The Scarlet Letter

Nathaniel Hawthorne
No Fear The Custom House Introductory to The Scarlet Letter
No Fear The Custom House: Introductory to The Scarlet Letter: Page 17

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Meanwhile, the press had taken up my affair, and kept me, for a week or two, careering through the public prints, in decapitated state, like Irving’s Headless Horseman; ghastly and grim, and longing to be buried, as a politically dead man ought. So much for my figurative self. The real human being, all this time, with his head safely on his shoulders, had brought himself to the comfortable conclusion, that every thing was for the best; and, making an investment in ink, paper, and steel-pens, had opened his long-disused writing-desk, and was again a literary man. Meanwhile, the press took up my cause. They kept me in the news for a week or two like Washington Irving’s Headless Horseman, longing to be buried in the political graveyard. So much for my metaphorical self. The actual man, head still firmly on his shoulders, had concluded that this was all for the best. I bought ink, paper, and pens; opened my long-unused writing desk; and was again a literary man.
Now it was, that the lucubrations of my ancient predecessor, Mr. Surveyor Pue, came into play. Rusty through long idleness, some little space was requisite before my intellectual machinery could be brought to work upon the tale, with an effect in any degree satisfactory. Even yet, though my thoughts were ultimately much absorbed in the task, it wears, to my eye, a stern and sombre aspect; too much ungladdened by genial sunshine; too little relieved by the tender and familiar influences which soften almost every scene of nature and real life, and, undoubtedly, should soften every picture of them. This uncaptivating effect is perhaps due to the period of hardly accomplished revolution, and still seething turmoil, in which the story shaped itself. It is no indication, however, of a lack of cheerfulness in the writer’s mind; for he was happier, while straying through the gloom of these sunless fantasies, than at any time since he had quitted the Old Manse. Some of the briefer articles, which contribute to make up the volume, have likewise been written since my involuntary withdrawal from the toils and honors of public life, and the remainder are gleaned from annuals and magazines, of such antique date that they have gone round the circle, and come back to novelty again. Keeping up the metaphor of the political guillotine, the whole may be considered as the Posthumous Papers of a Decapitated Surveyor; and the sketch which I am now bringing to a close, if too autobiographical for a modest person to publish in his lifetime, will readily be excused in a gentleman who writes from beyond the grave. Peace be with all the world! My blessing on my friends! My forgiveness to my enemies! For I am in the realm of quiet! It was then that the records of my ancient predecessor, Mr. Surveyor Pine, came into play. Rusty as I was, it was a while before I could do much of anything with the tale. Even now, though I put a lot into it, the story seems to have a stern and serious aspect. It shows too little of the sunshine that brightens real life and should brighten every image of it. This effect may be partly due to the period in which the story is set, which was one of recent revolution and still-seething turmoil. But it does not stem from any unhappiness in my mind. Indeed, I was happier wandering in the gloom of these sunless fantasies than I have been since leaving the Old Manse. Some of the shorter stories, which are included in this volume, have similarly been written since my withdrawal from public life. The rest were published in magazines so long ago that they have come full circle are now as good as new. To keep up the metaphor of the political guillotine, the volume may be thought of as the Posthumous Papers of a Decapitated Surveyor. This sketch, which may be too autobiographical for a modest person to publish in his lifetime, will be excused if written by a political dead man. Peace to all, my blessings to my friends, and forgiveness to my enemies, for I have passed from the political world.
The life of the Custom-House lies like a dream behind me. The old Inspector,—who, by the by, I regret to say, was overthrown and killed by a horse, some time ago; else he would certainly have lived for ever,—he, and all those other venerable personages who sat with him at the receipt of custom, are but shadows in my view; white-headed and wrinkled images, which my fancy used to sport with, and has now flung aside for ever. The merchants,—Pingree, Phillips, Shepard, Upton, Kimball, Bertram, Hunt,—these, and many other names, which had such a classic familiarity for my ear six months ago,—these men of traffic, who seemed to occupy so important a position in the world,—how little time has it required to disconnect me from them all, not merely in act, but recollection! It is with an effort that I recall the figures and appellations of these few. Soon, likewise, my old native town will loom upon me through the haze of memory, a mist brooding over and around it; as if it were no portion of the real earth but an overgrown village in cloud-land, with only imaginary inhabitants to people its wooden houses, and walk its homely lanes, and the unpicturesque prolixity of its main street. Henceforth, it ceases to be a reality of my life. I am a citizen of somewhere else. My good townspeople will not much regret me; for—though it has been as dear an object as any, in my literary efforts, to be of some importance in their eyes, and to win myself a pleasant memory in this abode and burial-place of so many of my forefathers—there has never been, for me, the genial atmosphere which a literary man requires, in order to ripen the best harvest of his mind. I shall do better amongst other faces; and these familiar ones, it need hardly be said, will do just as well without me. The life of the Custom House is like a dream to me now. I’m sorry to say that the old Inspector was thrown from his horse and killed. He would have lived forever otherwise. Now he and the other officers are like shadows to me: white-headed and wrinkled images that my imagination once played with but never will again. The many merchants who were so familiar and seemed so important only six months ago—how soon they have faded from my memory! I struggle to recall them now. And soon Salem itself will loom over me through the haze of memory, as though it were an overgrown village in cloud-land and not part of the real world. Salem is no longer a reality of my life. I live elsewhere now. The townspeople won’t miss me much. Though I have tried to win their esteem with my writing, the town never gave me a pleasant atmosphere required by a literary man. I will do better with other faces around me—and the familiar ones, I hardly need to say, will do just fine without me.
It may be, however,—O, transporting and triumphant thought!—that the great-grandchildren of the present race may sometimes think kindly of the scribbler of bygone days, when the antiquary of days to come, among the sites memorable in the town’s history, shall point out the locality of The Town-Pump! Perhaps—oh, what an amazing thought—their great-grandchildren will think kindly thoughts about me in days to come, when the local historians point out where the town pump once stood.