The Scarlet Letter

by: Nathaniel Hawthorne

  The Custom House Introductory to The Scarlet Letter

page The Custom House: Introductory to The Scarlet Letter: Page 9

Original Text

Modern Text

There was one thing that much aided me in renewing and re-creating the stalwart soldier of the Niagara frontier,—the man of true and simple energy. It was the recollection of those memorable words of his,—“I’ll try, Sir!”—spoken on the very verge of a desperate and heroic enterprise, and breathing the soul and spirit of New England hardihood, comprehending all perils, and encountering all. If, in our country, valor were rewarded by heraldic honor, this phrase—which it seems so easy to speak, but which only he, with such a task of danger and glory before him, has ever spoken—would be the best and fittest of all mottoes for the General’s shield of arms. There was one thing that helped me re-create this brave soldier, and that was remembering his words, “I’ll try, sir.” The General spoke them as he set out to battle in the War of 1812. Those words summed up New England hardiness, acknowledged danger, and faced everything. If our country honored bravery with a coat of arms, that phrase would be the General’s motto. The words seem easy to speak, but only he has ever spoken them while facing such danger and glory.
It contributes greatly towards a man’s moral and intellectual health, to be brought into habits of companionship with individuals unlike himself, who care little for his pursuits, and whose sphere and abilities he must go out of himself to appreciate. The accidents of my life have often afforded me this advantage, but never with more fulness and variety than during my continuance in office. There was one man, especially, the observation of whose character gave me a new idea of talent. His gifts were emphatically those of a man of business; prompt, acute, clear-minded; with an eye that saw through all perplexities, and a faculty of arrangement that made them vanish, as by the waving of an enchanter’s wand. Bred up from boyhood in the Custom-House, it was his proper field of activity; and the many intricacies of business, so harassing to the interloper, presented themselves before him with the regularity of a perfectly comprehended system. In my contemplation, he stood as the ideal of his class. He was, indeed, the Custom-House in himself; or, at all events, the main-spring that kept its variously revolving wheels in motion; for, in an institution like this, where its officers are appointed to subserve their own profit and convenience, and seldom with a leading reference to their fitness for the duty to be performed, they must perforce seek elsewhere the dexterity which is not in them. Thus, by an inevitable necessity, as a magnet attracts steel-filings, so did our man of business draw to himself the difficulties which everybody met with. With an easy condescension, and kind forbearance towards our stupidity,—which, to his order of mind, must have seemed little short of crime,—would he forthwith, by the merest touch of his finger, make the incomprehensible as clear as daylight. The merchants valued him not less than we, his esoteric friends. His integrity was perfect; it was a law of nature with him, rather than a choice or a principle; nor can it be otherwise than the main condition of an intellect so remarkably clear and accurate as his, to be honest and regular in the administration of affairs. A stain on his conscience, as to any thing that came within the range of his vocation, would trouble such a man very much in the same way, though to a far greater degree, than an error in the balance of an account, or an ink-blot on the fair page of a book of record. Here, in a word,—and it is a rare instance in my life,—I had met with a person thoroughly adapted to the situation which he held. It’s good for a man’s soul and mind to hang out with people unlike himself. When someone doesn’t care about your hobbies and interests, you must stretch yourself to appreciate theirs. I’ve met many different people in my life, but never more so than during my time in the Custom House. There was one man in particular who broadened my idea of what talent could be. He had the gifts of a businessman. He was prompt, perceptive, and clear headed, with an eye that saw through complexity and a mind that made it vanish as if he’d waved a wand. Having spent his life since boyhood in the Custom House, he knew every aspect of its business. The details that might mystify a stranger, he understood perfectly. To my mind, he was the best of his type. He was the Custom House itself. At the very least, he was what kept its wheels in motion. At a place like this, where officers are hired because the job helps them, and because they’re good at the job, the men must look to someone for the skills they lack themselves. Like a magnet attracts filings, this man of business attracted everyone else’s difficulties. Though we must have seemed criminally stupid to him, he solved our problems with kind patience and lighthearted condescension. At a little touch of his finger, he made the incomprehensible as clear as daylight. The merchants valued him just as much as we did. He was a man of perfect integrity, as his clear intellect almost required. A blemish on his professional conscience would trouble him even more than the many small errors he corrected in the office. This was a man perfectly adapted to his situation—a rare thing in life.
Such were some of the people with whom I now found myself connected. I took it in good part at the hands of Providence, that I was thrown into a position so little akin to my past habits; and set myself seriously to gather from it whatever profit was to be had. After my fellowship of toil and impractical schemes, with the dreamy brethren of Brook Farm; after living for three years within the subtle influence of an intellect like Emerson’s; after those wild, free days on the Assabeth, indulging fantastic speculations beside our fire of fallen boughs, with Ellery Channing; after talking with Thoreau about pine-trees and Indian relics, in his hermitage at Walden; after growing fastidious by sympathy with the classic refinement of Hillard’s culture; after becoming imbued with poetic sentiment at Longfellow’s hearth-stone;—it was time, at length, that I should exercise other faculties of my nature, and nourish myself with food for which I had hitherto had little appetite. Even the old Inspector was desirable, as a change of diet, to a man who had known Alcott. I looked upon it as an evidence, in some measure, of a system naturally well balanced, and lacking no essential part of a thorough organization, that, with such associates to remember, I could mingle at once with men of altogether different qualities, and never murmur at the change. These were the people I worked with. I figured it was a stroke of luck to have a job so different from anything I had done before, and I decided to learn as much as I could from the people and the place. After dreaming up impractical schemes at

Brook Farm

Utopian community outside Boston.

Brook Farm
, after living for three years under the subtle intellect of Emerson, after the days of wild wondering on the

Assabeth

River outside Boston.

Assabeth
with Ellery Channing, after talking with Thoreau about pine trees and Indian relics at his place in Walden, after growing more discerning with the refined Hillard, after getting poetic before Longfellow’s fire—after all of this, it was time for me to use other aspects of my mind and nourish myself with work I had not previously desired. Even the old Inspector was a welcome change for a man who had known Alcott. I took my ability to mix with men so different from those I had known as evidence of my own well-balanced nature.