The Scarlet Letter

by: Nathaniel Hawthorne

  The Custom House Introductory to The Scarlet Letter

page The Custom House: Introductory to The Scarlet Letter: Page 15

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These perceptions have come too late. At the instant, I was only conscious that what would have been a pleasure once was now a hopeless toil. There was no occasion to make much moan about this state of affairs. I had ceased to be a writer of tolerably poor tales and essays, and had become a tolerably good Surveyor of the Customs. That was all. But, nevertheless, it is any thing but agreeable to be haunted by a suspicion that one’s intellect is dwindling away; or exhaling, without your consciousness, like ether out of a phial; so that, at every glance, you find a smaller and less volatile residuum. Of the fact, there could be no doubt; and, examining myself and others, I was led to conclusions in reference to the effect of public office on the character, not very favorable to the mode of life in question. In some other form, perhaps, I may hereafter develop these effects. Suffice it here to say, that a Custom-House officer, of long continuance, can hardly be a very praiseworthy or respectable personage, for many reasons; one of them, the tenure by which he holds his situation, and another, the very nature of his business, which—though, I trust, an honest one—is of such a sort that he does not share in the united effort of mankind. But it was too late for those thoughts. At that moment, I was only aware that what would once have been a pleasure had become hopeless drudgework. There was no point in complaining. I had stopped being a writer of fairly mediocre tales and essays. Now I was a fairly good Surveyor of the Customs. That was all. But it still isn’t pleasant to be haunted by the sense that, without realizing it, your mind is dwindling away with every breath. Looking at myself and the men around me, I decided that public office was bad for the imagination. I may write about that another time. Here, it is enough to say that for many reasons a Custom House officer of long service is rarely a praiseworthy or respectable person. He holds his job subject to political whim, and he does not produce a thing.
An effect—which I believe to be observable, more or less, in every individual who has occupied the position—is, that, while he leans on the mighty arm of the Republic, his own proper strength departs from him. He loses, in an extent proportioned to the weakness or force of his original nature, the capability of self-support. If he possess an unusual share of native energy, or the enervating magic of place do not operate too long upon him, his forfeited powers may be redeemable. The ejected officer—fortunate in the unkindly shove that sends him forth betimes, to struggle amid a struggling world—may return to himself, and become all that he has ever been. But this seldom happens. He usually keeps his ground just long enough for his own ruin, and is then thrust out, with sinews all unstrung, to totter along the difficult footpath of life as he best may. Conscious of his own infirmity,—that his tempered steel and elasticity are lost,—he for ever afterwards looks wistfully about him in quest of support external to himself. His pervading and continual hope—a hallucination, which, in the face of all discouragement, and making light of impossibilities, haunts him while he lives, and, I fancy, like the convulsive throes of the cholera, torments him for a brief space after death—is, that, finally, and in no long time, by some happy coincidence of circumstances, he shall be restored to office. This faith, more than any thing else, steals the pith and availability out of whatever enterprise he may dream of undertaking. Why should he toil and moil, and be at so much trouble to pick himself up out of the mud, when, in a little while hence, the strong arm of his Uncle will raise and support him? Why should he work for his living here, or go to dig gold in California, when he is so soon to be made happy, at monthly intervals, with a little pile of glittering coin out of his Uncle’s pocket? It is sadly curious to observe how slight a taste of office suffices to infect a poor fellow with this singular disease. Uncle Sam’s gold—meaning no disrespect to the worthy old gentleman—has, in this respect, a quality of enchantment like that of the Devil’s wages. Whoever touches it should look well to himself, or he may find the bargain to go hard against him, involving, if not his soul, yet many of its better attributes; its sturdy force, its courage and constancy, its truth, its self-reliance, and all that gives the emphasis to manly character. Almost everyone who takes the job is weakened by it. While he leans on the mighty arm of the federal government, he loses his own strength. He becomes less able to support himself. If he is unusually energetic, or does not hold the job for long, then he may recover his powers. The officer lucky enough to be fired may become himself once again. But this rarely happens. A man usually keeps the job just long enough for it to ruin him. Then he is shoved into the world in his weakened state to struggle along the difficult path of life. Aware of his own weakness, knowing that his strength and flexibility are gone forever, he looks around for something else to support him. His constant hope is that somehow or another he will be restored to his former post. This hallucination haunts him while he lives and, I imagine, even for a brief time after his death. It sucks away his enthusiasm for any other undertaking. Why should he struggle and strive when he knows that, before too long, Uncle Sam will raise him up again? Why work for a living, or go dig gold in California, when a government salary will soon make him happy again? It is truly sad to see how little time in the Custom House it takes to infect a man with this peculiar disease. I don’t mean to disrespect worthy old Uncle Sam, but his gold is cursed like the Devil’s. Whoever touches it should beware. If the gold doesn’t cost his soul, it may still take his strength, courage, dependability, truthfulness, self-reliance, and all the best parts of his character.
Here was a fine prospect in the distance! Not that the Surveyor brought the lesson home to himself, or admitted that he could be so utterly undone, either by continuance in office, or ejectment. Yet my reflections were not the most comfortable. I began to grow melancholy and restless; continually prying into my mind, to discover which of its poor properties were gone, and what degree of detriment had already accrued to the remainder. I endeavoured to calculate how much longer I could stay in the Custom-House, and yet go forth a man. To confess the truth, it was my greatest apprehension,—as it would never be a measure of policy to turn out so quiet an individual as myself, and it being hardly in the nature of a public officer to resign,—it was my chief trouble, therefore, that I was likely to grow gray and decrepit in the Surveyorship, and become much such another animal as the old Inspector. Might it not, in the tedious lapse of official life that lay before me, finally be with me as it was with this venerable friend,—to make the dinner-hour the nucleus of the day, and to spend the rest of it, as an old dog spends it, asleep in the sunshine or the shade? A dreary look-forward this, for a man who felt it to be the best definition of happiness to live throughout the whole range of his faculties and sensibilities! But, all this while, I was giving myself very unnecessary alarm. Providence had meditated better things for me than I could possibly imagine for myself. This was a great thing to look forward to. Not that I applied this example to myself or admitted that I might end up like that whether I kept my job or lost it. Still, my mind was ill at ease. I became depressed and restless, constantly examining my mind to see what abilities I had lost already. I tried to calculate how much longer I could stay in the Custom House and still remain a man. To tell the truth, it was my greatest fear that I would grow old there and become an animal like the old Inspector. No one would fire a quiet person like me, and quitting wasn’t what someone in my position did. Could I turn out like the venerable old man? Would dinner be the high point of my day, and would I spend the rest as a dog does, sleeping in the sun or in the shade? It was a dismal prospect for a man who was happiest when all his senses and his faculties were engaged. But I was worrying needlessly, as it turned out. Fortune had conceived of better things for me than I could have imagined for myself.