Nathaniel Hawthorne/Chapter 5
THE SCARLET LETTER.
Amid the hard conditions of his life at Concord Hawthorne had decided to place himself again under the aegis of his political friends to earn his living as a public officer. He had no confidence in his literary capacity as a means of livelihood. He found himself, he says, unable to write more than a third of the time, and he composed slowly and with difficulty; he refers more than once to that hatred of the pen which belongs to a tired writer, and he was frequently indisposed to composition for long periods; and, in any event, he thought that what he wrote must appeal necessarily to so small an audience that, should he continue to devote himself exclusively to a literary career, he must do so as a professional hack-writer of children's books, translations, newspaper essays, and such miscellaneous drudgery. His habits, formed in his years at Salem, included an element of large leisure, an indulgence of one's self in times and seasons of mental activity, a certain lethargy of life; and he had not shown any power of sustained production in the monotony of daily work for bread. He felt a dread of such necessity. "God keep me," he writes to Hillard before this time, "from ever being really a writer for bread!" The only alternative for him was office-holding.
The election of Polk to the Presidency gave his friends the opening, and the campaign to secure an appointment was begun. Bridge, then living in bachelor quarters at Portsmouth Navy Yard, conceived the rather daring idea of a sailor house-party with Hawthorne as its centre, for the purpose of making him acquainted with the political group in whose hands influence lay; and, if it be remembered that the Hawthornes had not spent an evening out for years, and still continued their seclusive life, the proposition may well seem a bold stroke. The party, however, gathered in the summer of 1845; Franklin Pierce and his wife, Senator Atherton and his wife, of New Hampshire, and Senator Fairfield of Maine, to mention the notables, were the principal guests, and there were several others, making a greater company than Hawthorne had been thrown with since he lodged at Brook Farm. It was an informal naval picnic, apparently, of two or three weeks, and Bridge thought that its main object of popularizing Hawthorne with the Senators was attained. The point of attack was the Salem Post Office, but this proved impracticable, and attention was turned to the Custom House, where either the surveyorship or the naval office might be got. Meanwhile Bancroft offered him a clerkship in the Charlestown Navy Yard, which he declined. He was sufficiently sure of success to make him remove from Concord to Salem to reside, and early in October he was established again in the old chamber of his youth, having decided to share his mother's house for the present. He spent his time in writing the introductory sketch of the Old Manse, and in seeing the "Mosses" through the press. The appointment lagged, owing to local complications in the party, but an arrangement was finally made which was agreeable to all concerned, so that Hawthorne took office without enmity from disappointed candidates who would have benefited if he had not appeared upon the scene backed by what must have been locally regarded as outside interference. He received notice of his nomination as surveyor on March 23, 1846, and it was described "as decidedly popular with the party," as well as with men of letters and the community; he soon took charge of the office, those who had made way for him were appointed inspectors under him, and he entered on the enjoyment of a salary of twelve hundred dollars.
It was indeed a singular chance of life that had transformed the recluse romancer of the silent Herbert Street house, where for all the years of early manhood he had lived unnoticed and almost unknown, into the high business official of the Custom House, the lofty neighbor of that humble dwelling, on whose wide granite steps, columned portico, and emblematic eagle, with the flag over all, he must have looked so often with never a thought that there was to be his distinguished place in the world of men; and yet Hawthorne, on coming into this office, seems to have been pleased with a sense of making a part of Salem as his ancestors had done in the old days. He did not love Salem, but genuine truth gives body to those passages of autobiography in which he claims his parentage and kinship and seems writing the obituary of his race there, in connection with his memories of the Custom House. He knew himself a story-teller whom these ancestors would little approve, for all his mask as the surveyor, but in his official place he felt himself a Salemite with some peculiar thoroughness; and, familiar as the passage is, no other words can take the place of his own expression of this sense of rootedness in the soil, which is so close to the secret of his genius:—
"This old town of Salem—my native place, though I have dwelt much away from it, both in boyhood and maturer years—possesses, or did possess, a hold on my affections, the force of which I have never realized during my seasons of actual residence here. Indeed, so far as its physical aspect is concerned, with 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 almshouse 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. And yet, though invariably happiest elsewhere, there is within me a feeling for old Salem, which, in lack of a better phrase, I must be content to call affection. The sentiment is probably assignable to the deep and aged roots which my family has struck into the soil. It is now nearly two centuries and a quarter since the original Briton, the earliest emigrant of my name, made his appearance in the wild and forest-bordered settlement, which has since become a city. And here his descendants have been born and died, and have mingled their earthly substance with the soil, until no small portion of it must necessarily be akin to the mortal frame wherewith, for a little while, I walk the streets. In part, therefore, the attachment which I speak of is the mere sensuous sympathy of dust for dust. Few of my countrymen can know what it is; nor, as frequent transplantation is perhaps better for the stock, need they consider it desirable to know.
"But the sentiment has likewise its moral quality. The figure of that first ancestor, invested by family tradition with a dim and dusky grandeur, was present to my boyish imagination, as far back as I can remember. It still haunts me, and induces a sort of home-feeling with the past, which I scarcely claim in reference to the present phase of the town. I seem to have a stronger claim to a residence here on account of this grave, bearded, sable-cloaked and steeple-crowned progenitor,—who came so early, with his Bible and his sword, and trode the unworn street with such a stately port, and made so large a figure, as a man of war and peace,—a stronger claim than for myself, whose name is seldom heard and my face hardly known. He was a soldier, legislator, judge; he was a ruler in the Church; he had all the Puritanic traits, both good and evil. He was likewise a bitter persecutor, as witness the Quakers, who have remembered him in their histories, and relate an incident of his hard severity towards a woman of their sect, which will last longer, it is to be feared, than any record of his better deeds, although these were many. His son, too, inherited the persecuting spirit, and made himself so conspicuous in the martyrdom of the witches, that their blood may fairly be said to have left a stain upon him. So deep a stain, indeed, that his old dry bones, in the Charter Street burial-ground, must still retain it, if they have not crumbled utterly to dust!... Let them scorn me as they will, strong traits of their nature have intertwined themselves with mine.
"Planted deep, in the town's earliest infancy and childhood, by these two earnest and energetic men, the race has ever since subsisted here,— always, too, in respectability; never, so far as I have known, disgraced by a single unworthy member; but seldom or never, on the other hand, after the first two generations, performing any memorable deed, or so much as putting forward a claim to public notice. Gradually, they have sunk almost out of sight, as old houses, here and there about the streets, get covered halfway to the eaves by the accumulation of new soil. From father to son, for above a hundred years, they followed the sea; a gray-headed shipmaster, in each generation, retiring from the quarter-deck to the homestead, while a boy of fourteen took the hereditary place before the mast, confronting the salt spray and the gale, which had blustered against his sire and grandsire. The boy, also, in due time, passed from the forecastle to the cabin, spent a tempestuous manhood, and returned from his world-wanderings, to grow old, and die, and mingle his dust with the natal earth. This long connection of a family with one spot, as its place of birth and burial, creates a kindred between the human being and the locality, quite independent of any charm in the scenery or moral circumstances that surround him. It is not love, but instinct. The new inhabitant—who came himself from a foreign land, or whose father or grandfather came—has little claim to be called a Salemite; he has no conception of the oysterlike tenacity with which an old settler, over whom his third century is creeping, clings to the spot where his successive generations have been imbedded. It is no matter that the place is joyless for him; that he is weary of the old wooden houses, the mud and dust, the dead level of site and sentiment, the chill east wind, and the dullest of social atmospheres,—all these, and whatever faults besides he may see or imagine, are nothing to the purpose. The spell survives, and just as powerfully as if the natal spot were an earthly paradise. So has it been in my case. I felt it almost as a destiny to make Salem my home; so that the mould of features and cast of character which had all along been familiar here—ever, as one representative of the race lay down in his grave, another assuming, as it were, his sentry-march along the main street—might still in my little day be seen and recognized in the old town.... On emerging from the Old Manse, it was chiefly this strange, indolent, unjoyous attachment for my native town that brought me to fill a place in Uncle Sam's brick edifice, when I might as well, or better, have gone somewhere else. My doom was on me."
Long as this extract is, it dispenses with pages of critical analysis, and the hundred details requisite to build up such an impression of ancestry from the soil, of the way in which the New England past had entered into the fibre of Hawthorne's nature, of the sort of historic consciousness that was latent, like clairvoyance, in his imagination. Here, too, it serves to give Hawthorne a natural right in his new public place in the community. He did not feel himself a stranger there; the floor of the Custom House was as much home to his feet as a ship's deck. He made, it is said, a good surveyor, as in Boston previously he had been an excellent under officer. His duties were not arduous; they consumed about three hours and a half of his day, leaving him ample leisure. He has himself made of his stay at the Custom House a half humorous story by drawing the characters of his associates and setting forth the general atmosphere of the place with such lifelike drollery as only genius can achieve. He does it with no kindly hand. He was capable of great irritation, at times; and, as was shown on rare occasions, he had outbursts of anger. Dr. Loring describes him as "tempestuous and irresistible when aroused," and tells the anecdote of one dismayed captain who "fled up the wharf and took refuge in the office, inquiring, 'What in God's name have you sent on board my ship as an inspector?'" In writing of his old associates satirically, he was not indulging in any rage of anger, but he would hardly have felt the impulse to give his pen such liberty unless grievances had still rankled in his memory. The scene he sets forth is one of burlesque, done like fiction. "On ascending the steps you would discern," he says, "a row of venerable figures, sitting in old-fashioned chairs, which were tipped on their hind legs back against the wall. Oftentimes they were asleep, but occasionally might be heard talking together, in voices between speech and a snore, and with that lack of energy that distinguishes the occupants of almshouses, and all other human beings who depend for subsistence on charity, on monopolized labor, or anything else but their own independent exertions. These old gentlemen—seated, like Matthew, at the receipt of customs, but not very liable to be summoned thence, like him, for apostolic errands—were Custom House officers." When he comes to the details, in this style, the portrait approaches—if it does not realize—caricature. There was another side, we may be sure, to the lives and characters of these men whom Hawthorne has portrayed as if human nature existed to be the pigment of an artist's brush and should laugh or weep, look silly or solemn, at the whim of his temperament and will. All the time he got on with them very amiably, and if he found some of them in his own silent thoughts rather foolish and superfluous, doubtless it would have been the same in any other group among whom his lot might have been thrown. With others of his associates, whatever he thought of them and their ways, he was friendly and tolerant, if not sociable; it was in connection with these that the gossip circulated of his "loafing about with hard drinkers." Dr. Loring describes them to the life as "a group of men all of whom had remarkable characteristics, not of the best many times, but original, strong, highly-flavored, defiant democrats, with whom he was officially connected, who made no appeal to him, but responded to the uncultivated side of his nature, and to whose defects he was blind on account of their originality." This picture must be added to that which Hawthorne gave, and between the two, if some allowance, also, be made for the unfavorable temper in which he wrote, it will appear, perhaps, that in the Custom House he found human nature about as it is always in an office having to do with sea business, in which naturally a rough, racy, unpolished, original, sturdy stock took a leading part, and a place was found for the retired old hulks of the profession to enjoy a comfortable anchorage.
Hawthorne, in fact, repeated in the Custom House the experience he had formerly had on the Boston wharf and at Brook Farm. At first, the change was a pleasure and a relief to him. He had once more escaped, if not from the dreamland of his own solitary fancy, at least from the unreality which the literary life seems always to have had for him, and which he now associated particularly with the character of his friendships. The tone of relief is unmistakable:—
"After my fellowship of toil and impracticable schemes with the dreamy brethren of Brook Farm; after living for three years within the subtile influence of an intellect like Emerson's; after those wild, free days on the Assabeth, indulging fantastic speculations, beside our fire of fallen boughs, with Ellery Channing; after talking with Thoreau about pine-trees and Indian relics, in his hermitage at Walden; after growing fastidious by sympathy with the classic refinement of Hillard's culture; after becoming imbued with poetic sentiment at Longfellow's hearth-stone,—it was time, at length, that I should exercise other faculties of my nature, and nourish myself with food for which I had hitherto had little appetite. Even the old inspector was desirable, as a change of diet, to a man who had known Alcott. I look upon it as an evidence, in some measure, of a system naturally well balanced, and lacking no essential part of a thorough organization, that, with such associates to remember, I could mingle at once with men of altogether different qualities, and never murmur at the change."
So he mixed in the new scene, laughed with the others at the old sea-yarns and jokes, joined in with his associates on more even terms than was his habit with the literary friends of Concord, and was once more a part of this material world. But it was not long before the old disgust and restlessness came over him; he felt his imaginative nature deadened; this after all was not his own life, and the figures that moved in it, the business they were concerned with, the existence they led round about him took on the same shabby color of fact that had formerly spread over the coal and salt of the wharf, and the manure of Brook Farm; and that feeling of repulsion from it all, which came to involve also a half-contempt for the people and their affairs, grew in him. He describes the torpor that fell upon his faculties; he ceased to write, just as in the earlier time; he could not create, and though he had time enough, and the sea and the woods and the winter moonlight were all there, they did not unlock his magical power as of old. He laments over it, but confesses it; he had temporarily ceased to be a man of letters.
Domestic affairs contributed to withhold him from his pen. The old Herbert Street house had proved an inconvenient domicile for the two families, and they had removed to a dwelling in Chestnut Street. For a while Mrs. Hawthorne had been absent in Boston, and there a boy, Julian, had been born, so that there were two children in the nursery. It was in this room that Hawthorne spent his afternoons, for he had no study, and there for a year his desk stood, says his wife, without having been once opened. They moved again to another house, more easily adapted to the needs of both households, in Mall Street, and here Hawthorne again had a study "high from all noise," and Madame Hawthorne was provided for with a suite wholly separate. She and her two daughters still maintained the lifelong habit of isolation. "Elizabeth," says Mrs. Hawthorne, "is an invisible entity. I have seen her but once in two years; and Louisa never intrudes;" and she adds her satisfaction in knowing that Madame Hawthorne would have the pleasure of her son's and the children's company for the rest of her life. "I am so glad to win her out of that Castle Dismal, and from the mysterious chamber into which no mortal ever peeped till Una was born, and Julian,—for they alone have entered the penetralia. Into that chamber the sun never shines. Into these rooms in Mall Street it blazes without stint." Mrs. Hawthorne was very happy in this life with her husband, though they were still retired in their habits. He had, however, become an officer of the Lyceum, and they attended the lectures. They went out very seldom, only on such an occasion as when Emerson was visiting a neighbor, for example. The happiness was all indoors and in their hearts. "No art nor beauty," the wife writes, "can excel my daily life, with such a husband and such children, the exponents of all art and beauty. I really have not even the temptation to go out of my house to find anything better." The husband expresses the same felicity, in his turn, repeatedly, as on one occasion during a visit of Mrs. Hawthorne in Boston. "Oh, Phoebe," he writes to her, "I want thee much. Thou art the only person in the world that ever was necessary to me. Other people have occasionally been more or less agreeable; but I think I was always more at ease alone than in anybody's company, till I knew thee. And now I am only myself when thou art within my reach. Thou art an unspeakably beloved woman."
They still spent their evenings together, mostly in reading. He never wrote at night, and for a year and a half seems not to have written at all, except some slight unremembered article, it might be, for a Salem newspaper. In November, 1847, he began to compose regularly every afternoon. In the year following he produced "The Snow Image," "The Great Stone Face," "Main Street," and possibly "Ethan Brand," but these, with the exception of the third, which appeared in Elizabeth Peabody's "Aesthetic Papers," 1849, remained unpublished. He had exhausted himself as a writer of short tales and sketches; the kind no longer appealed to him, and he wrote with much difficulty and against the grain. "At length," he writes in a letter of literary business, December 14, 1848, "by main strength I have wrenched and torn an idea out of my miserable brain; or rather, the fragment of an idea, like a tooth ill-drawn, and leaving the roots to torture me." His imagination had, in fact, begun to work upon a larger scale and in a higher world of art, though he apparently did not know the change in scope that he was undergoing, and thought of his new story only as a longer tale; the idea of "The Scarlet Letter," after lying for some years in his brain, was unfolding in the form of a great romance. It was to be his resource when the Custom House failed.
It was on June 8, 1849, that the news of his dismissal from office came. Tyler's Whig administration had come in, and Democratic heads would naturally fall; but Hawthorne, having obtained office, as he conceived it, as a literary man provided for by government, had not expected to be turned out on the change of parties, especially as he was not a partisan or in fact a politician at all. He resented the action, even when it was only threatened, as unjust, and took some steps to secure himself in place by suggesting an appeal to men in Boston, among whom he mentions Rufus Choate, "whose favorable influence," he says, "would make it impossible to remove me, and whose support and sympathy might fairly be obtained on my behalf,—not on the ground that I am a very good writer, but because I gained my position, such as it is, by my literary character, and have done nothing to forfeit that tenure." When he found, however, that he had been removed, ostensibly at least, on the ground of a paper forwarded from Salem and charging him with political partisanship, both as a writer for the newspaper press and in his official capacity, his resentment became a much warmer feeling. The story of a removal from office is usually unedifying, and there is no occasion to go into all the details. It appears that one man, Charles W. Upham, was especially singled out by Hawthorne as the principal mover, and on him he deliberately avenged himself at a later time. The charges Hawthorne met very fully and specifically, and showed that he had indeed rather incurred the reproach of his party for not taking a partisan course than deserved the criticism of his enemies. He was, however, very angry; his wife writes to her father, "The lion was roused in him;" and the numerous letters to his friends show that he was much disturbed, but much more by what he regarded as the attack made secretly upon his character than by the loss of the office. There was a small tempest in the town, in which his friends male and female bore their part, and plans of one kind and another were discussed to secure his retention; but, as usually happens in such cases, the affair soon blew over. In a political scuffle, Hawthorne was a man out of his element.
The most unfortunate thing in the whole incident was the effect it had on Hawthorne's attachment to his native place. It turned his cold love to a bitter feeling that he never overcame; and it also threw upon Salem the reproach of having injured as well as neglected her most famous son. Citizens of both parties joined in the movement by which he was ousted, and no one of influence withstood them; but there was probably no enmity in the matter, and the simple explanation, perhaps, was that the new candidate had more cordial friends in the community on both sides, for Hawthorne was not personally popular with the merchants as a class. He kept them at a distance just as he did men of letters, and could not mix with them on even and frank terms. Dr. Loring, in discussing the subject of Hawthorne's treatment by his fellow townsmen, very justly says that " Salem did not treat its illustrious son, at all, because he gave it no opportunity." He was, so far as then appeared, an author, forty-five years old, who had written two or three books of short tales and sketches, not yet famous, and he held a not very lucrative public office, which he had secured, not in the usual way, by party service, but by the political influence of his old college mates, who were strangers to the town. He was inoffensive, but he was not liked, and took no pains to make himself one of the community; he was ignored by the citizens of the place because he ignored them, and when his Washington friends lost power, there was no one else interested in keeping him in office, and he had no influence of his own on the spot. In private life he was uncommonly solitary, and he was in no sense a public man. What happened was perfectly natural, and might fairly have been foreseen; for the notion of providing a government post for a man because he was an author, and retaining him in it by a literary tenure, must have seemed very novel to the gentlemen of the Essex district in those days, as it would seem now. But Hawthorne had the sense of superiority, the silent, suppressed pride, the susceptibility of a solitary nature; and whatever might be the public side of the matter, of which he was no very good judge, privately he felt aggrieved and outraged; that irritability toward the general public which has already been remarked upon, just because he was "for some years the most obscure man of letters in America," was condensed, as it were, and discharged upon Salem, which stood as the deaf and blind and hateful embodiment of the unappreciative world that would have none of him, but rather took away the little bread and salt he had contrived to earn for himself, and would not give him room even in a paltry office among the old sea-dogs he has described. "I mean as soon as possible," he writes two months later, "to bid farewell forever to this abominable city."
Apart from the disagreeable circumstances of his removal and the penniless condition in which it left him, there is no reason to think that Hawthorne was anything but happy to leave office. His first thought was of his poverty; before he had laid down the telegram he heard the wolf at the door. He at once wrote the news to Hillard, and after saying that he had paid his old debts but had saved nothing, requests his friendly aid in words through which, brief and straight as they are, one feels the stern grip of the fact as it immediately took hold on him, the poor man's need:—
"If you could do anything in the way of procuring me some stated literary employment, in connection with a newspaper, or as corrector of the press to some printing establishment, etc., it could not come at a better time. Perhaps Epes Sargent, who is a friend of mine, would know of something. I shall not stand upon my dignity; that must take care of itself. Perhaps there may be some subordinate office connected with the Boston Athenaeum. Do not think anything too humble to be mentioned to me.... The intelligence has just reached me, and Sophia has not yet heard it. She will bear it like a woman,—that is to say, better than a man."
He went home at once to tell his wife, and as his son tells the story, on his meeting her expression of pleasure at seeing him so soon with the remark that "he had left his head behind him," she exclaimed, "Oh, then you can write your book!" and when he smiled and answered that it "would be agreeable to know where their bread and rice were to come from while the story was writing," she brought forth from a hiding-place "a pile of gold"—it appears to have been one hundred and fifty dollars—that she had saved from the household weekly expenses. So for the time being anxiety was lessened.
The fact that Hawthorne was glad at heart to be free again comes out in many ways. Something may be due to his wife's bearing the news "better than a man," perhaps, but on the same day it came she is found writing to her mother, "I have not seen my husband happier than since this turning out. He has felt in chains for a long time, and being a man he is not alarmed at being set on his own feet again,—or on his head I might say, for that contains the available gold of a mine scarcely yet worked at all." He himself, a few days later, writes to Hillard, "I have come to feel that it is not good for me to be here. I am in a lower moral state than I have been—a duller intellectual one. So let me go; and, under God's providence, I shall arrive at something better." It would not be long before he would be looking back to the last three years, and saying, "The life of the Custom House lies like a dream behind me," in almost the identical words that he used of Boston wharfs and the Brook Farmers. The pendulum of temperament had swung again to the other extreme, and he was now all for the imaginative world once more.
There was, however, to be one sad experience before his new life began. In the midst of these troubles, while he was still writing his vain letters and receiving the vain sympathy of his friends in the injury he had felt, his mother fell into serious illness, and it was plain that the end of her long vigil was near. With that strange impulse which led Hawthorne, out of his sensitive reserve and almost morbid seclusion, to make an open book of his private life, writing it all at large in his journals, he spent the hours of her last days in describing the scenes and incidents of the house in its shadow of death. His wife had the main care of the invalid, and to him was left the charge of the children, Una and Julian, who played in the yard in the warm July weather and were seized with the singular fancy of acting over in their play the scenes of the sick chamber above, while their father watched them from the window of his room and wrote down their prattle. Hawthorne was attached to his mother, and had been a good son, but there was something now that startled his nature, perhaps in the unusual nearness in which he found himself to her life, and he was hardly prepared for the distress of the circumstances. His wife wrote, "My husband came near a brain fever after seeing her for an hour;" and the hour is the one which Hawthorne himself recorded, in a passage vividly recalling the tone and character of those scenes in which Carlyle painted the darker moments of his own shadow-haunted life:—
"About five o'clock I went to my mother's chamber, and was shocked to see such an alteration since my last visit. I love my mother; but there has been, ever since boyhood, a sort of coldness of intercourse between us, such as is apt to come between persons of strong feelings if they are not managed rightly. I did not expect to be much moved at the time,—that is to say, not to feel any overpowering emotion struggling just then,—though I knew that I should deeply remember and regret her. Mrs. Dike was in the chamber; Louisa pointed to a chair near the bed, but I was moved to kneel down close by my mother, and take her hand. She knew me, but could only murmur a few indistinct words; among which I understood an injunction to take care of my sisters. Mrs. Dike left the chamber, and then I found the tears slowly gathering in my eyes. I tried to keep them down, but it would not be; I kept filling up, till, for a few moments, I shook with sobs. For a long time I knelt there, holding her hand; and surely it is the darkest hour I ever lived. Afterwards I stood by the open window and looked through the crevice of the curtain. The shouts, laughter, and cries of the two children had come up into the chamber from the open air, making a strange contrast with the death-bed scene. And now, through the crevice of the curtain, I saw my little Una of the golden locks, looking very beautiful, and so full of spirit and life that she was life itself. And then I looked at my poor dying mother, and seemed to see the whole of human existence at once, standing in the dusty midst of it."
The next day the children continued the play—they have never left it off—of their grandmother's death-bed, and Hawthorne writes it all down in his journal with minute realism. His genius felt some appeal in it that let him go on unchecked in the transcript of baby-life mocking death in all innocence and unwitting:—
"Now Una is transformed into grandmamma, and Julian is mamma taking care of her. She groans, and speaks with difficulty, and moves herself feebly and wearisomely; then lies perfectly still, as if in an insensible state; then rouses herself and calls for wine; then lies down on her back with clasped hands; then puts them to her head. It recalls the scene of yesterday to me with frightful distinctness; and out of the midst of it little Una looks at me with a smile of glee. Again, Julian assumes the character. 'You're dying now,' says Una; 'so you must lie still,'"—and so the journal goes on through the slow quarter-hours, till it stops when Madame Hawthorne's heart ceased to beat.
The death of his mother removed the last and only reason for Hawthorne's continuing to reside in Salem, but he remained there through the summer and winter. He was hard at work on "The Scarlet Letter," perhaps being more absorbed in it than he ever was in any other of his compositions. It was a time of much trouble in every way. There was sickness in the family, he was himself afflicted with pain, and his wife's sister Elizabeth Peabody seems to have come to the rescue of domestic comfort for the household. O'Sullivan, the kind-hearted editor of the defunct "Democratic Review," bethought himself of his old debt to Hawthorne and sent him a hundred dollars; so the purse was replenished. It was in early winter that the cheerful personality of James T. Fields, the publisher, appeared on the scene, and it was a fortunate hour for Hawthorne that brought such an appreciative, enthusiastic, and faithful friend to his door. Fields was just the man to warm Hawthorne's genius into action,—cordial, whole-souled, and happily not so much a man of letters as to repel him with that alienation which he certainly felt in his contact with authors by profession like Emerson and his other contemporaries. Fields was, too, in a very real sense, the messenger and herald of fame standing at last in the humble doorway of the Mall Street house that had latterly been the scene of such a tangle of human events. The anecdote of what he found there is finely told in his own words:—
"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 the "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 that 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 the '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 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.'"
The romance that was thus captured was not yet in the form which it finally took. Hawthorne had conceived it as a rather longer tale of the same sort that he had previously written, and designed to make it one story in a new collection such as his former volumes had been. He thought it was too gloomy to stand alone, and in fact did not suspect that here was a new kind of work, such that it would put an end forever to his old manner of writing. He intended to call the new volume "Old-Time Legends: together with Sketches, Experimental and Ideal,"—a title that is fairly ghostly with the transcendental nonage of his genius, pale, abstract, ineffectual, with oblivion lurking in every syllable. Fields knew better than that. But he gave him something more than advice; he cheered him with his extravagant appreciation, as it seemed to Hawthorne, and invigorated him by a true sympathy with his success. Fields urged that the story be elaborated, filled out, and made into a single volume; and, under this wise suggestion, Hawthorne went to work upon it with renewed interest and with something probably of the power of a new ambition.
His friends, too, had come to his aid with material assistance, and apart from the fact that he was thus enabled to go on with the labor of composition, free from the immediate pressure of poverty and its trials of the spirit, he was stimulated by their confidence and kindness to do all he could for himself. Hillard was the medium of this friendliness, and accompanied the considerable sum of money with a letter, January 17, 1850:—
"It occurred to me and some other of your friends that, in consideration of the events of the last year, you might at this time be in need of a little pecuniary aid. I have therefore collected, from some of those who admire your genius and respect your character, the enclosed sum of money, which I send you with my warmest wishes for your health and happiness. I know the sensitive edge of your temperament; but do not speak or think of obligation. It is only paying, in a very imperfect measure, the debt we owe you for what you have done for American Literature. Could you know the readiness with which every one to whom I applied contributed to this little offering, and could you have heard the warm expressions with which some accompanied their gift, you would have felt that the bread you had cast upon the waters had indeed come back to you. Let no shadow of despondency, my dear friend, steal over you. Your friends do not and will not forget you. You shall be protected against 'eating cares,' which, I take it, mean cares lest we should not have enough to eat."
Kindly as this letter was, it could only temper what was for Hawthorne a rough and bitter experience; for he had, in intense form, that proud independence in such matters which characterizes the old New England stock. The words he wrote in reply came from the depths of his nature:—
"I read your letter in the vestibule of the Post Office; and it drew—what my troubles never have—the water to my eyes; so that I was glad of the sharply cold west wind that blew into them as I came homeward, and gave them an excuse for being red and bleared.
"There was much that was very sweet—and something, too, that was very bitter—mingled with that same moisture. It is sweet to be remembered and cared for by one's friends—some of whom know me for what I am, while others, perhaps, know me only through a generous faith—sweet to think that they deem me worth upholding in my poor work through life. And it is bitter, nevertheless, to need their support. It is something else besides pride that teaches me that ill-success in life is really and justly a matter of shame. I am ashamed of it, and I ought to be. The fault of a failure is attributable—in a great degree at least—to the man who fails. I should apply this truth in judging of other men; and it behooves me not to shun its point or edge in taking it home to my own heart. Nobody has a right to live in the world unless he be strong and able, and applies his ability to good purpose.
"The money, dear Hillard, will smooth my path for a long time to come. The only way in which a man can retain his self-respect, while availing himself of the generosity of his friends, is by making it an incitement to his utmost exertion, so that he may not need their help again. I shall look upon it so—nor will shun any drudgery that my hand shall find to do, if thereby I may win bread."
Four days after this, on February 3, 1850, he finished "The Scarlet Letter." He read the last scene to his wife, just after writing it, on that evening,—"tried to read it, rather," he wrote to Bridge the next day, "for my voice swelled and heaved, as if I were tossed up and down on an ocean as it subsides after a storm. But I was in a very nervous state then, having gone through a great diversity of emotion while writing it for many months." He had, indeed, put his whole energy into the book, writing "immensely," says his wife in the previous autumn, as much as nine hours a day. He now felt the reaction, and besides he had a less healthy regimen of life than hitherto, and had fallen into middle-age habits of lowered physical tone, less active now in his out-door life these last three or four years. He continues in the letter to Bridge, just quoted: "I long to get into the country, for my health latterly is not quite what it has been for many years past. I should not long stand such a life of bodily inactivity and mental exertion as I have lived for the last few months. An hour or two of daily labor in a garden, and a daily ramble in country air, or on the sea-shore, would keep all right. Here, I hardly go out once a week. Do not allude to this matter in your letters to me, as my wife already sermonizes me quite sufficiently on my habits; and I never own up to not feeling perfectly well. Neither do I feel anywise ill; but only a lack of physical vigor and energy, which reacts upon the mind." "The Scarlet Letter" was already in the publisher's hands, before the last scene was written, and was rapidly put through the press. It was issued early in April in an edition of five thousand copies, which was soon exhausted; a new edition followed at once, and Hawthorne's fame was at last established.
"The Scarlet Letter" is a great and unique romance, standing apart by itself in fiction; there is nothing else quite like it. Of all Hawthorne's works it is most identified with his genius in popular regard, and it has the peculiar power that is apt to invest the first work of an author in which his originality finds complete artistic expression. It is seldom that one can observe so plainly the different elements that are primary in a writer's endowment coalesce in the fully developed work of genius; yet in this romance there is nothing either in method or perception which is not to be found in the earlier tales; what distinguishes it is the union of art and intuition as they had grown up in Hawthorne's practice and had developed a power to penetrate more deeply into life. Obviously at the start there is the physical object in which his imagination habitually found its spring, the fantastically embroidered scarlet letter on a woman's bosom which he had seen in the Puritan group described in "Endicott and the Red Cross." It had been in his mind for years, and his thoughts had centred on it and wandered out from it, tracking its mystery. It has in itself that decorative quality, which he sought in the physical object,—the brilliant and rich effect, startling to the eye and yet more to the imagination as it blazes forth with a secret symbolism and almost intelligence of its own. It multiplies itself, as the tale unfolds, with greater intensity and mysterious significance and dread suggestion, as if in mirrors set round about it,—in the slowly disclosed and fearful stigma on the minister's hidden heart over which he ever holds his hand, where it has become flesh of his flesh; in the growing elf-like figure of the child, who, with her eyes always fastened on the open shame of the letter on her mother's bosom or the hidden secret of the hand on her father's breast, has become herself the symbol, half revealed and half concealed, is dressed in it, as every reader remembers, and fantastically embodies it as if the thing had taken life in her; and, as if this were not enough, the scarlet letter, at a climax of the dark story, lightens forth over the whole heavens as a symbol of what cannot be hid even in the intensest blackness of night. The continual presence of the letter seems to have burnt into Hawthorne's own mind, till at the end of the narrative he says he would gladly erase its deep print from the brain where long meditation had fixed it. In no other work is the physical symbol so absorbingly present, so reduplicated, so much alive in itself. It is the brand of sin on life. Its concrete vividness leads the author also by a natural compulsion as well as an artistic instinct to display his story in that succession of high-wrought scenes, tableaux, in fact, which was his characteristic method of narrative, picturesque, pictorial, almost to be described as theatrical in spectacle. The background, also, as in the early tales, is of the slightest, no more than will suffice for the acting of the drama as a stage setting sympathetic with the central scene,—a town, with a prison, a meeting-house, a pillory, a governor's house, other habitations on a street, a lonely cottage by the shore, the forest round about all; and for occasion and accessories, only a woman's sentence, the incidental death of Winthrop unmarked in itself, a buccaneering ship in the harbor, Indians, Spanish sailors, rough matrons, clergy; this will serve, for such was Hawthorne's fine economy, knowing that this story was one in which every materialistic element must be used at its lowest tone. Though the scene lay in this world, it was but transitory scaffolding; the drama was one of the eternal life.
The characteristic markings of Hawthorne's genius are also to be found in other points. He does not present the scene of life, the crowd of the world with its rich and varied fullness of interest, complexity of condition and movement, and its interwoven texture of character, event, and fate, such as the great novelists use; he has only a few individual figures, and these are simplified by being exhibited, not in their complete lives, but only in that single aspect of their experience which was absorbing to themselves and constituted the life they lived in the soul itself. There are three characters, Hester, the minister, and the physician; and a fourth, the child, who fulfills the function of the chorus in the old drama, in part a living comment, in part a spectator and medium of sympathy with the main actors. In all four of these that trait of profound isolation in life, so often used before in the earlier tales, is strongly brought out; about each is struck a circle which separates not only one from another, but from all the world, and in the midst of it, as in a separate orb, each lives an unshared life. It is inherent, too, in such a situation that the mystery that had fascinated Hawthorne in so many forms, the secrecy of men's bosoms, should be a main theme in the treatment. He has also had recourse to that method of violent contrast which has been previously illustrated; on the one hand the publicity of detected wrongdoing, on the other the hidden and unsuspected fact; here the open shame and there the secret sin, whose sameness in a double life is expressed by the identity of the embroidered letter and the flesh-wrought stigma. But it is superfluous to illustrate further the genesis of this romance out of Hawthorne's art and matter in his earlier work, showing how naturally it rose by a concentration of his powers on a single theme that afforded them scope, intensity, and harmony at once. The new thing here is the power of his genius to penetrate, as was said above, deep into life.
The romance begins where common tales end. The crime has been committed; in it, in its motives, circumstances, explanation, its course of passion and human tide of life, Hawthorne takes no interest. All that is past, and, whatever it was, now exists only as sin; it has passed from the region of earthly fact into that of the soul, out of all that was temporal into the world where eternal things only are. Not crime, not passion, not the temptation and the fall, but only sin now staining the soul in consequence is the theme; and the course of the story concerns man's dealing with sin, in his own breast or the breasts of others. It is a study of punishment, of vengeance if one will; this is the secret of its gloom, for the idea of salvation, of healing, is but little present and is not felt; there is no forgiveness in the end, in any sense to dispel the darkness of evil or promise the dawn of new life in any one of these tortured souls. The sin of the lovers is not the centre of the story, but only its initial source; that sin breeds sin is the real principle of its being; the minister is not punished as a lover, but as the hypocrite that he becomes, and the physician is punished as the revenger that he becomes. Hester's punishment is visibly from the law, and illustrates the law's brutality, the coarse hand of man for justice, the mere physical blow meant to hurt and crush; it is man's social way of dealing with sin, and fails because it makes no connection with the soul; the victim rises above it, is emancipated from its ideas, transforms the symbol of disgrace into a message of mercy to all who suffer, and annuls the gross sentence by her own higher soul-power. The minister's punishment, also, is visibly from the physician, who illustrates man's individual way of dealing with sin in another; but it is not the minister's suffering under the hand of revenge working subtly in secret that arrests our attention; it is the physician's own degeneracy into a devil of hate through enjoyment of the sight and presence of this punishment, that stamps him into the reader's mind as a type of the failure of such a revenge. "Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord" is the text here blazed forth. In the sphere of the soul human law and private revenge have no place. It is in that sphere that Hester is seen suffering in the touch of the child, being unable to adjust the broken harmonies of life; her incapacity to do that is the ever-present problem that keeps her wound open, not to be stanched, but rather breaking with a more intimate pain with the unfolding of little Pearl's wide-eyed soul. In that sphere, too, the minister is seen suffering—not for the original sin, for that is overlaid, whelmed, forgotten, by the second and heavier transgression of hypocrisy, cowardice, desertion,—but merely from self-knowledge, the knowledge that he is a living lie. The characters, so treated, become hardly more than types, humanly outlined in figure, costume, and event, symbolic pictures of states of the soul, so simplified, so intense, so elementary as to belong to a phantasmagoric rather than a realistic world, to that mirror of the soul which is not found in nature but in spiritual self-consciousness, where the soul is given back to itself in its nakedness, as in a secret place.
Yet it is in the sense of reality that this romance is most intense. It is a truthful story, above all; and only its truth could make it tolerable to the imagination and heart, if indeed it be tolerable to the heart at all. A part of this reality is due to the fact that there is a story here that lies outside of the moral scheme in which Hawthorne's conscious thought would confine it; the human element in it threatens from time to time to break the mould of thought and escape from bondage, because, simple as the moral scheme is, human life is too complex to be solved by it even in this small world of the three guilty ones and the child. This weakness of the moral scheme, this rude strength of human nature, this sense of a larger solution, are most felt when Hawthorne approaches the love element, and throughout in the character of Hester, in whom alone human nature retains a self-assertive power. The same thing is felt vaguely, but certainly, in the lack of sympathy between Hawthorne and the Puritan environment he depicts. He presents the community itself, its common people, its magistrates and clergy, its customs, temper, and atmosphere, as forbidding, and he has no good word for it; harshness characterizes it, and that trait discredits its ideals, its judgments, and its entire interpretation of life. Hester, outcast from it, is represented as thereby enfranchised from its narrowness, enlightened, escaped into a world of larger truth:—
"The world's law was no law for her mind. It was an age in which the human intellect, newly emancipated, had taken a more active and a wider range than for many centuries before. Men of the sword had overthrown nobles and kings. Men bolder than these had overthrown and rearranged—not actually, but within the sphere of theory, which was their most real abode—the whole system of ancient prejudice, wherewith was linked much of ancient principle. Hester Prynne imbibed this spirit. She assumed a freedom of speculation, then common enough on the other side of the Atlantic, but which our forefathers, had they known it, would have held to be a deadlier crime than that stigmatized by the scarlet letter. In her lonesome cottage, by the sea-shore, thoughts visited her, such as dared to enter no other dwelling in New England; shadowy guests, that would have been as perilous as demons to their entertainer, could they have been seen so much as knocking at her door."
This is the foregleam of the next age, felt in her mind, the coming of a larger day. Hawthorne does not develop this or justify it; he only states it as a fact of life. And in the motive of the story, the love of Hester and Arthur, much is left dim; but what is discerned threatens to be unmanageable within the limits of the scheme. Did Hester love her lover, and he love her, through those seven years in silence? Did either of them ever repent their passion for its own sake? And when Hester's womanhood came back in its bloom and her hair fell shining in the forest sunlight, and she took her lover, hand and head and form, in all his broken suffering to her affectionate care and caress, and planned the bold step that they go out together across the seas and live in each other's lives like lovers in truth and reality,—was this only the resurrection of a moment or the firm vital force of a seven years' silent passion? Had either of them ever repented, though one was a coward and the other a condemned and public criminal before the law, and both had suffered? Was not the true sin, as is suggested, the source of all this error, the act of the physician who had first violated Hester's womanhood in a loveless marriage as he had now in Arthur's breast "violated in cold blood the sanctity of a human heart"? "Thou and I," says Arthur, "never did so." The strange words follow, strange for Hawthorne to have written, but better attesting his truth to human nature than all his morality:—
"Never, never!" whispered she. "What we did had a consecration of its own. We felt it so! We said so to each other! Hast thou forgotten it?"
"Hush, Hester!" said Arthur Dimmesdale, rising from the ground. "No; I have not forgotten!"
That confession is the stroke of genius in the romance that humanizes it with a thrill that is felt through every page of the stubborn, dark, harsh narrative of misery. It was not a sin against love that had been committed; it was a sin against the soul; and the sin against the soul lay in the lack of confession, which becomes the cardinal situation of the romance solved in the minister's dying acknowledgment. But the love problem is never solved, just as the hate problem in the physician is never solved; both Hester and Roger Chillingworth, one with her mystery of enduring love, the other with his mystery of insatiable hatred, are left with the issue, the meaning of their lives inexplicable, untold. Yet it is from the presence of these elements in the story that something of its intense reality comes.
It remains true, however, that the essential reality lies in the vivid sense of sin, and its experience in conscience. Hawthorne has not given a historical view of New England life; such a village, with such a tragedy, never existed, in that environing forest of the lone seacoast; but he has symbolized historical New England by an environment that he created round a tragedy that he read in the human heart, and in this tragedy itself he was able also to symbolize New England life in its internal features. One thing stood plainly out in our home Puritanism,—spirituality; the transcendent sense of the reality of the soul's life with God, its conscience, its perils, and its eternal issue. Spirituality remained the inheritance of the New England blood; and Hawthorne, who was no Puritan in doctrine or sympathy even, was Puritan in temperament, and hence to him, too, spirituality in life was its main element. He took that sin of passion which has ever been held typical of sin against the purity of the soul's nature, and transformed it into the symbol of all sin, and in its manifestation revolved the aspects of sin as a presence in the soul after the act,—the broken law disturbing life's external harmonies but working a worse havoc within, mining all with corruption there, while it infects with disease whatever approaches it from without. It is by its moral universality that the romance takes hold of the imagination; the scarlet letter becomes only a pictorial incident, but while conscience, repentance, confession, the modes of punishment, and the modes of absolution remain instant and permanent facts in the life of the soul, many a human heart will read in this book as in a manual of its own intimate hours.
The romance is thus essentially a parable of the soul's life in sin; in its narrower scope it is the work of the moral intellect allegorizing its view of life; and where creative genius enters into it, in the Shakespearean sense of life in its own right, it tends to be a larger and truer story breaking the bonds of its religious scheme. It has its roots in Puritanism, but it is only incidentally a New England tale; its substance is the most universal experience of human nature in religious life, taking its forms only, its local habitation and name, from the Puritan colony in America, and these in a merely allegorical, not historical manner. Certain traits, however, ally it more closely to New England Puritanism. It is a relentless tale; the characters are singularly free from self-pity, and accept their fate as righteous; they never forgave themselves, they show no sign of having forgiven one another; even God's forgiveness is left under a shadow in futurity. They have sinned against the soul, and something implacable in evil remains. The minister's dying words drop a dark curtain over all.
"Hush, Hester, hush!" said he, with tremulous solemnity. "The law we broke!—the sin here so awfully revealed!—let these alone be in thy thoughts! I fear! I fear! It may be that, when we forgot our God,—when we violated our reverence each for the other's soul,—it was thenceforth vain to hope that we could meet hereafter, in an everlasting and pure reunion."
Mercy is but a hope. There is also a singular absence of prayer in the book. Evil is presented as a thing without remedy, that cannot change its nature. The child, even, being the fruit of sin, can bring, Hester and Arthur doubt, no good for others or herself. In the scheme of Puritan thought, however, the atonement of Christ is the perpetual miracle whereby salvation comes, not only hereafter but in the holier life led here by grace. There is no Christ in this book. Absolution, so far as it is hinted at, lies in the direction of public confession, the efficacy of which is directly stated, but lamely nevertheless; it restores truth, but it does not heal the past. Leave the dead past to bury its dead, says Hawthorne, and go on to what may remain; but life once ruined is ruined past recall. So Hester, desirous of serving in her place the larger truth she has come to know, is stayed, says Hawthorne, because she "recognized the impossibility that any mission of divine and mysterious truth should be confided to a woman stained with sin, bowed down with shame, or even burdened with a life-long sorrow." That was never the Christian gospel nor the Puritan faith. Indeed, Hawthorne here and elsewhere anticipates those ethical views which are the burden of George Eliot's moral genius, and contain scientific pessimism. This stoicism, which was in Hawthorne, is a primary element in his moral nature, in him as well as in his work; it is visited with few touches of tenderness and pity; the pity one feels is not in him, it is in the pitiful thing, which he presents objectively, sternly, unrelentingly. It must be confessed that as an artist he appears unsympathetic with his characters; he is a moral dissector of their souls, minute, unflinching, thorough, a vivisector here; and he is cold because he has passed sentence on them, condemned them. There is no sympathy with human nature in the book; it is a fallen and ruined thing suffering just pain in its dying struggle. The romance is steeped in gloom. Is it too much to suggest that in ignoring prayer, the atonement of Christ, and the work of the Spirit in men's hearts, the better part of Puritanism has been left out, and the whole life of the soul distorted? Sin in the soul, the scarlet flower from the dark soil, we see; but, intent on that, has not the eye, and the heart, too, forgotten the large heavens that ensphere all—even this evil flower—and the infinite horizons that reach off to the eternal distance from every soul as from their centre? This romance is the record of a prison-cell, unvisited by any ray of light save that earthly one which gives both prisoners to public ignominy; they are seen, but they do not see. These traits of the book, here only suggested, have kinship with the repelling aspects of Puritanism, both as it was and as Hawthorne inherited it in his blood and breeding; so, in its transcendent spirituality, and in that democracy which is the twin-brother of spirituality in all lands and cultures, by virtue of which Hawthorne here humiliates and strips the minister who is the type of the spiritual aristocrat in the community, there is the essence of New England; but, for all that, the romance is a partial story, an imperfect fragment of the old life, distorting, not so much the Puritan ideal—which were a little matter—but the spiritual life itself. Its truth, intense, fascinating, terrible as it is, is a half-truth, and the darker half; it is the shadow of which the other half is light; it is the wrath of which the other half is love. A book from which light and love are absent may hold us by its truth to what is dark in life; but, in the highest sense, it is a false book. It is a chapter in the literature of moral despair, and is perhaps most tolerated as a condemnation of the creed which, through imperfect comprehension, it travesties.
With this book Hawthorne came into fame; but his fellow townsmen were ill pleased to find some disrepute of their own accompanying his success. It is surely to be regretted that this was the case; and, effective as his sketch of the Custom House is, one feels that Hawthorne stooped in taking his literary revenge on his humble associates by holding them up to personal ridicule. The tone of pleasantry veils ill feeling, which is expressed without cover in a letter he wrote to Bridge a day or two before he left the town:—
"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."
He had said his farewell in the too famous sketch, with an ill grace, shaking the dust of his native place from his feet, and frankly taking upon himself the character of the unappreciated genius, which is seldom a becoming one. The passage fitly closes this chapter in which his nativity, for better or worse, is most apparent.
"Soon my old native town will loom upon me through the haze of memory, a mist brooding over and around it, as if it were no portion of the real earth, but an overgrown village in cloud-land, with only imaginary inhabitants to people its wooden houses, and walk its homely lanes, and the unpicturesque prolixity of its main street. Henceforth it ceases to be a reality of my life. I am a citizen of somewhere else. My good townspeople will not much regret me; for—though it has been as dear an object as any, in my literary efforts, to be of some importance in their eyes, and to win myself a pleasant memory in this abode and burial-place of so many of my forefathers—there has never been, for me, the genial atmosphere which a literary man requires, in order to ripen the best harvest of his mind. I shall do better amongst other faces; and these familiar ones, it need hardly be said, will do just as well without me."
- The Scarlet Letter. A Romance. By Nathaniel Hawthorne. Boston: Ticknor, Reed and Fields. 1850. 12mo. Pp. iv, 322.