The Scarlet Letter - Nathaniel Hawthorne

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COPYRIGHT, 1850 AND 1877.
_All rights reserved._
October 22, 1874. – Upload and Download PDF for Free!

Much to the author's surprise, and (if he may say so without
additional offence) considerably to his amusement, he finds that his
sketch of official life, introductory to THE SCARLET LETTER, has
created an unprecedented excitement in the respectable community
immediately around him. It could hardly have been more violent,
indeed, had he burned down the Custom-House, and quenched its last
smoking ember in the blood of a certain venerable personage, against
whom he is supposed to cherish a peculiar malevolence. As the public
disapprobation would weigh very heavily on him, were he conscious of
deserving it, the author begs leave to say, that he has carefully read
over the introductory pages, with a purpose to alter or expunge
whatever might be found amiss, and to make the best reparation in his
power for the atrocities of which he has been adjudged guilty. But it
appears to him, that the only remarkable features of the sketch are
its frank and genuine good-humor, and the general accuracy with which
he has conveyed his sincere impressions of the characters therein
described. As to enmity, or ill-feeling of any kind, personal or
political, he utterly disclaims such motives. The sketch might,
perhaps, have been wholly omitted, without loss to the public, or
detriment to the book; but, having undertaken to write it, he
conceives that it could not have been done in a better or a kindlier
spirit, nor, so far as his abilities availed, with a livelier effect
of truth.
The author is constrained, therefore, to republish his introductory
sketch without the change of a word.
SALEM, March 30, 1850. – Upload and Download PDF for Free!

It is a little remarkable, that--though disinclined to talk overmuch
of myself and my affairs at the fireside, and to my personal
friends--an autobiographical impulse should twice in my life have
taken possession of me, in addressing the public. The first time was
three or four years since, when I favored the reader--inexcusably, and
for no earthly reason, that either the indulgent reader or the
intrusive author could imagine--with a description of my way of life
in the deep quietude of an Old Manse. And now--because, beyond my
deserts, I was happy enough to find a listener or two on the former
occasion--I again seize the public by the button, and talk of my three
years' experience in a Custom-House. The example of the famous
"P. P., Clerk of this Parish," was never more faithfully followed. The
truth seems to be, however, that, when he casts his leaves forth upon
the wind, the author addresses, not the many who will fling aside his
volume, or never take it up, but the few who will understand him,
better than most of his schoolmates or lifemates. Some authors,
indeed, do far more than this, and indulge themselves in such
confidential depths of revelation as could fittingly be addressed,
only and exclusively, to the one heart and mind of perfect sympathy;
as if the printed book, thrown at large on the wide world, were
certain to find out the divided segment of the writer's own nature,
and complete his circle of existence by bringing him into communion
with it. It is scarcely decorous, however, to speak all, even where we
speak impersonally. But, as thoughts are frozen and utterance
benumbed, unless the speaker stand in some true relation with his
audience, it may be pardonable to imagine that a friend, a kind and
apprehensive, though not the closest friend, is listening to our talk;
and then, a native reserve being thawed by this genial consciousness, – Upload and Download PDF for Free!

we may prate of the circumstances that lie around us, and even of
ourself, but still keep the inmost Me behind its veil. To this extent,
and within these limits, an author, methinks, may be autobiographical,
without violating either the reader's rights or his own.
It will be seen, likewise, that this Custom-House sketch has a certain
propriety, of a kind always recognized in literature, as explaining
how a large portion of the following pages came into my possession,
and as offering proofs of the authenticity of a narrative therein
contained. This, in fact,--a desire to put myself in my true position
as editor, or very little more, of the most prolix among the tales
that make up my volume,--this, and no other, is my true reason for
assuming a personal relation with the public. In accomplishing the
main purpose, it has appeared allowable, by a few extra touches, to
give a faint representation of a mode of life not heretofore
described, together with some of the characters that move in it, among
whom the author happened to make one.
* * * * *
In my native town of Salem, at the head of what, half a century ago,
in the days of old King Derby, was a bustling wharf,--but which is now
burdened with decayed wooden warehouses, and exhibits few or no
symptoms of commercial life; except, perhaps, a bark or brig, half-way
down its melancholy length, discharging hides; or, nearer at hand, a
Nova Scotia schooner, pitching out her cargo of firewood,--at the
head, I say, of this dilapidated wharf, which the tide often
overflows, and along which, at the base and in the rear of the row of
buildings, the track of many languid years is seen in a border of
unthrifty grass,--here, with a view from its front windows adown this
not very enlivening prospect, and thence across the harbor, stands a
spacious edifice of brick. From the loftiest point of its roof, during
precisely three and a half hours of each forenoon, floats or droops,
in breeze or calm, the banner of the republic; but with the thirteen
stripes turned vertically, instead of horizontally, and thus
indicating that a civil, and not a military post of Uncle Sam's – Upload and Download PDF for Free!

government is here established. Its front is ornamented with a portico
of half a dozen wooden pillars, supporting a balcony, beneath which a
flight of wide granite steps descends towards the street. Over the
entrance hovers an enormous specimen of the American eagle, with
outspread wings, a shield before her breast, and, if I recollect
aright, a bunch of intermingled thunderbolts and barbed arrows in each
claw. With the customary infirmity of temper that characterizes this
unhappy fowl, she appears, by the fierceness of her beak and eye, and
the general truculency of her attitude, to threaten mischief to the
inoffensive community; and especially to warn all citizens, careful of
their safety, against intruding on the premises which she overshadows
with her wings. Nevertheless, vixenly as she looks, many people are
seeking, at this very moment, to shelter themselves under the wing of
the federal eagle; imagining, I presume, that her bosom has all the
softness and snugness of an eider-down pillow. But she has no great
tenderness, even in her best of moods, and, sooner or later,--oftener
soon than late,--is apt to fling off her nestlings, with a scratch of
her claw, a dab of her beak, or a rankling wound from her barbed
The pavement round about the above-described edifice--which we may as
well name at once as the Custom-House of the port--has grass enough
growing in its chinks to show that it has not, of late days, been worn
by any multitudinous resort of business. In some months of the year,
however, there often chances a forenoon when affairs move onward with
a livelier tread. Such occasions might remind the elderly citizen of
that period before the last war with England, when Salem was a port by
itself; not scorned, as she is now, by her own merchants and
ship-owners, who permit her wharves to crumble to ruin, while their
ventures go to swell, needlessly and imperceptibly, the mighty flood
of commerce at New York or Boston. On some such morning, when three or
four vessels happen to have arrived at once,--usually from Africa or
South America,--or to be on the verge of their departure thitherward,
there is a sound of frequent feet, passing briskly up and down the
granite steps. Here, before his own wife has greeted him, you may
greet the sea-flushed shipmaster, just in port, with his vessel's – Upload and Download PDF for Free!

papers under his arm, in a tarnished tin box. Here, too, comes his
owner, cheerful or sombre, gracious or in the sulks, accordingly as
his scheme of the now accomplished voyage has been realized in
merchandise that will readily be turned to gold, or has buried him
under a bulk of incommodities, such as nobody will care to rid him of.
Here, likewise,--the germ of the wrinkle-browed, grizzly-bearded,
care-worn merchant,--we have the smart young clerk, who gets the taste
of traffic as a wolf-cub does of blood, and already sends adventures
in his master's ships, when he had better be sailing mimic-boats upon
a mill-pond. Another figure in the scene is the outward-bound sailor
in quest of a protection; or the recently arrived one, pale and
feeble, seeking a passport to the hospital. Nor must we forget the
captains of the rusty little schooners that bring firewood from the
British provinces; a rough-looking set of tarpaulins, without the
alertness of the Yankee aspect, but contributing an item of no slight
importance to our decaying trade.
Cluster all these individuals together, as they sometimes were, with
other miscellaneous ones to diversify the group, and, for the time
being, it made the Custom-House a stirring scene. More frequently,
however, on ascending the steps, you would discern--in the entry, if
it were summer time, or in their appropriate rooms, if wintry or
inclement weather--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.
Furthermore, on the left hand as you enter the front door, is a
certain room or office, about fifteen feet square, and of a lofty
height; with two of its arched windows commanding a view of the – Upload and Download PDF for Free!

aforesaid dilapidated wharf, and the third looking across a narrow
lane, and along a portion of Derby Street. All three give glimpses of
the shops of grocers, block-makers, slop-sellers, and ship-chandlers;
around the doors of which are generally to be seen, laughing and
gossiping, clusters of old salts, and such other wharf-rats as haunt
the Wapping of a seaport. The room itself is cobwebbed, and dingy with
old paint; its floor is strewn with gray sand, in a fashion that has
elsewhere fallen into long disuse; and it is easy to conclude, from
the general slovenliness of the place, that this is a sanctuary into
which womankind, with her tools of magic, the broom and mop, has very
infrequent access. In the way of furniture, there is a stove with a
voluminous funnel; an old pine desk, with a three-legged stool beside
it; two or three wooden-bottom chairs, exceedingly decrepit and
infirm; and--not to forget the library--on some shelves, a score or
two of volumes of the Acts of Congress, and a bulky Digest of the
Revenue Laws. A tin pipe ascends through the ceiling, and forms a
medium of vocal communication with other parts of the edifice. And
here, some six months ago,--pacing from corner to corner, or lounging
on the long-legged stool, with his elbow on the desk, and his eyes
wandering up and down the columns of the morning newspaper,--you might
have recognized, honored reader, the same individual who welcomed you
into his cheery little study, where the sunshine glimmered so
pleasantly through the willow branches, on the western side of the Old
Manse. But now, should you go thither to seek him, you would inquire
in vain for the Locofoco Surveyor. The besom of reform has swept him
out of office; and a worthier successor wears his dignity, and pockets
his emoluments.
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 – Upload and Download PDF for Free!

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
checker-board. 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 earthy 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
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 – Upload and Download PDF for Free!

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! I know not whether these
ancestors of mine bethought themselves to repent, and ask pardon of
Heaven for their cruelties; or whether they are now groaning under the
heavy consequences of them, in another state of being. At all events,
I, the present writer, as their representative, hereby take shame upon
myself for their sakes, and pray that any curse incurred by them--as I
have heard, and as the dreary and unprosperous condition of the race,
for many a long year back, would argue to exist--may be now and
henceforth removed.
Doubtless, however, either of these stern and black-browed Puritans
would have thought it quite a sufficient retribution for his sins,
that, after so long a lapse of years, the old trunk of the family
tree, with so much venerable moss upon it, should have borne, as its
topmost bough, an idler like myself. No aim, that I have ever
cherished, would they recognize as laudable; no success of mine--if my
life, beyond its domestic scope, had ever been brightened by
success--would they deem otherwise than worthless, if not positively
disgraceful. "What is he?" murmurs one gray shadow of my forefathers
to the other. "A writer of story-books! What kind of a business in
life--what mode of glorifying God, or being serviceable to mankind in
his day and generation--may that be? Why, the degenerate fellow might
as well have been a fiddler!" Such are the compliments bandied between
my great-grandsires and myself, across the gulf of time! And yet, 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 – Upload and Download PDF for Free!

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 half-way 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 oyster-like 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 chillest 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. Nevertheless, this very sentiment is an evidence that the
connection, which has become an unhealthy one, should at last be
severed. Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it
be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the – Upload and Download PDF for Free!