The Scarlet Letter

by: Nathaniel Hawthorne

  The Custom House Introductory to The Scarlet Letter

page The Custom House: Introductory to The Scarlet Letter: Page 10

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Literature, its exertions and objects, were now of little moment in my regard. I cared not, at this period, for books; they were apart from me. Nature,—except it were human nature,—the nature that is developed in earth and sky, was, in one sense, hidden from me; and all the imaginative delight, wherewith it had been spiritualized, passed away out of my mind. A gift, a faculty, if it had not departed, was suspended and inanimate within me. There would have been something sad, unutterably dreary, in all this, had I not been conscious that it lay at my own option to recall whatever was valuable in the past. It might be true, indeed, that this was a life which could not, with impunity, be lived too long; else, it might make me permanently other than I had been, without transforming me into any shape which it would be worth my while to take. But I never considered it as other than a transitory life. There was always a prophetic instinct, a low whisper in my ear, that, within no long period, and whenever a new change of custom should be essential to my good, a change would come. The ambitions and the toils of literature mattered little to me then. I did not care for books at that time. Nature—not human nature, but the nature of earth and sky—was hidden from me, and the imagination with which I had observed it passed from my mind. If this gift did not leave me altogether, at least it became frozen and useless. There would have been something unspeakably sad about this loss if I hadn’t realized that I could recall the best parts of my past whenever I wished. If I had lived that way for too long, it could have changed me forever—and for the worse. But I never thought of my time at the Custom House as more than a passing phase. There was always a voice in the back of my head telling me that when I needed a change, change would come.
Meanwhile, there I was, a Surveyor of the Revenue, and, so far as I have been able to understand, as good a Surveyor as need be. A man of thought, fancy, and sensibility, (had he ten times the Surveyor’s proportion of those qualities,) may, at any time, be a man of affairs, if he will only choose to give himself the trouble. My fellow-officers, and the merchants and sea-captains with whom my official duties brought me into any manner of connection, viewed me in no other light, and probably knew me in no other character. None of them, I presume, had ever read a page of my inditing, or would have cared a fig the more for me, if they had read them all; nor would it have mended the matter, in the least, had those same unprofitable pages been written with a pen like that of Burns or of Chaucer, each of whom was a Custom-House officer in his day, as well as I. It is a good lesson—though it may often be a hard one—for a man who has dreamed of literary fame, and of making for himself a rank among the world’s dignitaries by such means, to step aside out of the narrow circle in which his claims are recognized, and to find how utterly devoid of significance, beyond that circle, is all that he achieves, and all he aims at. I know not that I especially needed the lesson, either in the way of warning or rebuke; but, at any rate, I learned it thoroughly; nor, it gives me pleasure to reflect, did the truth, as it came home to my perception, ever cost me a pang, or require to be thrown off in a sigh. In the way of literary talk, it is true, the Naval Officer—an excellent fellow, who came into office with me, and went out only a little later—would often engage me in a discussion about one or the other of his favorite topics, Napoleon or Shakspeare. The Collector’s junior clerk, too,—a young gentleman who, it was whispered, occasionally covered a sheet of Uncle Sam’s letter-paper with what, (at the distance of a few yards,) looked very much like poetry,—used now and then to speak to me of books, as matters with which I might possibly be conversant. This was my all of lettered intercourse; and it was quite sufficient for my necessities. In the meantime, there I was: a

Surveyor

Chief administrator of the Custom House.

Surveyor
of the Revenue, and a good one at that. A man of intelligence, imagination, and taste can become a man of business if he chooses. My fellow officers and the others who dealt with me thought me no different from anyone else in the Custom House. None of them had read a page of my writing, nor would have thought more of me had they read every last one. It wouldn’t have mattered if my poor pages had been written by Burns or Chaucer—both Custom House officers in their day. It’s good, if hard, for a writer who dreams of literary fame to realize that outside his own little circle, he’s completely insignificant and unknown. I don’t think I really needed that lesson, but I learned it well. I’m proud to say that it didn’t even hurt. In the way of literary talk, it’s true that the Naval Officer (a very good man who worked with me) would often talk to me about Napoleon or Shakespeare. And the Collector’s young assistant was rumored to write poetry at work. We’d talk about books now and then, as though I might know something about them. This was the sum of my literary conversation, and it was quite sufficient for my needs.
No longer seeking nor caring that my name should be blazoned abroad on title-pages, I smiled to think that it had now another kind of vogue. The Custom-House marker imprinted it, with a stencil and black paint, on pepper-bags, and baskets of anatto, and cigar-boxes, and bales of all kinds of dutiable merchandise, in testimony that these commodities had paid the impost, and gone regularly through the office. Borne on such queer vehicle of fame, a knowledge of my existence, so far as a name conveys it, was carried where it had never been before, and, I hope, will never go again. No longer hoping to see my name printed on the title page of a book, I smiled to think that it had a new kind of popularity. The Custom House printed it, with a stencil and black paint, on bags of pepper and other spices, on cigar boxes and bales of all sorts. My name declared that these goods had paid their taxes and been inspected by the office. By such a strange means, my name was spread to places where it had never been before and where I hope it will never go again.
But the past was not dead. Once in a great while, the thoughts, that had seemed so vital and so active, yet had been put to rest so quietly, revived again. One of the most remarkable occasions, when the habit of by-gone days awoke in me, was that which brings it within the law of literary propriety to offer the public the sketch which I am now writing. But the past was not yet dead. Once in a long while, my thoughts from years gone by were revived again. It was one of those occasions, when my writerly habits reappeared, that justifies the publication of this sketch.