrutiny something of the passionate fixation of an Ethan Brand looking for the Unpardonable Sin. The same Hawthorne, were he to read my version of his art, would surely cast upon it a veiled eye of similar intent—for I too have an interpretation, though the Hawthorne I am seeking is the one before, not behind, his art.
Having acknowledged so much, I may as well begin by seeing my Hawthorne as a man whose art caused his life— whose art, in other words, was the primary cause of the world he invented. The best way to see what I mean is to begin with the shape of his career up to the time of “The Scarlet Letter.” He began by retiring into his room for twelve years. There he became a writer, beginning with the anonymous publication of “Fanshawe,” a brief and thoroughly conventional novel, and then contracting his form for the remainder of his time in the dismal chamber. The contraction may have been there from the beginning for all that we know, since it has not been determined whether Hawthorne wrote “Fanshawe” before he wrote a group of tales he intended to publish under the title “Seven Tales from My Native Land.” In any event, not until “The Scarlet Letter” itself did he expand his form anywhere near the length of what may well have been his first sustained effort as a writer. Hawthorne’s contraction and concentration, aside from journalistic excursions into hack writing, took two forms, as everyone knows : the sketch and the tale. Although there was no great distinction between the two forms in Hawthorne’s time (after all, Irving had included what we would call tales in a book of sketches, and Hawthorne was to include what we would call sketches in a book of tales), it is nevertheless true that Hawthorne’s own work defines a distinct difference between them. He even makes them represent poles of his imaginative experience—the one inclined toward genial light, the other toward shadowy gloom.
More important, his power, at least to subsequent generations, has seemed to gravitate toward one pole and not the other. This does not mean that the sketches are unnatural for him. They are utterly characteristic and are generatively related to his dark side. Yet the sketches seem to be withdrawals of power, as if they themselves were disclaiming ambiguity and attempting to subdue the gloom of the tales. Missing in the sketches is the presence of an inner action of a character which the style pictures, pursues, analyzes, and judges. Substituted for such an action is the activity of the author seeking for, perceiving, and sketching his subject. The sketches are thus miniature portraits of the artist. But they portray the artist as author, not the artist as Hawthorne. Though the sketches, unlike the tales, almost always employ first-person narration, that person is the Conventional Author, genteel and circumlocutory, whom the style indulgently, even ironically, patronizes. The indulgence is not extravagant, as it often is in Irving, but it is pronounced enough to disclose and socialize the Author in a kind of rôle playing. It would be very wrong to dismiss the sketches as trifles. Again and again—as in “Fancy’s Show Box,” “Earth’s Holocaust,” “The Haunted Mind”—the Author is brought to the verge of dark reflections, as if he were at the threshold of imagining an action. Yet the style and structure of the sketch tend always to convert the incipient action into a fantasy or a whimsical speculation—the exaggerated, even trivial, play of a delicate and hypersensitive mind.
In the tales quite another kind of play takes place. The frivolous attitudinizing, the whimsical teasing, and the defensive ironies of the indulgent Author dissolve into their powerful counterparts—tentative speculation, suggestive ambivalence, and haunting doubt. Gone is the Conventional Author, displaced by a quietly powerful narrator occupied in both seeing and overseeing the action. The hypothetical speculation, ambivalence, and pervasive doubt, far from being the sensitive narrator’s characteristic picture of experience, disturb the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief by projecting a rational consciousness to question and enlarge the fictive realm.
“The Minister’s Black Veil” will serve as a perfect emblem of Hawthorne’s art of the tale. Though the tale is about a minister, who, for some reason, puts on a veil and thus arouses his congregation to suspicion about, speculation upon, and penetration into the tangled region of motivation, the tale is, in effect, itself the veil between the act it represents and the meanings it suggests. By obscuring the meanings, it creates a multiplicity of interpretations, converting fixed intention into dubious possibility. The veil thus causes the story, almost as if it were itself the author, and the reader is doomed to follow every member of the congregation, fixing upon one or another of the Minister’s possible motives. To attempt such an interpretation is to fulfill the action of the story; it is to perceive intellectually, and from a privileged position, what the members of the congregation feel as a threat, a symptom, an enigma, or an affliction.
The emblem thus precedes and causes experience, just as art is itself the cause of experience for Hawthorne. To see this priority of art for Hawthorne is to begin to understand the twelve years he spent in what he called his “dismal chamber.” He went in Hathorne the man and native of Salem and for twelve years made his inventions his primary experiences. Those inventions he published in an anonymous trickle during all that time, and when he had published enough from which to choose a volume he emerged into the sunlight with a collection of tales and a signature: Hawthorne. He thus had recovered the old spelling of his name which the American experience had deleted. The recovery did not mean that he had returned into the past—there is never a whit of nostalgia in Hawthorne, nor is he antiquarian in outlook—but that he had laid claim to an aspect of the past which another and more dominant aspect of the past had suppressed. The point is important, for unless we see that Hawthorne did not return into the past we shall continue to see him as a Puritan rather than what he had become, an Artist. As artist, his claim on the past involved a transformation of history into fiction—a transformation both powerful and dubious. Indeed, it was Hawthorne’s genius to make the doubtful truth of fiction a momentous moral question and an inescapable part of his power.
The next great step in his career after “Twice-Told Tales” was his second great collection of tales, “Mosses from an Old Manse,” which appeared eight years later. What distinguishes this second collection from the first is the presence of an extended preface to the volume entitled “The Old Manse.” If with “Twice-Told Tales” the artist had stepped into public light with a signature, in the preface to his Mosses, he decisively sketched the character of himself as author. Indeed, “The Old Manse” represents the fulfillment of the sketch form, since it clearly is an extended sketch, though it is not integrally related to the tales and sketches which follow it. As a matter of fact, the collection itself could, in the absence of the introductory sketch, have constituted a third volume of “Twice-Told Tales,” Hawthorne having in the years between already added to his original collection a second and much larger edition. But the sketch, if it fails to make a great difference in the contents of the volume, does represent a revelation of the artist. It is a measure of the deficient aesthetic of our own age that this exquisite piece of writing has received so little attention. The list of interpretations of “Young Goodman Brown” is all but endless; commentary on “The Old Manse” is all but non-existent. Such a state of affairs may indicate many things; it certainly indicates that this generation of readers hardly knows what to do with a sketch other than to leave it out of consciousness. The following remarks do not begin to suggest the supple strength of Hawthorne’s prose or the extraordinary poise, amounting to a grace of mind, with which the author takes the reader on a tour of his house and grounds. Hawthorne’s adroitness lies in his capacity to establish an intimacy of tone without being confessional. Thus he can insist at the end of the sketch that, for all his generous welcome of the reader into the terrain at the edge of Hawthorne’s inner life, he has not really told about himself. Insofar as he is a man of individual attributes, he claims that “he veils his face.” Thus the introductory sketch puts the veiled figure of the writer before the tales as a consciousness through which the reader may pass (or over which he may skip) in order to reach the tales. Seen in such a light, the preface is the veil, the glimmering light and shadow through which the reader may perceive the tales and sketches—those concentrated yet somehow casual disclosures which might be seen to represent the individual attributes of the man behind the veil. Such a vision would be, of course, nothing but a metaphor.
A look at the sketch itself will take us through the metaphor toward Hawthorne’s act of imagination as he was defining it in 1846, the time of his entry into the Salem Custom House. As a matter of fact, Hawthorne ends “The Old Manse” with the announcement that he is entering a Custom House, lamenting as he does so his failure to find an imaginative treasure in the Old Manse. He had gone there, he says, with the expectation of finding in that structure pervaded by theological and moral sentiments, a genuine sense of the past, but after rummaging through the attic he found nothing but lumber and hopeless tracts—monuments to the futility of the past and reminders that even old newspapers with their eye on the present of their own time were more valuable pieces of literature than the antiquarian efforts of the theological and academic imagination. And so he ends his sketch with the acknowledgment that the novel he had hoped to find there had eluded him, leaving him only the tales and sketches he had continued to write along with some of his earlier work which had not hitherto been collected.
If he had not found the novel he sought, he had found peace of mind—a dreamy ease and freedom from care such as he had never known. His description of life beside the somnolent river, a stream too lazy to suffer the slavery to which wild free mountain streams are subject, makes clear that the dream-like reflection literally embodied in the sluggish stream offered a freedom which so lingered in his imagination that he felt he could never be a slave again. Rowing on the bosom of the Concord with Ellery Channing he had heard Nature whisper from her very depths, “Be free! Be free!” Memorable and powerful as that whisper was, Hawthorne nonetheless was glad at the end of such a day to return to the fireside of the Old Manse beside which he could retire into the society as well as the solitude of a home. It is just this dominant value of society which Hawthorne conveys throughout the sketch by dramatizing himself as a genial host conducting a guided tour of the Old Manse and its environs. He tells nothing of his life there with his wife— they had come there four years earlier as newlyweds—but he has a great deal to say about planting his garden and watching the nature under his care come to fruition.
But there is a moment in the sketch when Hawthorne literally discloses himself as a writer of tales by actually including a tale within the introductory sketch. Approaching the battlefield of Concord on his ramble about the premises, Hawthorne pauses beside the mossgrown grave of two British soldiers:
Lowell, the poet, as we were once standing over this grave, told me a tradition in reference to one of the inhabitants below. The story has something deeply impressive, though its circumstances cannot altogether be reconciled with probability. A youth in the service of the clergyman happened to be chopping wood, that April morning, at the back door of the Manse, and when the noise of battle rang from side to side of the bridge he hastened across the intervening field to see what might be going forward. It is rather strange, by the way, that this lad should have been so diligently at work when the whole population of the town and country were startled out of their customary business by the advance of the British troops. Be that as it might, the tradition says that the lad now left his task and hurried to the battle-field with the axe still in hand. The British had by this time retreated, the Americans were in pursuit; and the late scene of strife was thus deserted by both parties. Two soldiers lay on the ground—one was a corpse; but, as the young New Englander drew nigh, the other Briton raised himself painfully upon his hands and knees and gave a ghastly stare into his face. The boy—it must have been a nervous impulse, without purpose, without thought, and betokening a sensitive and impressible nature rather than a hardened one— the boy uplifted his axe and dealt the wounded soldier a fierce and fatal blow upon the head. I could wish the grave might be opened; for I would fain know whether either of the skeleton soldiers has the mark of an axe in his skull. The story comes home to me like truth. Oftentimes, as an intellectual and moral exercise, I have sought to follow that poor youth through his subsequent career, and observe how his soul was tortured by the blood stain, contracted as it had been before the long custom of war had robbed human life of its sanctity, and while it still seemed murderous to slay a brother man. This one circumstance has borne more fruit for me than all that history tells us of the fight.
Here in miniature, Hawthorne literally reveals his act of art. First, the tale he recounts is itself a part of the history of the fight, yet it is a tale and therefore cannot altogether be reconciled with probability. Moreover, it is a twice-told tale, since Lowell had told it to Hawthorne. But this is only the beginning. It is a tale of an innocent youth who suddenly and inexplicably commits a crime of violence out of a sensitive and tender heart—an original sin from an innocent heart, in other words. That is much, and it is characteristic of Hawthorne. But there is more, for Hawthorne’s active imagination joins itself to the original “tradition” (as if his imagination hadn’t been joined from the outset!)—in the form of his morbid desire first to corroborate the truth by opening the grave and then to pursue the boy through life to observe the torturous effect of guilt upon his sensitive nature.
Even this is not all, for there is also the historic place where the act of imagination is wrought: the Concord Battlefield, where Emerson’s embattled farmers stood and “fired the shot heard round the world.” Hawthorne discovers at the site of battle the original sin and consequent guilt of an unknown life. That possibly imaginary event is what Hawthorne claims for himself in an act of certain imagination. It is at once the seed and the fertility of his art.
Although it would be possible to go back through Hawthorne’s tales and show how his vision had borne fruit, I want to go forward to “The Custom House,” Hawthorne’s second great preface. For if Hawthorne in “The Old Manse” was defining the nature of his accomplishment, he was also making possible his own future work. Thus “The Custom House” is in large measure a sequel to “The Old Manse.” It is about the same length, it refers back to the earlier preface, and it is a second intrusion of the author into public view. This time, however, there is a continuity between the preface and the tale which follows, for here at the height of his power, Hawthorne was able to write his greatest sketch and his greatest tale and put the two forms inseparably together.
He had found in the Custom House at Salem what he could not find in the Old Manse at Concord: a novel, which he carefully subtitled “A Romance.” At least that is the fiction of his preface, and however inappropriate the preface may be for the novel (Austin Waren and others believe that it is) it is a little miracle to watch Hawthorne move imperceptibly from the fact of the Custom House into the fiction of his discovery of the Scarlet Letter. If one claimed nothing else for the introductory sketch he could claim that it does something with the ancient convention of the manuscript found in a bottle or a barrel or a cellar or a trunk which no author before Hawthorne had imagined. But there is so much more to claim for it. The sketch once again places the Author before his work, not as a friendly guide to the home he loves, but as surveyor of a house in which he has worked and been rejected. This house is not the home of dead Puritan ministers, but an arm of the Federal Government, a house which imposes not moral but fiscal duties upon goods imported into the country. Here in this house of the working present, Hawthorne wants to feel that he has been condemned to work for the country which has dismissed or ignored him as a writer. He wants to feel the abuse and the rejection, yet he knows in that self-critical way of his that he entered the Custom House by choice, just as he knows that, since his was a political appointment of the party which had inaugurated the spoils system, his expulsion from office is but the just working of the law of politics which got him his job. He also wants to feel a certain self-pity for the fact that he is a poor author in a country enamored of the material present, but again he knows that work in a custom house is, in a democracy of all places, as honorable as writing.
Yet there is a vengeance in Hawthorne, for he has suffered decapitation—to use his indulgent metaphor—at the hands of his country, and has thus felt the predatory impulse of the American eagle, emblem of his nation’s freedom. In that rejection, he can feel sympathy for his Puritan forebears who were themselves rejected by the history which produced America. Yet whatever sympathy he feels for them is tempered by his knowledge that they too had rejected those before (or above) them and those after (or below) them— had really decapitated a king in England and had scourged dissenters in New England, and would condemn him as no more than an idle scribbler. Thus if he is rejected by the present, he knows that he would be even more fiercely rejected by the past. Yet because he can feel their eyes upon him, he admires the stern morality of his forefathers, the Puritans, and willingly takes the shame of their guilt upon himself. That is the fine balance of Hawthorne’s style and vision. For every criticism he directs outward upon the Custom House, his country, and his ancestral past, he directs an equal criticism upon himself. This self-judgment, instead of paralyzing him, enables him to feel a bond of sympathy for the past; it tempers every line of Hawthorne’s prose with a fine equilibrium between sympathy and judgment, between author and community, between present and past.
For if Hawthorne feels a bond of sympathy for the past, he feels one also for the present. Despite the satiric impulse Hawthorne directs toward the gallery of customs officers he sketches, there is one figure he unmistakably admires. I mean of course General Miller. Whatever weak dependence on their country tends to debase the nature of men in Custom Houses, Hawthorne knows that the Old General fully deserved the post his country has given him. Observing him intently, Hawthorne knows that deep within the man there still must be the glowing heart, the immortal moment of his past heroism, when in the battle of Lundy’s Lane he had been asked by his superior to make a desperate charge upon a difficult position and had given his famous reply, “I’ll try, Sir.” That act had been for his country, not against it, and whatever vengeance Hawthorne might wish to feel or take against his country is monitored by the very presence of General Miller.
Actually, the presence of the General represents for Hawthorne another possibility—the possibility of the past hidden within the present, the very possibility which awakens Hawthorne’s torpid imagination. For it is well to remember that in the fiction of the Custom House, it is not in the romancer’s chamber—that unforgettable spot where moonlight from the window coupled with firelight from glowing embers casts a light at once warm and cold upon objects which are in turn reflected in a mirror for the romancer’s imagination—it is not, I repeat, in this imagined chamber that Hawthorne finds the Scarlet Letter. He finds it rather in the attic, or as Hawthorne so beautifully puts it, in the second story of the Custom House. It is a manuscript which old Surveyor Pue, the British Surveyor of Customs, had collected and begun editing, only to leave it behind in his flight before the approaching forces of the American Revolution. Like the legend of the youth on the battlefield at Concord, it is the story which was left behind, but this time it is embodied (which is to say imaginatively realized) as a manuscript the artist is to edit. With the manuscript is the faded Scarlet Letter, the emblem of the narrative, which, when placed upon his breast, causes his heart to burn and glow. Here is not the hearth fire of romance, but the very impulse of the story leaping toward the letter, for the glow of the artist’s heart is the throb of sympathetic identity with the discovered manuscript.
Hawthorne is not, however, finished with his fiction. There remains the needed sanction from the past, and Hawthorne imagines the ghostly presence of Surveyor Pue commissioning him, just as the general officer had once commissioned the brave young Miller, to undertake the difficult assignment of bringing the manuscript from the recesses of the Custom House into the light. And Hawthorne, like Miller before him, replies: “I will.” Thus the active will of the artist undertakes its own heroic work. And the work surely is heroic, for Hawthorne the Artist, who was suppressed and held in check by Hawthorne the Surveyor of Customs, is released to bring through the Custom House the narrative which would not pass the Customs of his country. This too is of course a metaphor, but a metaphor which brings us face to face with Hawthorne’s act of the imagination.
The novel which would not pass the customs! What are the consequences of such a metaphor for “The Scarlet Letter?” Before sketching the shadowy outlines of my vision, I want to use as a background two generalizations about Hawthorne’s conception of fiction. First, he sees fiction as the experience suppressed by history. The whole of history is, from the time of the classical world forward, the record of man’s steady effort to free himself from the past: The Christians from the pagans ; the Puritans from the Catholics ; and finally the state from the church, in the form of America. Second, Hawthorne accepts this record as progression, just as he approves of the American Revolution. But each act of man’s progression in history suppresses an element of the past, and thus recorded history is attended by its suppressed shadow, which takes the form of oral tales and legends. These tales are precisely the aspect of the past which actual history has rendered unreal and imaginary, and it is just this shadowy inheritance which the artist seizes upon to bring through the Custom House of the present. Such an act is not so much taken against the present as to complete the present, the present which Hawthorne believes in and enjoys. It is his belief in the present which acts as his inner resistance to the imaginary past which he inherits, and he thus sets himself as the editor of the inherited manuscript to comment upon it, resist it, check it, and even censor it.
His censorship takes the form of moralizing and editorializing upon the narrative. Hawthorne’s awareness that he is bringing to light something which the history he approves had lodged in the Custom House makes him need the moral not only as a protection against charges of subversion but also as a reality which both causes and justifies the tale. Morals in Hawthorne are not simply complacent masks to disguise the real operations of his imagination; they are rather the priorities which, like the Minister’s Black Veil or the Scarlet Letter itself with its clear original meaning, make the tale possible. They are the approved values resulting from the experience they necessarily negate, and thus operate in the present in the same way that the actuality of history does: to reject the very past out of which they came. Every experience for Hawthorne is either a deviation from a moral convention or an eventuation into a moral conclusion which condemns the experience from which it arises.
These are generalizations. There is still the book itself. The book is about the consequences of an original sin of adultery committed in the unseen foreground. In an effort to bring the sin into the light of day, the Puritan community fixes the blame and shame upon the visible sinner, the Mother with her Child. Yet each act of judgment, in the relentless plot of the novel, both discloses and increases the guilt within the society until the Scarlet Letter seems to be in every heart and can be seen against the very heavens. That is what the book is about.
But the book is literally Hawthorne’s incarnation of the Scarlet Letter into an action which makes the reader re-enact the scapegoating process he condemns in the Puritan community. Thus out of the sympathy which he is made to feel for Hester, the reader fixes his own Scarlet Letter on someone else—indicting at first Dimmesdale, then Chillingworth, and finally the worst sinner of all, the Puritan settlement. To act out these indictments in the form of interpretations is to recommit the sin—or at least half the sin—of “The Scarlet Letter,” which is scapegoating one person or institution in the defense of another. Having recommitted the sin, the fortunate reader can, in an act of self-judgment, begin to release himself from re-enacting the repression in the past to which he has previously felt superior. That release takes the shape of judging Hester somewhat as the Editor judges her, thereby tempering with sympathy the judgment of the other characters and the past. The reader who has thus consciously committed the sin of the Scarlet Letter can begin to take something of the shame Hawthorne gladly took upon himself and join by act of sympathy and judgment not only all the characters and the Puritan past, but also the artist who conceived them. To have joined that community and to have realized that it is a community of equal guilt—a world in which the guilt is truly democratized—is to have truly experienced “The Scarlet Letter.”
We as readers do not feel the sin of our reading ; we simply have the experience in the form of a new interpretation—an original interpretation—and an interpretation is an act of knowing. Even if we carry out all the successive indictments in the form of successive interpretations, we hardly feel guilty about recapitulating the process of scapegoating which the book so searingly exposes. Even to say that we do feel guilty is likely to put us no farther forward than the Puritans who spoke of all men’s depravity yet continued to judge others as if they were mysteriously elect. All we do is move from interpretation to interpretation in transcendent acts of pride. If art makes experience possible (and may make it dubious or false), knowing makes feeling possible (and may corrupt it from the beginning). These twin truths constitute the fate of the artist and the fall of man.
Just here we might want to say, “Aha! Hawthorne is at last a Calvinist!” But no, he is an artist; that is his progression in time. In the past, he would or might have been the guilty Puritan who scourged Quakers and Witches, in acts of judgment which could or could not have been true. But now he is an artist, involving his reader in an action which may or may not be real. Though he is not committing real crimes, he may be committing unreal ones. With just this irony in mind we can at last see both the form and meaning of the Custom House preface. For in writing the actual book, Hawthorne put the adultery in the foreground, making many a modern reader feel that his squeamishness couldn’t depict the actual thrill of sexuality, which very well may have been true. Yet Hawthorne still could have written a sentimental novel in which the adultery would have been the climactic action, however veiled and circulocutory his description of the momentous event might have been. Such novels were being written then ; they are being written now. But Hawthorne saw the adultery as fertile, not sterile. Thus, instead of repressing the fact of the child—as a host of writers of supposedly passionate yet actually sterile amours have done—he begins with the Mother and Child emerging from the Prison House. Moreover, he gives us the matriarchal queen, the real witch, whom not only Puritanism but Christianity itself had repressed or reduced to a virgin. Not only had the Puritans repressed her; so had the Church fathers before them, and so had the Founding Fathers afterward. Hawthorne is both sane enough and strong enough to question his act of releasing her through the Custom House. She is the emblazoned, aristocratic, matriarchal spirit which he at once boldly and guardedly brings into the present as a fiction of the past.
Hawthorne makes his question and his act the very conception of “The Scarlet Letter” and the Custom House preface, for the preface literally displaces the original sin of Hester and Dimmesdale in the forest. It is the foreground, for it was in the Artist Hawthorne’s mind and heart, and not in some Colonial Forest, that the original act of adultery took place, and Hawthorne is once again sane enough and strong enough to put himself as Artist before his fiction, disclosing the act of self-conception which projects the original sin through the Custom House upon the innocent republic and upon the innocent reader. That then, is Hawthorne’s original sin: the sin of art itself, and Melville was not far from the mark when he felt the diabolism of “Mosses from an Old Manse.” For original sin is nothing if it merely seems inherited ; it must seem as new as an invented story if the author is to feel its originality, or it must seem as thrilling as a new interpretation if the reader is to feel the passion of his insight. When it does, then the A would stand for Art, for Author, and for America. The best we can say, and the best that I think Hawthorne could say, is that it would stand for and not against them.
A writer of story-books! What kind of a business in life,—what mode of glorifying God, or being serviceable to mankind in his day and generation,—may that be?
(See Important Quotations Explained)
This introduction provides a frame for the main narrative of The Scarlet Letter. The nameless narrator, who shares quite a few traits with the book’s author, takes a post as the “chief executive officer,” or surveyor, of the Salem Custom House. (“Customs” are the taxes paid on foreign imports into a country; a “customhouse” is the building where these taxes are paid.) He finds the establishment to be a run-down place, situated on a rotting wharf in a half-finished building. His fellow workers mostly hold lifetime appointments secured by family connections. They are elderly and given to telling the same stories repeatedly. The narrator finds them to be generally incompetent and innocuously corrupt.
The narrator spends his days at the customhouse trying to amuse himself because few ships come to Salem anymore. One rainy day he discovers some documents in the building’s unoccupied second story. Looking through the pile, he notices a manuscript that is bundled with a scarlet, gold-embroidered piece of cloth in the shape of the letter “A.” The narrator examines the scarlet badge and holds it briefly to his chest, but he drops it because it seems to burn him. He then reads the manuscript. It is the work of one Jonathan Pue, who was a customs surveyor a hundred years earlier. An interest in local history led Pue to write an account of events taking place in the middle of the seventeenth century—a century before Pue’s time and two hundred years before the narrator’s.
The narrator has already mentioned his unease about attempting to make a career out of writing. He believes that his Puritan ancestors, whom he holds in high regard, would find it frivolous and “degenerate.” Nevertheless, he decides to write a fictional account of Hester Prynne’s experiences. It will not be factually precise, but he believes that it will be faithful to the spirit and general outline of the original. While working at the customhouse, surrounded by uninspiring men, the narrator finds himself unable to write. When a new president is elected, he loses his politically appointed job and, settling down before a dim fire in his parlor, begins to write his “romance,” which becomes the body of The Scarlet Letter.
This section introduces us to the narrator and establishes his desire to contribute to American culture. Although this narrator seems to have much in common with Nathaniel Hawthorne himself—Hawthorne also worked as a customs officer, lost his job due to political changes, and had Puritan ancestors whose legacy he considered both a blessing and a curse—it is important not to conflate the two storytellers. The narrator is not just a stand-in for Hawthorne; he is carefully constructed to enhance the book aesthetically and philosophically. Moreover, Hawthorne sets him up to parallel Hester Prynne in significant ways. Like Hester, the narrator spends his days surrounded by people from whom he feels alienated. In his case, it is his relative youth and vitality that separates him from the career customs officers. Hester’s youthful zest for life may have indirectly caused her alienation as well, spurring her to her sin. Similarly, like Hester, the narrator seeks out the “few who will understand him,” and it is to this select group that he addresses both his own story and the tale of the scarlet letter. The narrator points out the connection between Hester and himself when he notes that he will someday be reduced to a name on a custom stamp, much as she has been reduced to a pile of old papers and a scrap of cloth. The narrator’s identification with Hester enables the reader to universalize her story and to see its application to another society.
Despite his devotion to Hester’s story, the narrator has trouble writing it. First, he feels that his Puritan ancestors would find it frivolous, and indeed he is not able to write until he has been relieved of any real career responsibilities. Second, he knows that his audience will be small, mostly because he is relating events that happened some two hundred years ago. His time spent in the company of the other customhouse men has taught the narrator that it will be difficult to write in such a way as to make his story accessible to all types of people—particularly to those no longer young at heart. But he regards it as part of his challenge to try to tell Hester’s story in a way that makes it both meaningful and emotionally affecting to all readers. His last step in preparing to write is to stop battling the “real world” of work and small-mindedness and to give himself up to the “romance” atmosphere of his story.
The narrator finds writing therapeutic. Contrary to his Puritan ancestors’ assertions, he also discovers it to be practical: his introduction provides a cogent discourse on American history and culture. Hawthorne wrote at a time when America sought to distinguish itself from centuries of European tradition by producing uniquely “American” writers—those who, like Hawthorne, would encourage patriotism by enlarging the world’s sense of America’s comparatively brief history.