The Scarlet Letter

by: Nathaniel Hawthorne

  The Custom House Introductory to The Scarlet Letter

page The Custom House: Introductory to The Scarlet Letter: Page 14

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If the imaginative faculty refused to act at such an hour, it might well be deemed a hopeless case. Moonlight, in a familiar room, falling so white upon the carpet, and showing all its figures so distinctly,—making every object so minutely visible, yet so unlike a morning or noontide visibility,—is a medium the most suitable for a romance-writer to get acquainted with his illusive guests. There is the little domestic scenery of the well-known apartment; the chairs, with each its separate individuality; the centre-table, sustaining a work-basket, a volume or two, and an extinguished lamp; the sofa; the book-case; the picture on the wall;—all these details, so completely seen, are so spiritualized by the unusual light, that they seem to lose their actual substance, and become things of intellect. Nothing is too small or too trifling to undergo this change, and acquire dignity thereby. A child’s shoe; the doll, seated in her little wicker carriage; the hobby-horse;—whatever, in a word, has been used or played with, during the day, is now invested with a quality of strangeness and remoteness, though still almost as vividly present as by daylight. Thus, therefore, the floor of our familiar room has become a neutral territory, somewhere between the real world and fairy-land, where the Actual and the Imaginary may meet, and each imbue itself with the nature of the other. Ghosts might enter here, without affrighting us. It would be too much in keeping with the scene to excite surprise, were we to look about us and discover a form, beloved, but gone hence, now sitting quietly in a streak of this magic moonshine, with an aspect that would make us doubt whether it had returned from afar, or had never once stirred from our fireside. If my imagination refused to act at that hour, it was probably hopeless. Moonlight, in a familiar room, falling whitely on a carpet, both revealing and transforming everything, is the perfect spur for the imagination of a novelist. The objects in my living room, from the chairs to the pictures, are so changed by the moonlight that they seem to lose their substance and become creations of the mind. Nothing is too small or insignificant to be changed in this way. A child’s shoe or doll or rocking horse, whatever had been used that day, is given a quality of strangeness and remoteness, though it’s still almost as visible as it is in daylight. The floor of the familiar room becomes a neutral territory, somewhere between the real world and fairyland. The actual and the imaginary can meet, and each imparts its nature to the other. Ghosts might enter here without scaring us, since they seem so appropriate in this place. We wouldn’t be surprised to look around and see the form of a beloved person, now dead, sitting quietly in a streak of magic moonshine, looking as if it had never left the fireside.
The somewhat dim coal-fire has an essential influence in producing the effect which I would describe. It throws its unobtrusive tinge throughout the room, with a faint ruddiness upon the walls and ceiling, and a reflected gleam from the polish of the furniture. This warmer light mingles itself with the cold spirituality of the moonbeams, and communicates, as it were, a heart and sensibilities of human tenderness to the forms which fancy summons up. It converts them from snow-images into men and women. Glancing at the looking-glass, we behold—deep within its haunted verge—the smouldering glow of the half-extinguished anthracite, the white moonbeams on the floor, and a repetition of all the gleam and shadow of the picture, with one remove farther from the actual, and nearer to the imaginative. Then, at such an hour, and with this scene before him, if a man, sitting all alone, cannot dream strange things, and make them look like truth, he need never try to write romances. The dim coal fire contributes to the effect, as well. It throws its light around the room, giving a faint, orange-red tinge to the walls and ceiling and an extra gleam to the furniture. This warmer light mixes itself with the cold spirituality of the moonbeams. It gives a heart and human tenderness to whatever one imagines. It changes those creations from black-and-white pictures into men and women. Glancing at the mirror, we can see within its haunted depths the glow of the dying coal fire and the white moonbeams on the floor. In that mirror, all the gleam and shadow is taken one step farther from the real and made one step closer to the imaginative. If, with all of this inspiration, a man still cannot dream strange things and make them look like truth, he should never try to write fantastic stories.
But, for myself, during the whole of my Custom-House experience, moonlight and sunshine, and the glow of fire-light, were just alike in my regard; and neither of them was of one whit more avail than the twinkle of a tallow-candle. An entire class of susceptibilities, and a gift connected with them,—of no great richness or value, but the best I had,—was gone from me. But during all of my time at the Custom House, moonlight, sunshine, and the glow of a fire all seemed the same to me. None of them did a thing more for me than the light of a common candle. My writing gift might not have been very rich or valuable, but it was the best I had, and it was gone.
It is my belief, however, that, had I attempted a different order of composition, my faculties would not have been found so pointless and inefficacious. I might, for instance, have contented myself with writing out the narratives of a veteran ship-master, one of the Inspectors, whom I should be most ungrateful not to mention; since scarcely a day passed that he did not stir me to laughter and admiration by his marvellous gifts as a story-teller. Could I have preserved the picturesque force of his style, and the humorous coloring which nature taught him how to throw over his descriptions, the result, I honestly believe, would have been something new in literature. Or I might readily have found a more serious task. It was a folly, with the materiality of this daily life pressing so intrusively upon me, to attempt to fling myself back into another age; or to insist on creating the semblance of a world out of airy matter, when, at every moment, the impalpable beauty of my soap-bubble was broken by the rude contact of some actual circumstance. The wiser effort would have been, to diffuse thought and imagination through the opaque substance of to-day, and thus to make it a bright transparency; to spiritualize the burden that began to weigh so heavily; to seek, resolutely, the true and indestructible value that lay hidden in the petty and wearisome incidents, and ordinary characters, with which I was now conversant. The fault was mine. The page of life that was spread out before me seemed dull and commonplace, only because I had not fathomed its deeper import. A better book than I shall ever write was there; leaf after leaf presenting itself to me, just as it was written out by the reality of the flitting hour, and vanishing as fast as written, only because my brain wanted the insight and my hand the cunning to transcribe it. At some future day, it may be, I shall remember a few scattered fragments and broken paragraphs, and write them down, and find the letters turn to gold upon the page. Yet I think if I had tried to write in a different way, I would not have been so frustrated. I could have written the stories one of the Inspectors told. An old ship captain, he made me laugh with his marvelous tales almost every day. If I could have preserved his forceful style and humorous descriptions, the result would have been something new in literature. Or I could have found a more serious undertaking. It was foolish, with the reality of this daily life pressing on me, to try to fling myself back into another age or to create an imaginary world out of thin air. Every soap bubble of imagination was popped when I came back into contact with the real world. It would have been wiser to work from and transform the world around me in writing. I could have found the true value in the trivial happenings and ordinary men that made up my daily life. The fault was mine. My life seemed dull because I hadn’t understood its deeper meaning. There was a better book in the reality of that experience than I will ever write. It showed itself to me page after page, vanishing as fast as it was written because my brain lacked the insight and my hand lacked the skill to copy it down. Maybe some day I will recall bits and pieces of my life in that place and write about it. I suspect my writing would turn to gold on the page.