The Scarlet Letter

by: Nathaniel Hawthorne

  The Custom House Introductory to The Scarlet Letter

page The Custom House: Introductory to The Scarlet Letter: Page 13

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This incident recalled my mind, in some degree, to its old track. There seemed to be here the groundwork of a tale. It impressed me as if the ancient Surveyor, in his garb of a hundred years gone by, and wearing his immortal wig,—which was buried with him, but did not perish in the grave,—had met me in the deserted chamber of the Custom-House. In his port was the dignity of one who had borne his Majesty’s commission, and who was therefore illuminated by a ray of the splendor that shone so dazzlingly about the throne. How unlike, alas! The hang-dog look of a republican official, who, as the servant of the people, feels himself less than the least, and below the lowest, of his masters. With his own ghostly hand, the obscurely seen, but majestic, figure had imparted to me the scarlet symbol, and the little roll of explanatory manuscript. With his own ghostly voice, he had exhorted me, on the sacred consideration of my filial duty and reverence towards him,—who might reasonably regard himself as my official ancestor,—to bring his mouldy and moth-eaten lucubrations before the public. “Do this,” said the ghost of Mr. Surveyor Pue, emphatically nodding the head that looked so imposing within its memorable wig, “do this, and the profit shall be all your own! You will shortly need it; for it is not in your days as it was in mine, when a man’s office was a life-lease, and oftentimes an heirloom. But, I charge you, in this matter of old Mistress Prynne, give to your predecessor’s memory the credit which will be rightfully its due!” And I said to the ghost of Mr. Surveyor Pue,—“I will!” When I found the letter, my mind turned to writing once again. There seemed to be a story here. The tale made a strong impression on me, as though the old Surveyor himself had appeared before me in his outdated clothing and immortal wig. He carried himself with the dignity of someone who had received a royal commission and with it a touch of the royal splendor. The public servants in a democracy are different: They feel themselves to be lower than the least of their many masters. With his own ghostly hand, the Surveyor had given me the scarlet letter and the rolled-up manuscript. With his own ghostly voice, he had told me that he was my official ancestor, and I must bring his work before the public. “Do this,” said the ghost of Mr. Surveyor Pine, nodding his head with that memorable wig upon it, “do this, and the profit will be yours. You will need it soon: The Surveyor’s job is less secure than it was in my day. But give me the credit I deserve when you tell the story of old Mistress Prynne.” And I said to the ghost, “I will.”
On Hester Prynne’s story, therefore, I bestowed much thought. It was the subject of my meditations for many an hour, while pacing to and fro across my room, or traversing, with a hundredfold repetition, the long extent from the front-door of the Custom-House to the side-entrance, and back again. Great were the weariness and annoyance of the old Inspector and the Weighers and Gaugers, whose slumbers were disturbed by the unmercifully lengthened tramp of my passing and returning footsteps. Remembering their own former habits, they used to say that the Surveyor was walking the quarter-deck. They probably fancied that my sole object—and, indeed, the sole object for which a sane man could ever put himself into voluntary motion—was, to get an appetite for dinner. And to say the truth, an appetite, sharpened by the east-wind that generally blew along the passage, was the only valuable result of so much indefatigable exercise. So little adapted is the atmosphere of a Custom-House to the delicate harvest of fancy and sensibility, that, had I remained there through ten Presidencies yet to come, I doubt whether the tale of “The Scarlet Letter” would ever have been brought before the public eye. My imagination was a tarnished mirror. It would not reflect, or only with miserable dimness, the figures with which I did my best to people it. The characters of the narrative would not be warmed and rendered malleable, by any heat that I could kindle at my intellectual forge. They would take neither the glow of passion nor the tenderness of sentiment, but retained all the rigidity of dead corpses, and stared me in the face with a fixed and ghastly grin of contemptuous defiance. “What have you to do with us?” that expression seemed to say. “The little power you might once have possessed over the tribe of unrealities is gone! You have bartered it for a pittance of the public gold. Go, then, and earn your wages!” In short, the almost torpid creatures of my own fancy twitted me with imbecility, and not without fair occasion. So I thought a lot about Hester Prynne’s story. I thought about it for many hours, pacing back and forth across my room or walking along the porch of the Custom House. I greatly irritated the old Inspector and the officers, waking them as I passed again and again. Like the old sailors they were, they used to say that I was walking the quarterdeck. They probably thought I was working up an appetite for dinner. Why else would a man put himself in motion? And truth be told, an appetite was often all I got for my efforts. The Custom House is so ill-suited to the cultivation of imagination that I doubt I could ever have written The Scarlet Letter if I had stayed there. My mind was a tarnished mirror. It would not reflect a clear image of the characters I was trying to create. My intellect could not generate enough heat to warm and soften them. The emerging characters had no glow of passion or tenderness of feeling. As stiff as corpses, they stared me in the face with a ghastly grin of contempt and defiance. “What do you want with us?” their expression seemed to say. “You have traded your writer’s gifts for a little bit of public money. Go, then, and earn your paycheck.” The nearly lifeless characters I was creating mocked me for my incompetence, often with good reason.
It was not merely during the three hours and a half which Uncle Sam claimed as his share of my daily life, that this wretched numbness held possession of me. It went with me on my sea-shore walks and rambles into the country, whenever—which was seldom and reluctantly—I bestirred myself to seek that invigorating charm of Nature, which used to give me such freshness and activity of thought, the moment that I stepped across the threshold of the Old Manse. The same torpor, as regarded the capacity for intellectual effort, accompanied me home, and weighed upon me in the chamber which I most absurdly termed my study. Nor did it quit me, when, late at night, I sat in the deserted parlour, lighted only by the glimmering coal-fire and the moon, striving to picture forth imaginary scenes, which, the next day, might flow out on the brightening page in many-hued description. But it wasn’t only for the three and a half hours that I worked every day that this horrible numbness took over. It went with me on my seashore walks and country rambles, whenever I reluctantly headed out to seek inspiration outdoors. It used to be that Nature sparked my thoughts the instant I stepped out of the Old Manse. The same dull feeling came home with me every night and weighed on me in what I called, absurdly, my study. It was there late at night when I sat in the deserted parlor, illuminated by moonlight and coal fire, struggling to think of scenes to write the next day.