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The Scarlet Letter

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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 and 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, 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. I’m not inclined to talk much about myself and my business, even to friends, so it’s a little odd that I’ve twice had the impulse to write an autobiography. The first time was three or four years ago, when I published (for no good reason) a story about my way of life in the deep calm of the Old Manse. Because a few people read that story (and even those few readers were more than the story deserved), I’m buttonholing the public again, this time to talk about my three years’ experience in a Custom House. No writer has ever followed the example of “

P.P., Clerk of this Parish

Satire of longwinded and pointless memoirs, written by Alexander Pope.

P.P., Clerk of this Parish
” more faithfully. It seems that when an author sends his book into the world, he’s addressing not the people who will set it aside, or never start it in the first place, but the few who will understand him even better than his friends and family do. Some authors go way beyond this, and let themselves write intimate stuff that’s really only appropriate for a true soulmate—as if throwing the printed book to the world could bring them into contact with that person. It’s not appropriate to spill your guts, even when you’re writing impersonally. Still, since thoughts are frozen and voices silent unless the writer has some true relationship with his audience, I might be forgiven for imagining that a friend—a kind, insightful, though not especially close friend—is reading as I write. My natural reserve will be thawed by the friend’s warmth, and we’ll be able to chat about events, and even about ourselves—but I’ll keep my innermost self private. In this way, I think an author can write about his life without crossing the line with the reader or with himself.
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. This sketch of the Custom House takes the polite step, as is common in literature, of explaining how the story that follows came into my possession, and offering proof that the story is real. I’m only writing this sketch and addressing the public personally because I want to say that I am not the author of The Scarlet Letter, but merely its editor, or a little more than its editor. While explaining how The Scarlet Letter came into my hands, I’ve also added a few details about a previously undescribed way of life and the characters who live it—one of whom happens to be me.
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 harbour, 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 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 arrows. In my native Salem, there is a wharf that was bustling fifty years ago but is now decaying and almost empty, aside from a few trading ships unloading their cargo. The tide often overflows the wharf, and overgrown grass tells the story of many slow years. At the end of this dilapidated wharf, overlooking the bleak view, is a big brick building. For three and a half hours each morning, from the roof of the building, a U.S. flag floats or droops, depending on the weather. The flag’s stripes are turned vertically to show that the building has a civil purpose, not a military one. In the front of the building, six wooden pillars support a balcony, and a flight of wide stone steps descends to the street. Over the entrance hovers a huge American eagle, with spread wings, a shield over her chest, and, if I’m remembering right, a bunch of thunderbolts and barbed arrows in each claw. With the customary bad temper of this unhappy species, the eagle looks like she’s threatening the inoffensive community with her fierce beak and eye, and her overall bad attitude. She looks like she’s warning people who care about their safety not to set foot in the building. Despite her scary appearance, many people are, at this very moment, trying to shelter themselves under the wing of the federal government. I guess they imagine she’s as soft and cozy as a down pillow. But the bird is vicious in even her best moods, and sooner or later (usually sooner), she flings off the shelter-seekers with her claw, beak, or arrows.

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