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The Scarlet Letter

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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 wearisomely through the whole extent of the peninsula, with Gallows Hill and New Guinea at one end, and a view of the alms-house 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 checkerboard. 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 know. Salem is my hometown, though I’ve moved away many times. It has—or had, at any rate—a hold on my heart, the strength of which I never recognized when I was living here. The town is flat, covered in unattractive wooden houses. It’s odd. Its long, lazy street has Gallows Hill and New Guinea at one end and the poorhouse at the other. Liking this town makes as much sense as being fond of a checkerboard with pieces scattered on it. Yet though I’m always happier in other places, I have a certain affection for Old Salem. I probably feel this way because my family has deep roots here. It was more than 200 years ago that my first ancestor arrived in the wild, forest-bordered settlement that is now Salem. His descendents have been born, died, and were buried in Salem’s soil, which must resemble my own body. Part of my affection for Salem is this connection between their bones and my own. Moving as often as they do, few Americans know such a bond—and since frequent movement is better for the family line, it’s okay that they don’t know.
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 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. There’s a moral aspect to this connection, as well. For as long as I can remember, I have known about my first Salem ancestor, that dim and grand figure. The idea of him still haunts me and makes me feel as though my home is Old Salem, not the run-down port town Salem is today. I feel bound to the town today because of this serious, bearded, sable-cloaked man who, with his Bible and his sword, once walked the new streets of Salem with a stately air. He was a large figure, a man of war and peace. By comparison, I’m almost anonymous. He was a soldier, a legislator, and a judge. He was a powerful minister, with both the good and the evil traits of the Puritans. He persecuted many people. The Quakers remember him for that, particularly for his severe judgment of one woman, which may last longer than the record of his many good deeds. His son inherited the same fondness for persecution: He convicted so many witches that you could say their blood is on his hands. The stain is so deep that it must still be on his dry old bones, if they haven’t crumbled to dust yet. I don’t know whether these ancestors of mine repented for their cruelties or whether they are now groaning in Hell. As their representative, I take their shame on myself and pray that any curse on their dreary descendents will be 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. I’m sure that either of these stern Puritans would consider an idle descendent like me punishment enough for his sins. They would not have approved of any of my goals. All of my success—if I’ve even had any worldly success—would seem worthless to them, or even disgraceful. “What is he?” I hear one gray shadow of an ancestor murmur to another. “A story writer! What kind of business is that? Does it glorify God, or serve mankind? He might as well have been a fiddle-player!” Such are the compliments my ancestors give me across time. Yet although they scorn me, I have strong traits of theirs.

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