Did you make that post on, uhm, Hawthorne?

It would be sad injustice, the reader must understand, to claim that I had ever read that piece by the good Mr. Hawthorne, to whose I lecture I now posit a dangerously bold claim. I feel perturbed by the afterthought, the guilt is drilling holes into my literary conscience, but its cloak is shed now – there is no human way to hide its shameful flesh. On it, in staunch scarlet letters, is printed the verdict that only so very recently I have mustered the courage to face and subdue, namely – that I had never read The Custom-House.

I can say with some precision what kept me from it – I hate forewords, after-words, and anything like them – anything diverting attention from the body of the text. Hawthorne, of course, makes it clear in his 1850 preface to the second edition of The Scarlet Letter that his fictionalized auto-biographical sketch of his three-year tenure at his home town Salem’s custom house, see below, is a part of the body of the text.

The Salem CustomHouse

Well, no, what he says (still in the foreword) sounds a little different –

The sketch might, perhaps, have been wholly omitted, without loss to the public, or detriment to the book; but, having undertaken to write it, he conceives that it could not have been done in a better or a kindlier spirit, nor, so far as his abilities availed, with a livelier effect of truth.

That’s just a perfect example for a great author’s reticence and opacity when it comes to his personal motives – rather than brawl at length on what may have motivated this or that artistic move, he pulls up the narration, the narrator included, and makes them speak up.

The, in the first few paragraphs of The Custom House a reference to that other autobiographical piece of his, Mosses from an Old Manse, and –

And now—because, beyond my deserts, I was happy enough to find a listener or two on the former occasion—

The rhetorical topos of modesty is naturally not quite so very convincing when it’s preceded by a foreword to the second, not first, edition of Hawthorne’s first commercially sucessful book – and in any case it’s here a rhetorical topos, not a pathos, as it is in Lovecraft, I’ve made the point before. You don’t get the feeling, when Hawthorne says something like it, that it does more than serve its original raison d’être, being a gesture to the reader, signalling that the narration is now about to take off for good.

As was pointed out to me by The Constructivist, no doubt the profoundest Hawthorne blogger for at least one millenium to come, or two, there is quite a lot of decay in The Custom House, and that is very true, as I now know – the building, as Hawthorne describes it, is like a well of decay in a decaying town, located at a crumbling wharf.

In my native town of Salem, at the head of what, half a century ago, in the days of old King Derby, was a bustling wharf,—but which is now burdened with decayed wooden warehouses, and exhibits few or no symptoms of commercial life;

The bristling grandeur of an active commercial port is not something that Salem seems to know – if a ship makes it to the harbor at all, it is unloading things as profane as “firewood”.

What better place to discover the pleasures of hereditary sin than this reservoir of slowness, decrepitude, and inertia, where a few senior citizens (aka, the fellow custom officials that the narrator, fictionalized Hawthorne, ranks in character protraits) are on a fatigued guard to pass the tiny rests of their lives away) hang out, silent for the most, unless they make an effort to chuckle away at some age-old- & often-told episode from their lives on sea? For Hawthorne, guilt comes in the clothes of his colonial Quaker- and witch-hunting Puritan ancestors –

At all events, I, the present writer, as their representative, hereby take shame upon myself for their sakes, and pray that any curse incurred by them—as I have heard, and as the dreary and unprosperous condition of the race, for many a long year back, would argue to exist—may be now and henceforth removed.

Then, proceeding in a little ligher timbre than this stern rapping at his breast (emphasis mine) –

Doubtless, however, either of these stern and black-browed Puritans would have thought it quite a sufficient retribution for his sins, that, after so long a lapse of years, the old trunk of the family tree, with so much venerable moss upon it, should have borne, as its topmost bough, an idler like myself.

I don’t quite seem to be able to make sense of the paragraph – it’s clear that Puritans believed in hereditary sin, as well as hereditary grace, that made it impossible to extend the boundaries of the Church to just anyone, more or less innocent children included. They were admitted only, if I remember that right, through the half-way covenant in the 1660s that provided them a sort of trial membership that could, at a later time, be upgraded to a full membership. How then would it be a retribution for these Puritan forefathers of Hawthorne’s to see their descendant an idling writer?

As in Lovecraft, to go on, decay is topographical- that is, descriptive of a place – in the sense that it is both rising from a place and sinking into it: are the custom house officers decadent because they dwell for several hours a day in the custom house, or vice versa?

It’s emanating from the custom house, it seems, to which some ill destiny has driven a few residents (again, emphasis mine) –

In the first place, my coadjutors were not invariably old; there were men among them in their strength and prime, of marked ability and energy, and altogether superior to the sluggish and dependent mode of life on which their evil stars had cast them.

One might, possibly, go ahead and cite the, obviously, decent revenues that the government paid to custom officers as a more prosaic designation for the “evil stars”, but then, at the time of the narration, Hawthorne’s bitter irony is at full swing, and he’s in no mood to halt it for less grandiloquently tragic phrases.

He, the Custom House-Hawthorne, is given to antiquarian passion – which helped him discover, he claims, the original scarlet letter and the story behind it, in some bundle of documents that the British left behind when they evacuated their papers to Halifax. The past, therefore, is inspiratorial – it is the nucleus for the story – it’s also a means of legitimating the subsequent narration on Hester Prynne and the Scarlet Letter: he freely offers to present the original letter to anyone interested in giving him a call in the matter.

At the same time it is terribly stifling to his literary imagination (and the young poetry-scribbling clerk and colleague that he describes is another victim – as if the house’s inertia was a god-given law that may be violated only under caution: that is, poetry must be hastily scribbled, but not lived or enjoyed), it’s making him grow numb – and just as he’s railed onto the brink of braindeath, he luckily loses the job and is set free to tell the story. History, ultimately, is beneficial only when it’s turned into a living, breathing thing able to grab for the future on its own – such as a novel of the breadth of The Scarlet Letter. When it’s not transformed back into life, it’s no more than an inertiatic cesspool of decay suffocating vital imagination.

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3 Comments

  1. One might, possibly, go ahead and cite the, obviously, decent revenues that the government paid to custom officers as a more prosaic designation for the “evil stars”, but then, at the time of the narration, Hawthorne’s bitter irony is at full swing, and he’s in no mood to halt it for less grandiloquently tragic phrases.

    Love the post and I’m not stalking you, really I’m not, but he, uh, does go on at length with the prosaic (and Frazier-Moynihan “culture of poverty”-anticipating) designation, although you’re right to emphasize the “at th[at] time [in] the narration” thing. The swings between romantic and realist discourse in the preface seem pretty calculated to me. But then they would.

    I’m not the profoundest Hawthorne blogger, just the pickiest.

    Oh, and hope you enjoyed NH’s rare invocation of the gothic toward the end of the “Another View of Hester” chapter–positively Dickinsonesque. Supports your take on the gothic rather well, because he rarely uses it so overtly elsewhere in the novel.

    Looking forward to those Lovecraft and race posts (rubbing hands, maniacal grin, evil laugh)….

  2. You’re tenured, you may stalk whatever un-tenured member of academe you want. Seriously, I’m at best a not entirely unprofessional Hawthorne reader, so any input, especially by the net’s “pickiest” Hawthorne connaisseur, is greatly appreciated.

    But then they would.

    I would think so – “The Custom House” seems like a playful and suave (and quite humorous, at times) vindication of his own artistic freedom, re-publishing it into the face of the audience even though, as he finds in these first few paragraphs, there may be complaints. That, this self-determination, made me wonder about that “evil star”-thing, in the first place – does he, the artist, have the means to escape/disable that destiny which keeps the other custom officers in that mouldy custom shack?

  3. I think I devote 12 posts to “The Custom-House” without really answering your question. On the one hand, I read it as his declaration of independence from Salem and pledge of allegiance to the republic of letters; on the other, I point out the many figures for determinism and lack of control/agency in the piece (yet somehow managed to miss your “evil stars”–thanks for adding another to the list!). Wrestling with the urge to quote Rush to you now, instead I’ll mention Chillingworth’s “dark necessity” line toward the end of the novel, Dimmesdale’s “it was all arranged by a merciful Providence (I hope)” death speech, and Hester’s return to Boston as evidences from the text he was entertaining doubts about freedom in general, much less artistic freedom. Sure, he casts losing his patronage position as a fortunate fall in the introductory sketch, and posits the novel as evidence of his recovery of his artistic powers, but I think Dan McCall makes a good case he was afraid of those powers and you can certainly read the ending of The House of the Seven Gables as his attempt to rein them in. But I still haven’t answered your question.

    Ah, so now I have a topic for Monday. It’ll be a good warm-up for my return to the Postcolonial Hawthorne classroom on Wednesday. Thanks!


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