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FREE Barron's Booknotes-The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne-Free Notes
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THE STORY

THE CUSTOM HOUSE: INTRODUCTORY

Unless you are specifically assigned otherwise, you should save "The Custom House" until after you have finished reading The Scarlet Letter.

Frankly, you will find the introduction rough going. It is long. It is plotless. It depends for its effect on a sense of humor that is far removed from modern comedy shows like Saturday Night Live. In addition, "The Custom House" is not really an integral part of the novel proper. It was added by Hawthorne as an afterthought on the advice of his publisher. The piece was supposed to add a light touch to an otherwise heavy work, and thereby increase sales.

"The Custom House" purports to be an explanation of how Hawthorne came to write The Scarlet Letter. In fact, you can read the piece twice over without discerning the truth. Hawthorne was fired from his job as Custom House Surveyor when the election of 1849 ousted his party from office. As the Custom House was a political appointment which depended on the good graces of the administration, Hawthorne was out of work.

In a way, the Custom House job did lead Hawthorne to The Scarlet Letter. The losing of it drove the novelist back to his original trade. What's more, Hawthorne's appointment as Surveyor brought him back to Salem. It put him, once again, in touch with his roots.


Salem had a firm hold on Hawthorne, even if it was a hold he sometimes struggled to break. The place had been native soil to his family for generations. Hawthorne's father had been born there, and his father before him-sailors all, who helped to build the great New England shipping trade. And there were earlier and grander Hawthornes than that: John Hathorne (the w came later), the notorious hanging judge of the Salem Witch Trials; and John's father, William, one of the original founders of the colony, who had come over from England with Governor Winthrop in 1630.

In short, Hawthorne's roots in Salem went back just about as far as American history. On the western side of the Atlantic, that ranks as quite a family tree.

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FREE Barron's Booknotes-The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne-Free Notes
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