Before I get into The Scarlet Letter: If you haven’t voted for February’s book, please do so! The poll is up in the sidebar.
Welcome, Scarlet Letter Reading Buddies! This month’s selection is one I read in high school, but I can only recall the most basic things about it. I remember it being hard to read, and I know I did not like it one bit at the time (my general reaction toward books I was forced to read!). I also remember the relationship between the three central characters, which took some of mystery out of the 25 or so pages I’ve read so far.
Only 25 pages, you say? Yes indeed. My edition (the Modern Library one) begins with an autobiographical sketch by Hawthorne entitled “The Custom-House,” which I don’t remember reading that first time around in high school. It’s about 45 pages long and deals with Hawthorne’s time as surveyor at the Salem customhouse. It also explains the origin of The Scarlet Letter: while going through old papers at the customhouse, Hawthorne came across a roll of paper and a tattered scrap of embroidered scarlet cloth in the shape of an A. The paper explained the entire story of the letter, which Hawthorne eventually expanded into the novel we’re reading this month. The essay also showed me that Hawthorne could be rather scathingly witty as he turned his pen slyly against his comrades at the customhouse.
Aside from learning about Hawthorne’s inspiration for The Scarlet Letter, the other thing I really enjoyed about “The Custom-House” was the way Hawthorne placed himself within a matrix of his famous contemporaries. Perhaps it’s akin to name-dropping, but Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Ellery Channing, Henry David Thoreau, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and several others are mentioned in this essay.
Did your edition include this piece? I couldn’t tell if it’s part of The Scarlet Letter or just something relevant that the editors of my edition decided to include.
My biggest struggle with The Scarlet Letter so far — at least, during the few pages I’ve read — has been the language. I think that’s partly because Hawthorne is imitating the style of some 200 years earlier (the novel was published in 1850, but my edition claims historical markers place the story in about 1642), but having read “The Custom-House,” I think it’s partly just Hawthorne’s style. I’m certainly doing better with it than I did in high school, but I’m still having to slow down quite a bit. Thank goodness The Scarlet Letter is on the shorter side!
How is The Scarlet Letter going for you? Is this your first time reading it? If you’ve posted about the book on your blog, please feel free to leave a link to your post in the comments!