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The Scarlet Letter

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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 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 same worn-out soil. My children have had other birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth. Deeply planted by these two men so many years ago, the family tree has grown here ever since. We have always been respectable, never disgraced—but never memorable, either, after the first two generations. Our family sank gradually out of sight, like an old house slowly buried under new soil. For more than a hundred years our men went to sea. A gray-haired shipmaster would retire, and a fourteen-year-old boy in our family would take his place at the mast, facing down the same salt spray and storms his ancestors had. That boy eventually advanced and then came home to grow old, die, and be buried in the place of his birth. This long connection between Salem and our family has created a strong bond, which has nothing to do with the scenery or the surroundings. It is not love but instinct. A newcomer whose family has been here a mere generation or three cannot call himself a Salemite. He has no concept of the tenacity with which someone like me clings, to the place where his ancestors have lived. It doesn’t matter that the town brings me no joy, that I am tired of the old wooden houses, the mud and the dust, the flat land and flatter emotions of Salem, its cold wind and colder social atmosphere. The place has cast a spell on me that’s as powerful as if Salem were an earthly paradise. It almost felt like I was destined to make Salem my home, to continue my family’s long presence here. But this connection has become unhealthy, and must be broken. Human beings can’t grow in the same worn-out soil year after year, any more than a potato can. My children have been born elsewhere and, if I have anything to say about it, will settle elsewhere.
On emerging from the Old Manse, it was chiefly this strange, indolent, unjoyous attachment for my native town, that brought me to fill a place in Uncle Sam’s brick edifice, when I might as well, or better, have gone somewhere else. My doom was on me. It was not the first time, nor the second, that I had gone away,—as it seemed, permanently,—but yet returned, like the bad half-penny; or as if Salem were for me the inevitable centre of the universe. So, one fine morning, I ascended the flight of granite steps, with the President’s commission in my pocket, and was introduced to the corps of gentlemen who were to aid me in my weighty responsibility, as chief executive officer of the Custom-House. This strange, lazy, joyless attachment to Salem brought me here to work at the Custom House when I might have gone somewhere else. It was my doom. I had moved away a few times before—permanently, it seemed. But every time I came back like a bad penny, as if Salem were the center of the universe for me. So one fine morning I climbed the stone steps, with a commission from the president in my pocket. I was introduced to the group of gentlemen who were to help me with my grave responsibilities as chief executive officer of the Custom House.
I doubt greatly—or rather, I do not doubt at all—whether any public functionary of the United States, either in the civil or military line, has ever had such a patriarchal body of veterans under his orders as myself. The whereabouts of the Oldest Inhabitant was at once settled, when I looked at them. For upwards of twenty years before this epoch, the independent position of the Collector had kept the Salem Custom-House out of the whirlpool of political vicissitude, which makes the tenure of office generally so fragile. A soldier,—New England’s most distinguished soldier,—he stood firmly on the pedestal of his gallant services; and, himself secure in the wise liberality of the successive administrations through which he had held office, he had been the safety of his subordinates in many an hour of danger and heart-quake. General Miller was radically conservative; a man over whose kindly nature habit had no slight influence; attaching himself strongly to familiar faces, and with difficulty moved to change, even when change might have brought unquestionable improvement. Thus, on taking charge of my department, I found few but aged men. They were ancient sea-captains, for the most part, who, after being tost on every sea, and standing up sturdily against life’s tempestuous blast, had finally drifted into this quiet nook; where, with little to disturb them, except the periodical terrors of a Presidential election, they one and all acquired a new lease of existence. Though by no means less liable than their fellow-men to age and infirmity, they had evidently some talisman or other that kept death at bay. Two or three of their number, as I was assured, being gouty and rheumatic, or perhaps bed-ridden, never dreamed of making their appearance at the Custom-House, during a large part of the year; but, after a torpid winter, would creep out into the warm sunshine of May or June, go lazily about what they termed duty, and, at their own leisure and convenience, betake themselves to bed again. I must plead guilty to the charge of abbreviating the official breath of more than one of these venerable servants of the republic. They were allowed, on my representation, to rest from their arduous labors, and soon afterwards—as if their sole principle of life had been zeal for their country’s service; as I verily believe it was—withdrew to a better world. It is a pious consolation to me, that, through my interference, a sufficient space was allowed them for repentance of evil and corrupt practices, into which, as a matter of course, every Custom-House officer must be supposed to fall. Neither the front nor the back entrance of the Custom-House opens on the road to Paradise. I’m sure no public servant of the United States has ever had a more experienced group of veterans under his direction. For almost twenty years before I took the job, the custom-collector was an independent position, which protected the Custom House from shifts in the political winds. New England’s most distinguished soldier, General Miller, had authority from his service experience. No politician would ever fire him, and he protected his employees. General Miller was radically conservative. He was a man of habit, strongly attached to familiar faces and reluctant to change, even when change would have improved things. So when I took over my department, I found only a few old men. They were old sailors, mostly. Having faced stormy seas and stood sturdily in the face of the strong winds of life, they had finally drifted into this quiet corner of the world. With little to worry them here, except for the passing terror of presidential elections, they each acquired a new lease on life. Though they were as susceptible to old age and sickness as other men, they must have had some charm to keep death away. I heard a few of them were sick or confined to their beds and didn’t dream of making an appearance at work for most of the year. But after their sluggish winter, they would creep out into the warm sunshine of May or June. They would lazily do their duties (as they called them) and, when they felt like it, go back to bed again. I have to plead guilty to shortening the service of several of these valuable public servants. I let them stop doing their official duties, and as if their only aim in life had been to serve their country, they soon went to a better place. I am consoled by the thought that I gave these men the time and space to repent their sins and corruption, which every Custom House officer falls prey to. Neither the front nor the back door of the Custom House opens onto the road to paradise.

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