Nathaniel Hawthorne said of his seminal novel The Scarlet Letter that his inspiration for the book came from several sources:
  • Years of living in Salem Village and a desire to write about his home
  • Pent-up guilt for the Puritanical sins of the fathers (you may recognize Judge John Hathorne from Arthur Miller's The Crucible; this character was in reality Hawthorne's great-grandfather's son)
  • Perhaps most strikingly, he lost his job! Yes, he lost his cushy job at the Salem customs house and then wrote about it in the introduction, some fifty pages, of The Scarlet Letter.

Hawthorne's firing forced him to turn his career as a short story author into something more lasting. The Scarlet Letter is a beautiful psychological drama that questions the very foundations of sin. Hawthorne's introductory chapter, "The Custom House," describes his motivations for writing the novel. But if you think he told the whole story, you're probably sadly mistaken. Below is a comparison of his account and the one given by a contemporary newspaper which scooped the story, writing the Monday after it happened on Friday and full of fiery rhetoric. The two descriptions have similarities and differences; I offer a suggested conclusion from these discrepancies--that it was all about Salem politics--but feel free to draw your own.


Hawthorne in Trouble: Salem Politics as Usual

The introduction to Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, entitled "The Custom House," purports to explain how Hawthorne came across the story of the scarlet letter. However, it also serves as an introspective presentation of his views on his role as Surveyor in the Salem Custom House and on his losing this job. An article in the Salem Register dated on the Monday after Hawthorne's firing, six months before he published The Scarlet Letter, presents another perspective, for the editors are Hawthorne's political enemies. Though the accounts agree in details, they differ in conclusions, and this gap can be explained best as a matter of politics.

In the Salem Register article of June 11, 1849, entitled simply "The Salem Custom House," the authors assert that Hawthorne ought to have expected to lose his job since it is what is best for the people. Using the timeless technique of "proof by common knowledge," the authors state that "The Salem Custom House needs a reform badly enough, every body knows...[f]or twenty years, it has been a complete house of refuge for locofoco1 [slang for Democrat] politicians, of the most offensive cast." They support this statement with the allegation that the present tenant officers of the Custom House are immoral leeches who feed off of the state's pay and further their own political ambitions from the safety of their estate. While they grant that Hawthorne himself is not guilty of such a grievous offense, they liken politics to war and declare Hawthorne an unfortunate casualty of the vicissitudes of combat. This attitude is more pragmatically political than inimical; because he is an outspoken Democrat, Hawthorne's fate under Whig officials is certain. However, the authors display some kindness; they make special note of his literary leanings and, in a demonstration of eerie prescience, remark that "[h]e may congratulate himself that he can turn his undivided attention to the cultivation of his fine talents, by which he can confer a higher and more lasting benefit to the public." Overall, Hawthorne's predicament is not so important to these authors as is what his dismissal portends for his Democrat colleagues. To prove this point, the authors quote former Democratic President Andrew Jackson's 1829 address to Congress: "The incumbent became an officer with a view to public benefits; and when these require his removal, they are not to be sacrificed to private interests." This article finds Hawthorne's dismissal a necessary tragedy in the step towards a revitalized Custom House.

Writing six months later and in retrospect, Hawthorne portrays his exit from office as one caused by the malice of overzealous politicians. While he concedes that many of his subordinates were irresponsible, he also argues that, after long lives of service, they deserve some rest. Hawthorne points out that the Custom House has fallen into disuse and the harbor into moderate decay, and therefore the post requires less vigilance than before. He further asserts that their positions in this office were well-earned: "They were ancient sea captains, ...who, after being tossed on every sea, and standing up sturdily against life's tempestuous blast, had finally drifted into this quiet nook, where...they one and all acquired a new lease of existence" (23-24). Additionally, Hawthorne appeals to sentimentality; he concedes that even though he knew it was wrong to keep these veterans on the payroll, he had not the heart to release them; he clearly draws parallels to his own heartless release from office. Hawthorne has little to say concerning his own politics but is quick to compare the politics of the time to the barbarism of the French Revolution and its bloody guillotine. He notes that when he first came into the position, he experienced no tension with his Whig colleagues since he cared more for people than politics. Ironically, his strongest political leanings came after his removal, because previously "his tendency to roam...had sometimes made it questionable with his brother Democrats whether he was a friend" (51). Hawthorne intimates that his removal was a savage act virtually indistinguishable from any vicious execution. Yet despite this devastation, Hawthorne comes to appreciate his newfound time and the clarity of insight it affords him. He writes of his job that "it is anything but agreeable to be haunted by a suspicion that one's intellect is dwindling away" (47), and he in fact tells the reader that he nearly wanted to lose his post at the Custom House. Though he is probably rationalizing his loss, there is also a real dimension to the freedom he possesses in not having work, for Hawthorne argues that depending on the state for survival drained him of his creative spark. Support for this argument is found in the fact that The Scarlet Letter, his seminal work, was written after his firing. By portraying his dismissal as a cruel, callous action and by following through on his opponents' exhortations to write well, Hawthorne emerges triumphant in this preface which serves as much as self-vindication as it does for exposition.

Both the Salem Register and Hawthorne himself provide similar descriptions of an office fallen into disrepair, but Hawthorne strives to make his account more believable. Because he is writing a novel, not a newspaper, his embellishment is understandable, but nevertheless there remains a discrepancy between the two perceptions of the events. If it were true that Hawthorne's dismissal was simply society fortuitously offering him a chance to write a novel, he would not have expounded such on the merciless manner in which it was carried out; clearly another dimension of political strife existed. These two documents offer an unusually clear and fascinating glimpse of the undercurrents of 19th century Salem society.


1-The word 'locofoco' has a special etymology of its own. Pared down to its essentials, it refers to a radical group of Democrats (it is named after the 'locofoco' matches by whose light a political meeting was held) which was quickly reabsorbed into the mainstream Democratic party (along with the nickname); a more detailed explanation of the circumstances is available here: http://www.infoplease.com/ce6/history/A0830122.html (but the word locofoco itself used to describe matches has yet another explanation; consult local dictionary for further information).


Primary Source:
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. New York: Penguin Group, 1980.
Secondary Source:
"THE SALEM CUSTOM HOUSE." The Salem Register 11 June 1849.http://www.hawthorneinsalem.org/Literature/customhousesketch/auxfiles/SRfiring.shtml 3 November 2002.

Brought to you by the letters n..o..d..ah, screw it.
Grade: 100/100

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