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Picture of by Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of The Scarlet Letter, by Charles Osgood; nineteenth century American Literature

March 16, 1850
Nathaniel Hawthorne   (1804 - 1864)
Salem & The Scarlet Letter
by Steve King

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On this day in 1850, Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter was published. Hawthorne's claim of having discovered in his Salem Custom-House not only the historical records of adultery but the actual, three and one-quarter inch letter 'A' -- "a certain affair of fine red cloth, much worn and faded" -- was a literary device, but it was not pure fiction. Among his seventeenth-century ancestors were two sisters who had been forced to sit in the Salem meetinghouse wearing forehead bands identifying their incestuous conduct (while their brother hid out in Maine). The Scarlet Letter also came from Hawthorne's general guilt over the Puritan enthusiasms of some of his other ancestors -- one had been a judge at the witch trials -- and his feeling that his hometown was a place of gloom and convention, itself a punishment: "Methinks all enormous sinners should be sent on pilgrimage to Salem," he wrote in 1840, "and compelled to spend a length of time there.... Such a punishment would be suited to sinners that do not quite deserve hanging, yet are too aggravated for the States-Prison."

Hawthorne's attempts to escape Salem included a short stay at Brook Farm, the Transcendentalists' utopian community outside of Boston. Although at first invigorated by the new thinking and fresh air, he soon found himself permanently volunteered to the manure pile, and reappraising town-life: "a man's soul may be buried and perish under a dung-heap, or in a furrow of the field, just as well as under a pile of money." He returned to his "haunted chamber" in Salem, and to renewed hope of making a living by writing. In an earlier story, "Endicott and the Red Cross," he had told of "a young woman with no mean share of beauty, whose doom it was to wear the letter A on the breast of her gown." This heroine, like the eventual Hester Prynne, embroiders her shame in gold, so that it "might have been thought to mean Admirable, or any thing rather than Adulterous." When he was controversially fired from his job in the Custom-House in the summer of 1849, now himself branded by slander and finger-pointing, he was ready for another run at his persecution story. Despite his predictions that it would "weary very many and disgust some," The Scarlet Letter was immediately popular, allowing Hawthorne to move away from Salem with this good riddance: "I detest this town so much that I hate to go into the streets or to have the people see me. Anywhere else, I shall at once be entirely another man."

Hawthorne rarely visited Salem again; Pearl, his heroine's bastard "elf-child," also left for good, moving on to a mysterious fate; Hester, being of redoubtable New England stock, returned to stay, and to out-face her neighbors:
    But there was a more real life for Hester Prynne here, in New England, than in that unknown region where Pearl had found a home. Here had been her sin; here, her sorrow; and here was yet to be her penitence. She had returned, therefore, and resumed, -- of her own free will, for not the sternest magistrate of that iron period would have imposed it, -- resumed the symbol of which we have related so dark a tale. Never afterwards did it quit her bosom. . . .

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Related authors:  Henry David Thoreau, Herman Melville, Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson
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