In May, 1845, Paymaster Bridge found himself again on the American coast. Meeting with Franklin Pierce in Boston, they agreed to go to Concord together, and look into Hawthorne’s affairs. Soon after breakfast, Mrs. Hawthorne espied them coming through the gateway. She had never met Pierce, but she recognized Bridge’s tall, elegant figure, when he waved his hat to her in the distance. Hawthorne himself was sawing and splitting in the wood-shed, and thither she directed his friends — to his no slight astonishment when they appeared before him. Pierce had his arm across Hawthorne’s broad shoulders when they reappeared. There is one pleasure, indeed, which young people cannot know, and that is, the meeting of old friends. Mrs. Hawthorne was favorably impressed with Franklin Pierce’s personality; while Horatio Bridge danced about and acted an impromptu pantomime, making up faces like an owl. They assured Hawthorne that something should be done to relieve his financial embarrassment.71
All those whose attention Hawthorne attracted out of the rush and hurry of the world were sure to become interested in his welfare. O’Sullivan, the editor of the Democratic Review, had already exerted himself in Hawthorne’s behalf; but President Polk evidently did not know who Hawthorne was, so that O’Sullivan was obliged to have a puff inserted in his review for the President’s better information. George Bancroft was now in the Cabinet, and could easily have obtained a lucrative post for Hawthorne, but it is plain that Bancroft was not over-friendly to him and that Hawthorne was fully aware of this. Hawthorne had suggested the Salem postmastership, but when O’Sullivan mentioned this, Bancroft objected on the ground that the present incumbent was too good a man to be displaced, and proposed the consulates of Genoa and Marseilles, two deplorable positions and quite out of the question for Hawthorne, in the condition of his family at that time. Perhaps it would have been better for him in a material sense, if he had accepted the invitation to dine with Margaret Fuller.
The summer wore away, but nothing was acomplished; and late in the autumn Hawthorne left the Old Manse to return to his Uncle Robert Manning’s house in Salem, where he could always count on a warm welcome. There he spent the winter with his wife and child, until suddenly, in March, 1846, he was appointed Surveyor of the Port, or, as it is now more properly called, Collector of Customs.
This was, in truth, worth waiting for. The salary was not large, but it was a dignified position and allowed Hawthorne sufficient leisure for other pursuits — the leisure of the merchant or banker. Salem had already begun to lose its foreign trade, and for days together it sometimes happened that there was nothing to do. Hawthorne’s chief business was to prevent the government from being cheated, either by the importers or by his own subordinates; and it required a pretty sharp eye to do this. All the appointments, even to his own clerks, were made by outside politicians, and when a reduction of employees was necessary, Hawthorne consulted with the local Democratic Committee, and followed their advice. Such a method was not to the advantage of the public service, but it saved Hawthorne from an annoying responsibility. His strictness and impartiality, however, soon brought him into conflict with his more self-important subordinates, who were by no means accustomed to exactness in their dealings, and this finally produced a good deal of official unpleasantness; and the unfavorable reports which were afterward circulated concerning Hawthorne’s life during this period, probably originated in that quarter.
[Illustration: THE CUSTOM HOUSE, SALEM, MASS., WHERE HAWTHORNE WAS EMPLOYED AS SURVEYOR OF THE FORT OF SALEM, AT THE TIME OF HIS WRITING “THE SCARLET LETTER”]
All the poetry that Hawthorne could extract from his occupation at the Custom House is to be found in his preface to “The Scarlet Letter,” but he withholds from us the prosaic side of it — as he well might. At times he comes close to caricature, especially in his descriptions of “those venerable incumbents who hibernated during the winter season, and then crawled out during the warm days of spring to draw their pay and perform those pretended duties, for which they were engaged.” There were formerly large numbers of moss-grown loafers in the government service, with whiskey-reddened noses and greasy old clothing, who would sun themselves on the door-steps, and tell anecdotes of General Jackson, Senator Benton, and other popular heroes, with whom they would intimate a good acquaintance at some remote period of their lives. If removed from office, they were quite as likely to turn up in a neighboring jail as in any other location. This is no satire, but serious truth; and instances of it can be given.
Hawthorne’s life during the next three years was essentially domestic. In June, 1846, his son Julian was born — a remarkably vigorous baby — at Doctor Peabody’s house in West Street, Boston; Mrs. Hawthorne wisely preferring to be with her own mother during her confinement. 72 With two small children on her hands, Mrs. Hawthorne had slight opportunity to enjoy general society, fashionable or otherwise. Rebecca Manning says, however:
“Neither Hawthorne nor his wife could be said to be ‘in society’ in the technical sense. When the Peabody family lived in Salem, they were, I have been told, somewhat straitened pecuniarily. After Hawthorne’s marriage, I think I remember hearing of his wife going to parties and dinners occasionally. Dr. Loring’s wife was her cousin. Other friends were the Misses Howes, one of whom is now Mrs. Cabot of Boston. Mrs. Foote, who was a daughter of Judge White, was a friend, and I remember some Silsbees who were also her friends. Hawthorne’s wife knew how to cultivate her friends and make the most of them far better than either Hawthorne or his sisters did. I have been told that when Hawthorne was a young man, before his marriage, if he had chosen to enter Salem’s ‘first circle’ he would have been welcome there.”
During this last sojourn in his native city Hawthorne was chosen on the committee for the lyceum lecture course, and proved instrumental in bringing Webster to Salem — where he had not been popular since the trial of the two Knapps — to deliver an oration on the Constitution; of which Mrs. Hawthorne has given a graphic description in a letter to her mother on November 19, 1848:
“The old Lion walked the stage with a sort of repressed rage, when he referred to those persons who cried out, ‘Down with the Constitution!’ ‘Madmen! Or most wicked if not mad!’ said he with a glare of fire.”
A pure piece of acting. The national Constitution was not even endangered by the Southern rebellion — much less by the small band of original abolitionists; and Webster was too sensible not to be aware of this.
While Hawthorne was at the Salem Custom House, he made at least two valuable friends: Doctor George B. Loring, who had married a cousin of Mrs. Hawthorne, and William B. Pike, who occupied a subordinate position in the Custom House, but whom Hawthorne valued for moral and intellectual qualities of which he would seem to have been the first discoverer. They were not friends who would be likely to affect Hawthorne’s political views, except to encourage him in the direction to which he had always tended. Four years earlier, Doctor Loring had been on cordial terms with Longfellow and Sumner, being a refined and intellectual sort of man, but like Hillard, had withdrawn from them on account of political differences. He was an able public speaker, and became a Democratic politician, until 1862, when he went over to the Republicans; but after that he was looked upon with a good deal of suspicion by both parties. The governorship was supposed to have been the object of his ambition, but he never could obtain the nomination. Late in life he was appointed Commissioner of Agriculture, a post for which he was eminently fitted, and finally went to Portugal as United States Minister.
William B. Pike either lacked the opportunity or the necessary concentration to develop his genius in the larger world, but Hawthorne continued to communicate with him irregularly until the close of his life. He invited him to Lenox when he resided there, and Mrs. Lathrop recollects seeing him at the Wayside in Concord, after Hawthorne’s return from Europe. She discribes him as a “short, sturdy, phlegmatic and plebeian looking man,” but with a gentle step and a finely modulated voice. It may have been as well for him that he never became distinguished. 73
The war with Mexico was now fairly afield, and Franklin Pierce, who left the United States Senate on account of his wife’s health, was organizing a regiment of New Hampshire volunteers, as a “patriotic duty.” Salem people thought differently, and party feeling there soon rose to the boiling-point. There is no other community where political excitement is so likely to become virulent as in a small city. In a country town, like Concord, every man feels the necessity for conciliating his neighbor, but the moneyed class in Salem was sufficient for its own purposes, and was opposed to the war in a solid body. The Whigs looked upon the invasion of Mexico as a piratical attempt of the Democratic leaders to secure the permanent ascendency of their party, and this was probably the true reason for Franklin Pierce’s joining it. In their eyes, Hawthorne was the representative of a corrupt administration, and they would have been more than human if they had not wished him to feel this. The Salem gentry could not draw him into an argument very well, but they could look daggers at him on the street and exhibit their coldness toward him when they went on business to the Custom House. It is evident that he was made to suffer in some such manner, and to a tenderhearted man with a clear conscience, it must have seemed unkind and unjust. 74 In his Custom House preface, Hawthorne compares the Whigs rather unfavorably with the Democrats, and this is not to be wondered at; but he should have remembered that it was his own party which first introduced the spoils-of-office system.
The first use that Hawthorne made of his government salary was to cancel his obligations to the Concord tradespeople, and the next was to provide a home for his wife and mother. They first moved to 18 Chestnut Street, in June, 1846; and thence to a larger house, 14 Mall Street, in September, 1847, in which “The Snow Image” was prepared for publication, and “The Scarlet Letter” was written. Hawthorne’s study or workshop was the front room in the third story, an apartment of some width but with a ceiling in direct contradiction to the elevated thoughts of the writer. There is an ominous silence in the American Note-book between 1846 and 1850, which is rather increased than diminished by the publication from his diary of a number of extracts concerning the children. The babies of geniuses do not differ essentially from those of other people, and it is not supposable that Hawthorne’s reflections during this period were wholly confined to his own family. It is to be hoped that fuller information will yet be given to the public concerning their affairs in Salem; for the truth deserves to be told.
In January, 1846, Mrs. Hawthorne wrote to her mother:
“No one, I think, has a right to break the will of a child, but God; and if the child is taught to submit to Him through love, all other submission will follow with heavenly effect upon the character. God never drives even the most desperate sinner, but only invites or suggests through the events of His providence.”
Nothing is more unfortunate than to break the will of a child, for all manliness and womanliness is grounded in the will; but it is often necessary to control the desires and humors of children for their self-preservation. Hawthorne himself was not troubled with such fancies. Alcott, who was his nearest neighbor at the Wayside, once remarked that there was only one will in the Hawthorne family, and that was Nathaniel’s. His will was law and no one thought of disputing it. Yet what he writes concerning children is always sweet, tender, and beautiful, with the single exception of a criticism of his own daughter, which was published long after his death and could not have been intended for the public eye.
The war with Mexico was wonderfully successful from a military point of view, but its political effects were equally confounding to the politicians who projected it. The American people resemble the French, quite as much perhaps as they do the English, and the admiration of military glory is one of their Gallic traits. It happened that the two highest positions in the army were both held by Whig generals, and the victory of Buena Vista carried Zachary Taylor into the White House, in spite of the opposition of Webster and Clay, as well as that of the Democrats and the Free Soilers. Polk, Bancroft, and Pierce had all contributed to the defeat of their own party. The war proved their political terminus to the two former; but, mirabile dictu, it became the cap of Fortunatus to Pierce and Hawthorne.
This, however, could not have been foreseen at the time, and the election of Taylor in November, 1848, had a sufficiently chilling effect on the little family in Mall Street. Hawthorne entertained the hope that he might be spared in the general out-turning, as a distinguished writer and an inoffensive partisan, and this indicates how loath he was to relinquish his comfortable position. Let us place ourselves in his situation and we shall not wonder at it. He was now forty-five, with a wife and two children, and destitution was staring him in the face. For ten years he had struggled bravely, and this was the net result of all his endeavors. Never had the future looked so gloomy to him.
The railroad had superseded his Uncle Manning’s business, as it had that of half the mercantile class in the city, and his father-inlaw was in a somewhat similar predicament. At this time Elizabeth Peabody was keeping a small foreign book-store in a room of her father’s house on West Street. One has to realize these conditions, in order to appreciate the mood in which Hawthorne’s Custom House preface was written.
There is one passage in it, however, that is always likely to be misunderstood. It is where he says:
“I thought my own prospects of retaining office, to be better than those of my Democratic brethren; but who can see an inch into futurity, beyond his nose? My own head was the first that fell!”
It is clear that some kind of an effort was made to prevent his removal, presumably by George S. Hillard, who was a Whig in good favor; but the conclusion which one would naturally draw from the above, that Hawthorne was turned out of office in a summary and ungracious manner, is not justified by the evidence. He was not relieved from duty until June 14, 1849; that is, he was given a hundred days of grace, which is much more than officeholders commonly are favored with, in such cases. We may consider it morally certain that Hillard did what he could in Hawthorne’s behalf. He was well acquainted with Webster, but unfortunately Webster had opposed the nomination of General Taylor, and was so imprudent as to characterize it as a nomination not fit to be made. This was echoed all over the country, and left Webster without influence at Washington. For the time being Seward was everything, and Webster was nothing.
In a letter to Horace Mann, shortly after his removal, Hawthorne refers to two distinct calumnies which had been circulated concerning him in Salem, and only too widely credited. The most important of these — for it has seriously compromised a number of Salem gentlemen — was never explained until the publication of Mrs. Lathrop’s “Memories of Hawthorne” in 1897; where we find a letter from Mrs. Hawthorne to her mother, dated June 10, 1849, and containing the following passage:
“Here is a pretty business, discovered in an unexpected manner to Mr. Hawthorne by a friendly and honorable Whig. Perhaps you know that the President said before he took the chair that he should make no removals except for dishonesty and unfaithfulness. It is very plain that neither of these charges could be brought against Mr. Hawthorne. Therefore a most base and incredible falsehood has been told — written down and signed and sent to the Cabinet in secret. This infamous paper certifies among other things (of which we have not heard)— that Mr. Hawthorne has been in the habit of writing political articles in magazines and newspapers!” So it appears that the gutta-percha formula 75 of President Cleveland in regard to “offensive partisanship” was really invented forty years before his time, and had as much value in one case as in the other. It is possible that such a document as Mrs. Hawthorne describes was circulated, signed, and sent to Washington, to make the way easy for President Taylor’s advisers, and if so it was a highly contemptible proceeding; but the statement rests wholly on the affirmation of a single witness, whose name has always been withheld, and even if it were true that Hawthorne had written political articles for Democratic papers the fact would have in no wise been injurious to his reputation. The result must have been the same in any case. General Taylor was an honorable man, and no doubt intended to keep his word, as other Presidents have intended since; but what could even a brave general effect against the army of hungry office-seekers who were besieging the White House — a more formidable army than the Mexicans whom he had defeated at Buena Vista? In all probability he knew nothing of Hawthorne and never heard of his case.
The second calumny which Hawthorne refers to was decidedly second-rate, and closely resembles a servant’s intrigue. The Department at Washington, in a temporary fit of economy, had requested him to discharge two of his supervisors. He did not like to take the men’s bread away from them, and made a mild protest against the order. At the same time he consulted his chief clerk as to what it might be best to do, and they agreed upon suspending two of the supervisors who might suffer less from it than some others. As it happened, the Department considered Hawthorne’s report favorably, and no suspension took place; but his clerk betrayed the secret to the two men concerned, who hated Hawthorne in consequence, and afterward circulated a report that he had threatened to discharge them unless they contributed to the Democratic campaign fund. This return of evil for good appears to have been a new experience for Hawthorne, but those who are much concerned in the affairs of the world soon become accustomed to it, and pay little attention to either the malice or the mendacity of mankind.
Twenty years later one of Hawthorne’s clerks, who had prudently shifted from the Democratic to the Republican ranks, held a small office in the Boston Navy Yard, and was much given to bragging of his intimacy with “Nat,” and of the sprees they went on together; but the style and description of the man were sufficient to discredit his statements without further evidence. There were, however, several old shipmasters in the Salem Custom House who had seen Calcutta, Canton, and even a hurricane or two; men who had lived close to reality, with a vein of true heroism in them, moreover; and if Hawthorne preferred their conversation to that of the shipowners, who had spent their lives in calculating the profits of commercial adventures, there are many among the well educated who would agree with him. He refers particularly to one aged inspector of imports, whose remarkable adventures by flood and field were an almost daily recreation to him; and if the narratives of this ancient mariner were somewhat mixed with romance, assuredly Hawthorne should have been the last person to complain of them on that account.
At first he was wholly unnerved by his dismissal. He returned to Mall Street and said to his wife: “I have lost my place. What shall we now do for bread?” But Mrs. Hawthorne replied: “Never fear. You will now have leisure to finish your novel. Meanwhile, I will earn bread for us with my pencil and paint-brush.” 76 Besides this, she brought forward two or three hundred dollars, which she had saved from his salary unbeknown to him; but who would not have been encouraged by such a brave wife? Fortunately her pencil and paint-brush were not put to the test; at least so far as we know. Already on June 8, her husband had written a long letter to Hillard, explaining the state of his affairs and containing this pathetic appeal:
“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 Athenæum (Literary). Do not think anything too humble to be mentioned to me.” 77
There have been many tragical episodes in the history of literature, but since “Paradise Lost” was sold for five pounds and a contingent interest, there has been nothing more simply pathetic than this — that an immortal writer should feel obliged to apply for a subordinate position in a counting-room, a description of work which nobody likes too well, and which to Hawthorne would have been little less than a death in life. “Do not think anything too humble to be mentioned to me”!
What Hillard attempted to do at this time is uncertain, but he was not the man to allow the shrine of genius to be converted into a gas-burner, if he could possibly prevent it. We may presume that he went to Salem and encouraged Hawthorne in his amiable, half-eloquent manner. But we do not hear of him again until the new year. Meanwhile Madam Hawthorne fell into her last illness and departed this life on July 31; a solemn event even to a hard-hearted son — how much more to such a man as she had brought into the world. Three days before her death, he writes in his diary of “her heart beating its funeral march,” and diverts his mind from the awful finale by an accurate description of his two children playing a serio-comic game of doctor and patient, in the adjoining room.
It was under such tragical conditions, well suited to the subject, that he continued his work on “The Scarlet Letter,” and his painfully contracted brow seemed to indicate that he suffered as much in imagination, as the characters in that romance are represented to have suffered. In addition he wrote “The Great Stone Pace,” one of the most impressive of his shorter pieces (published, alas! in a Washington newspaper), and the sketch called “Main Street,” both afterward included in the volume of “The Snow Image.” On January 17, 1850, he was greatly surprised to receive a letter from George S. Hillard with a large check in it — more than half-way to a thousand dollars — which the writer with all possible delicacy begged him to accept from a few of his Boston admirers. It was only from such a good friend as Hillard that Hawthorne would have accepted assistance in this form; but he always considered it in the character of a loan, and afterward insisted on repaying it to the original subscribers — Professor Ticknor, Judge Curtis, and others. Hillard also persuaded James T. Fields, the younger partner of Ticknor & Company, to take an interest in Hawthorne as an author who required to be encouraged, and perhaps coaxed a little, in order to bring out the best that was in him. Fields accordingly went to Salem soon afterward, and has given an account of his first interview with Hawthorne in “Yesterdays with Authors,” which seems rather melodramatic: “found him cowering over a stove,” and altogether in a woe-begone condition. The main point of discussion between them, however, was whether “The Scarlet Letter” should be published separately or in conjunction with other subjects. Hawthorne feared that such a serious plot, continued with so little diversity of motive, would not be likely to produce a favorable impression unless it were leavened with material of a different kind. Fields, on the contrary, thought it better that the work should stand by itself, in solitary grandeur, and feared that it would only be dwarfed by any additions of a different kind. He predicted a good sale for the book, and succeeded in disillusionizing Hawthorne from the notions he had acquired from the failure of “Fanshawe.”
As it was late in the season, Fields would not even wait for the romance to be finished, but sent it to the press at once; and on February 4, Hawthorne wrote to Horatio Bridge:
“I finished my book only yesterday; one end being in the press at Boston, while the other was in my head here at Salem; so that, as you see, the story is at least fourteen miles long.”
The time of publication was a propitious one: the gold was flowing in from California, and every man and woman had a dollar to spend. The first edition of five thousand copies was taken up within a month, and after this Hawthorne suffered no more financial embarrassments. The succeeding twelve years of his life were as prosperous and cheerful as his friends and readers could desire for him; although the sombre past still seemed to cast a ghostly shadow across his way, which even the sunshine of Italy could not entirely dissipate.
“THE SCARLET LETTER”
The germ of this romance is to be found in the tale of “Endicott and the Red Cross,” published in the Token in 1838, so that it must have been at least ten years sprouting and developing in Hawthorne’s mind. In that story he gives a tragically comic description of the Puritan penitentiary — in the public square — where, among others, a good-looking young woman was exposed with a red letter A on her breast, which she had embroidered herself, so elegantly that it seemed as if it was rather intended for a badge of distinction than as a mark of infamy. Hawthorne did not conjure this up wholly out of his imagination, for in 1704 the General Court of Massachusetts Bay passed the following law, which he was no doubt aware of:
“Convicted before the Justice of Assize — both Man and Woman to be set on the Gallows an Hour with a Rope about their Necks and the other end cast over the Gallowses. And in the way from thence to the common Gaol, to he Scourged not exceeding Forty Stripes. And forever after to wear a Capital A of two inches long, of a contrary colour to their cloathes, sewed on their upper Garments, on the Back or Arm, in open view. And as often as they appear without it, openly to be Scourged, not exceeding Fifteen Stripes.” 78
The most diligent investigation, however, has failed to discover an instance in which punishment was inflicted under this law, so that we must conclude that Hawthorne invented that portion of his statement. In fact, nothing that Hawthorne published himself is to be considered of historical or biographical value. It is all fiction. He sported with historical facts and traditions, as poets and painters always have done, and the manuscript which he pretends to have discovered in his office at the Custom House, written by one of his predecessors there, is a piece of pure imagination, which serves to give additional credibility to his narrative. He knew well enough how large a portion of what is called history is fiction after all, and the extent to which professed historians deal in romance. He felt that he was justified so long as he did not depart from the truth of human nature. We may thank him that he did not dispel the illusion of his poetic imagery by the introduction of well-known historical characters. This is permissible in a certain class of novels, but its effect is always more or less prosaic.
Our Puritan ancestors evidently did not realize the evil effects of their law against faithless wives — its glaring indelicacy, and brutalizing influence on the minds of the young; but it was of a piece with their exclusion of church-music and other amenities of civilization. Was it through a natural attraction for the primeval granite that they landed on the New England coast? Their severe self-discipline was certainly well adapted to their situation, but, while it built up their social edifice on an enduring foundation, its tendency was to crush out the gentler and more sympathetic qualities in human nature. In no other community would the story of Hester Prynne acquire an equal cogency and significance. A German might, perhaps, understand it; but a Frenchman or an Italian not at all.
The same subject has been treated in its most venial form by Shakespeare in “Measure for Measure,” and in its most condemnable form in Goethe’s “Faust.” “The Scarlet Letter” lies midway between these two. Hester Prynne has married a man of morose, vindictive disposition, such as no woman could be happy with. He is, moreover, much older than herself, and has gone off on a wild expedition in pursuit of objects which he evidently cares for, more than for his wife. She has not heard from him for over a year, and knows not whether he has deserted her, or if he is no longer living. She is alone in a strange wild country, and it is natural that she should seek counsel and encouragement from the young clergyman, who is worthy of her love, but, unfortunately, not a strong character. Lightning is not swifter than the transition in our minds from good to evil, and in an unguarded moment he brings ruin upon himself, and a life-long penance on Hester Prynne. Hawthorne tells this story with such purity and delicacy of feeling that a maiden of sixteen can read it without offence.
“The Scarlet Letter” is at once the most poetic and the most powerful of Hawthorne’s larger works, much more powerful than “The Vicar of Wakefield,” which has been accepted as the type of a romance in all languages. Goldsmith’s tale will always be more popular than “The Scarlet Letter,” owing to its blithesome spirit, its amusing incidents and bright effects of light and shade; but “The Scarlet Letter” strikes a more penetrating chord in the human breast, and adheres more closely to the truth of life. There are certain highly improbable circumstances woven in the tissue of “The Vicar of Wakefield,” which a prudent, reflective reader finds it difficult to surmount. It is rather surprising that the Vicar should not have discovered the true social position of his friend Mr. Burchell, which must have been known to every farmer in the vicinity; and still more so that Mr. Burchell should have permitted the father of a young woman in whom he was deeply interested, to be carried to prison for debt without making an inquiry into his case. “The Scarlet Letter” is, as Hawthorne noticed, a continual variation on a single theme, and that a decidedly solemn one; but its different incidents form a dynamic sequence, leading onward to the final catastrophe, and if its progress is slow — the narrative extends over a period of seven years — this is as inevitable as the march of Fate. From the first scene in the drama, we are lifted above ourselves, and sustained so by Hawthorne’s genius, until the close.
This sense of power arises from dealing with a subject which demanded the whole force and intensity of Hawthorne’s nature. Hester Prynne herself is a strong character, and her errors are those of strength and independence rather than of weakness. She says to Mr. Dimmesdale that what they did “had a consecration of its own,” and it is this belief which supports her under a weight of obloquy that would have crushed a more fragile spirit. She does not collapse into a pitiful nonentity, like Scott’s Effie Deans, nor is she maddened to crime like George Eliot’s “Hetty Sorrel”; 79 but from the outset she forms definite resolutions — first to rehabilitate her own character, and next to protect the partner of her shame. This last may seem to be a mistaken devotion, and contrary to his true interest, for the first step in the regeneration from sin is to acknowledge manfully the responsibility of it; but to give the repentance even the appearance of sincerity, the confession must be a voluntary one, and not be forced upon the delinquent person by external pressure. We cannot withhold our admiration for Hester’s unswerving fidelity to this twofold purpose. We may condemn her in our minds, but we cannot refuse her a measure of sympathy in our hearts.
I believe this to be the explanation of her apparent inconsistency at the close of the book. Many of Hawthorne’s commentators have been puzzled by the fact that Hester, after so many years of contrition, should advise Dimmesdale to fly to England, and even offered to accompany him. Women have not the same idea of law that men have. In their ideas of right and wrong they depend chiefly on their sense of purity; and it is very difficult to persuade a woman that she could be wrong in obeying the dictates of her heart. Hester perceives that her former lover is being tortured to death by the silent tyranny of Chillingworth; the tide of affection so long restrained flows back into her soul; and her own reputation is as nothing compared with the life of the man she hopes to save. There is no other passage in American fiction so pathetic as that woodland meeting, at which their mutual hopes of happiness blaze up like the momentary brightness of a dying flame. Hester’s innocent child, however, representing the spirit of truthfulness, is suddenly seized with an aversion to her father and refuses to join their company — an unfavorable omen and dark presage of the minister’s doom.
Pearl’s behavior, on this occasion, may be supposed to represent the author’s own judgment. How far shall we agree with him? The past generation witnessed one of the noblest of women uniting herself, for life and death, to a man whom she could not marry on account of purely legal objections. Whether Hester’s position in the last act of this drama is comparable with that of Marian Evans every one must decide according to his or her conscience.
Hawthorne certainly proves himself a good Puritan when he says, “And be the stern and sad truth spoken that the breach which guilt has once made into the human soul, is never in this mortal state repaired.” The magnitude of the evil of course makes a difference; but do we not all live in a continual state of sinning, and self-correction? That is the road to self-improvement, and those who adhere most closely to inflexible rules of conduct discover at length that the rules themselves have become an evil. Mankind has not yet fully decided as to what things are evil, and what are good; and neither Hawthorne nor the Puritan lawmakers would seem to have remembered Christ’s admonition on a similar occasion: “Let him who is without sin among you, cast the first stone.”
A writer in the Andover Review, some twenty years ago, criticised the impersonation of Pearl as a fable —“a golden wreck.” He quoted Emerson to the effect that in all the ages that man has been upon the earth, no communication has been established between him and the lower animals, and he affirmed that we know quite as little of the thoughts and motives of our own children. Both conclusions are wide of the mark. There is much more communication between man and the domestic animals than between animals of the same species. The understanding between an Arab and his horse is almost perfect, and so is that between a sportsman and his setters. Even the sluggish ox knows the word of command. Then what shall we say of the sympathetic relation between a mother and her child? Who can describe it — that clairvoyant sensibility, intangible, too swift for words? Who has depicted it, except Hawthorne and Raphael? Pearl is like a pure spirit in “The Scarlet Letter,” reconciling us to its gloomy scenes. She is like the sunshine in a dark forest, breaking through the tree-tops and dancing in our pathway. It is true that Hawthorne has carried her clairvoyant insight to its furthest limits, but this is in accordance with the ideal character of his work. She has no rival except Goethe’s Mignon.
Hawthorne’s method of developing his stories resembled closely that of the historical painter; and it was only in this way that he could produce such vivid effects. He selected models for his principal characters and studied them as his work progressed. The original of Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale was quickly recognized in Salem as an amiable inoffensive person, of whom no one suspected any evil — and that was, no doubt, the reason why Hawthorne selected him for his purpose. It was no discredit to the man himself, although tongues were not wanting to blame Hawthorne for it. Who Hester may have been still remains a mystery; but it was evidently some one with whom the author was well acquainted — perhaps his younger sister. So Rubens painted his own wife at one time an angel, and at another in the likeness of Herodias. It is still more probable that Pearl is a picture of Hawthorne’s own daughter, who was of the right age for such a study, and whose sprightly, fitful, and impulsive actions correspond to those of Hester’s child. This would also explain why her father gave Una so much space in his Note-book. He may have noticed the antagonism between her and the Whig children of the neighborhood and have applied it to Pearl’s case. It was also his custom, as appears from his last unfinished work, to leave blank spaces in his manuscript while in the heat of composition, which, like a painter’s background, were afterwards filled in with descriptions of scenery or some subsidiary narrative.
The models of the novelist cannot be hired for the purpose, like those used by the painter or sculptor, but have to be studied when and where they can be found, for the least self-consciousness spoils the effect. Hawthorne in this only followed the example of the best authors and dramatists; and those who think that good fiction or dramatic poetry can be written wholly out of a man’s or a woman’s imagination, would do well to make the experiment themselves.
71 J. Hawthorne, 281.
72 At the age of thirty-five, Julian resembled his father so closely that Nathaniel Hawthorne’s old friends were sometimes startled by him, as if they had seen an apparition. He was, however, of a stouter build, and his eyes were different.
73 Mrs. Lathrop, “Memories of Hawthorne,” 154.
74 When the engagement between the “Chesapeake” and the “Shannon” took place off Salem harbor in August, 1813, and Captain Lawrence was killed in the action, the anti-war sentiment ran so high that it was difficult to find a respectable mansion where his funeral would be permitted.
75 By which eighty-eight per cent, of the classified service were removed.
76 Mrs. George S. Hillard.
77 Conway, 113.
78 Boston, Timothy Green, 1704.
79 A name apparently compounded from Hester Prynne and Schiller’s Agnes Sorrel.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:51