Listen now (63 mins) | It’s become an annual tradition to invite the one-and-only Karen Swallow Prior on the show to discuss a classic novel, and this time around it’s Nathaniel Hawthorne’s, The Scarlet Letter. In this first episode of the series, we chatted about that difficult opening section, “The Customs House”; why Karen chose to include this book in her series of annotated classic novels for B&H Publishing (alongside Austen, Hardy, Conrad, Bronte, etc.); ways Hawthorne seems to be working out his connection to his family’s long and fraught history; and much more! Happy listening!
The last topic of things being on the nose but also not, I feel like that’s in the title, even. The Letter is NOT Scarlet. It’s gold.
Do you think perhaps Hawthorne wrote the Customs House intro as he did so that while reading we experience the same tediousness that the narrator experienced day to day?
I found I enjoyed The Customs House this go around more than previous ones. I grew up (for the most part) in a small and historic New England town and really connected with the narrator’s reflections on the way in which a person is shaped by the interplay between person, place, and ancestry. As a teenager I could feel very stifled and bored by my small town, but also loved it for its history and beauty. As a young adult I was excited to “get out” and explore the wider world, and as an adult my husband and I chose to move our family to another small town not far from where I grew up (and as an added bonus we purposefully held out for a historic/colonial home). So the attraction and repulsion Hawthorne/the narrator feel for Salem is something I get. I also was intrigued by the questions and reflections this section raised about the process of writing, particularly writing historical fiction. I’m a sucker for the narrative conceit Hawthorne uses, and I think it’s one that’s so suited to a novel of New England as well. New England has played such a big role in shaping a particularly epic, semi-mythical, and self-congratulatory version of America’s founding/early expansion. And that version is very much like The Scarlett Letter itself, a semi-autobiographical work of historical fiction that wrestles with and invites questions about identity, morality, and community (particularly who is allowed “in” and who is allowed “out.”)
In Good Wives: Image and Reality In The Lives Of Women In Northern New England, 1650-1750, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich writes,
“Older women derived their authority both from their established position in the community and from gender. They not only understood an enticement, they also knew its consequences — as no magistrate could. Proved in life, they were capable of recognizing and of judging sin. Experience— not innocence— was the supreme female virtue in rural New England.”
It’s been a while since I read the book (for studies in the humanities) But my memory/takeaway is that the good wives of New England were instrumental in helping women avoid rape and other situations such as Hester Prynne found herself in. Leafing through, and finding passages, dependency of women upon men necessitated wisdom and teaching among women for their protection. It seems to have been a tight-knit gender community of this going on among women in town and rural communities of New England.
And here is where we get to Hawthorne’s picturing of women in his scene where Hester comes forth from the prison. Ulrich’s Good Wives scholarship shows a different spirit than what we see in the self righteous gathering of women as Hester comes forth clutching her babe against the scarlet letter.
Maybe, historically, women would have been silent in the context; men would have been quietly gossiping among themselves, not much public speech as we see here. Rural/village New England experience of local gossip testifies even today to this gender oral divide.
Still, I would not want to re-write Hawthorne. How else could he express what Hester Prynne endures for three hours on the scaffold?
This episode was so helpful! I likewise was encouraged to find I wasn’t the only one laboring through the Customs House! I also was helped by the context you provided on the Puritans at large (like David’s reading about the art the Puritans ousted) and the book comparison with Tess. Nevertheless, I’ve been struggling with this read a bit! I have a love-hate relationship with Hawthorne’s ornate language. One moment I’m drawn in and the next I’m ejected. Like how the first half of a crème brûlée walks you to paradise and the second half walks you to your couch, where you curl up on your side, clutch your gut, and question all your life choices up to that moment. Just so rich! I’m wondering if this is Hawthorne’s personal style, a literary device he employs, or the style of the time in which he’s writing.
Similarly, his language seems to me to have the effect of painting his characters into caricatures. All the Puritans feel like ignorant, loveless, dunces. And I have to admit, that irritates me. Nobody (or at least not a whole community) is that one-dimensional. Again, is this personal style, literary device, or a sign of the times?
I’d appreciate your thoughts!
I’m glad it wasn’t just me slogging through the intro - but it made the first few chapters that much easier to read 😂
I wanted to throw out support for the Custom House introduction. My best friend loves the Custom House intro. Her family has lived in Northern New Mexico since the 1500’s and the section really speaks to her. The idea of being tied through the generations to a place and how that shapes the individual is compelling. I, on the other hand, have always felt a bit rootless, so the section fills me with a sense of yearning to belong somewhere. In brief, it is someone’s favorite part.
I respectfully disagree with Heidi's observation that Hawthorne was fired by a corrupt government. He was a political appointee, the head of the Salem Custom House. He got his position when a Democrat was elected, and he probably displaced a Whig. The same has occurred throughout our history. The later-enacted civil service reforms protect career employees, not political appointees.
I love the discussion of Catholicism and the rose bush. My grandmother's name, Beata Hortense des Rosier, had a literal translation -- Blessed Lady of the Rose's.