Hawthorne and the Scarlet Letter

by Edwin Watts Chubb

On June 8, 1849, Hawthorne walked out of the Salem Custom House—a man without a job. Taylor's Whig administration had come in, so our Democratic friend, Mr. Hawthorne, walked out. The job he left was not in our modern eyes a very lucrative one, it was worth $1,200 a year and Hawthorne had had it for three years. But he went out "mad," for he knew he had not meddled in politics and he thought that as an author—even if he was the "most obscure man of letters in America"—he was entitled to some consideration.

And then there were the wife and children! As he walked home to tell them the doleful news, he was much depressed by thoughts of them. He had paid his old debts; but he had saved nothing. He seemed to lack money, friends, and influence. He had written to a friend in Boston,—"I shall not stand upon my dignity; that must take care of itself.... 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." What a noble tribute to woman's fortitude! Hawthorne's belief in the sustaining love of his wife reminds us of a tradition which says that he never read a letter from his wife without first washing his hands. To him the act was sacred, and like a priest of old before handling the symbols of love he performed the rites of purification.

His son tells us how the wife met the news with which he greeted her on his arrival at home, "that he had left his head behind." She exclaimed, "Oh, then you can write your book!" And when he with the prudence of a practical man wanted to know where the bread and rice were to come from while he was writing the book, she like all good wives—of olden times, at least—brought forth a "pile of gold" which she had saved from the household weekly expenses. When the pile of gold had been subjected to mathematical accuracy it dwindled to $150, but it was enough to tide over immediate wants.

It was in the early winter that James T. Fields, the publisher who plays such a prominent part in the early history of American literature, descended upon the quiet Salem household like the "godmother in a fairy story." Fields has told the story of his visit: "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 2,000 copies of anything you would 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 be soon starting for Boston, and I knew that 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 in that article of furniture was a story or stories by the author of Twice-told Tales; and I became so positive of it that I charged him vehemently with the fact. He seemed surprised, I thought, but shook his head again; and I rose to take my leave, begging him not to come into the cold entry, saying I would come back and see him again in a few days. I was hurrying down the stairs when he called after me from the chamber, asking me to stop a moment. Then quickly stepping into the entry with a roll of MS. in his hands, he said: 'How in heaven's name did you know this thing was there? As you found me out, take what was 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 to Boston I read the germ of The Scarlet Letter."

Hawthorne's original plan was to write a number of stories, of which this particular one was to be the longest. He was going to call his book of tales, Old-Time Legends: together with Sketches, Experimental and Ideal,—a title which Woodberry calls "ghostly with the transcendental nonage of his genius." Fields urged that the tale be made longer and fuller and that it be published by itself. So the original plan was changed, as was also the title. This was wise, for the cumbersome original title would have killed any book, but the present title is nothing short of a stroke of genius.

About this time Hawthorne's friends, under the leading of Hillard, sent a kind letter and a considerable sum of money. Hawthorne replied,—"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." After saying it was sweet to be remembered, but bitter to need their aid, he concludes,—"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 letter was written, on February 3, 1850, he finished The Scarlet Letter. He writes to a friend saying he read the last scene to his wife, or rather tried to read it, "for my voice swelled and heaved, as if I were tossed up and down on an ocean as it subsides after a storm." Mrs. Hawthorne told a friend that her husband seemed depressed all during that winter. "There was a knot in his forehead all the time," said his wife. One day he told her he had a story that he wished to read to her. He read part of the work one evening. The next evening he continued. His wife followed the story with intense interest. Her excitement arose until when he was reading near the end of the book, where Arthur and Hester and the child meet in the forest, Mrs. Hawthorne sank from her low stool to the floor and said she could endure no more. Hawthorne stopped and said in wonder,—"Do you really feel it so much? Then there must be something in it."

Mrs. Hawthorne relates that on the day after the MS. was delivered to Fields, this publisher returned and when admitted to the house caught up her boy in his arms and said,—"You splendid little fellow, do you know what a father you have?" Then he ran upstairs to talk to Hawthorne, calling to her as he went that he had sat up all night to read the story. Soon her husband came down and walked about the room with a new light in his eyes.

Early in April the book was issued in an edition of 5,000 copies; this was soon exhausted, and Hawthorne was well started on that career of literary fame which led Mr. Hamilton W. Mabie, a hundred years after the birth of Hawthorne, to call him "the foremost literary artist of America."

The Scarlet Letter, as Hawthorne himself tells us, is a story of "human frailty and sorrow." It is the story of one who has brooded long and faithfully upon the problem of evil. In it we read that man is the master of his fate. The great difference between ancient and modern literature is this: the old dramatists seem to believe that somewhere there is a power above and beyond the control of man, a blind, unreasoning force that seems to play with man as the football of chance. Whatever may be done by man will prove unavailing if Fate or Destiny has decreed otherwise. Out of such a philosophy of life comes the story of Œdipus. The modern conception is that expressed by Shakspere:

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.

Still later Henley in his one great poem has expressed the thought with vigor,—

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods there be
For my unconquerable soul!

With unfaltering aim Hawthorne shows that each character works out its own destiny. That man is helpless, the sport of gods, the football of Fate, is disproved by the patient transformation in the character of Hester.

Some one has well characterized The Scarlet Letter as "a drama of the spirit." It is a story such as only one who had brooded deeply on the problem of evil could write. Hawthorne was a "solitary brooder upon life." Every one who knew him testified to this impression. When William Dean Howells, a young man from Ohio, knocked at the door of the Wayside Cottage, a letter of introduction in his hand, and a feeling of hero-worship in his heart, he was ushered into the presence of the great romancer, who advanced "carrying his head with a heavy forward droop" and with pondering pace. His look was "somber and brooding—the look of a man who had dealt faithfully and therefore sorrowfully with that problem of evil which forever attracted and forever evaded Hawthorne."

Hawthorne impressed all who met him with his reserve and shyness. Many stories are told to illustrate this quality. Hawthorne was once a visitor at a club where a number of literary men had gathered. The taciturnity of Hawthorne was more impressive than the loquacity of the witty Holmes. After Hawthorne had left Emerson said, "Hawthorne rides his dark horse well." George William Curtis relates this anecdote:

"...I recall the silent and preternatural vigor with which, on one occasion, he wielded his paddle to counteract the bad rowing of a friend who conscientiously considered it his duty to do something and not let Hawthorne work alone, but who with every stroke neutralized all Hawthorne's efforts. I suppose he would have struggled until he fell senseless rather than to ask his friend to desist. His principle seemed to be, if a man cannot understand without talking to him, it is quite useless to talk, because it is immaterial whether such a man understands or not."

Hawthorne's father was a man of the sea, a man of few words, and it is sometimes said that the romancer inherited his shy and reserved disposition from his father. But his mother was not behind the father in reserve. After her husband's death she shut herself up in Hindoo-like seclusion and lived the life of a hermit for more than forty years.

Hawthorne gives us an interesting account of his boyhood in an autobiographical note to his friend Stoddard. "When I was eight or nine years old, my mother, with her three children, took up her residence on the banks of the Sebago Lake, in Maine, where the family owned a large tract of land; and here I ran quite wild ... fishing all day long, or shooting with an old fowling-piece; but reading a good deal too, on the rainy days, especially in Shakspere and The Pilgrim's Progress."

More pertinent as to his habits of loneliness is the following account of how he lived for nine or ten years after his graduation from Bowdoin. "I had always," he writes, "a natural tendency (it appears to have been on the paternal side) toward seclusion; and this I now indulged to the utmost, so that, for months together, I scarcely held human intercourse outside of my own family, seldom going out except at twilight, or only to take the nearest way to the most convenient solitude, which was oftenest the seashore.... Having spent so much of my boyhood and youth from my native place, I had very few acquaintances in Salem, and during the nine or ten years that I spent there, in this solitary way, I doubt whether so much as twenty people in the town were aware of my existence."

Such was the solitariness of the youthful Hawthorne. Is it surprising that in the fiction of the mature man there should be a pervading sense of remoteness, of silences that fascinate, of mysteries that charm?