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It was not the present Salem, however, with its decayed wharf and its equally decrepit inhabitants, that gripped Hawthorne's imagination. It was the town as it used to be: the bustling 18th- century port where the white-sailed dippers came to rest after their long voyages to the Indies, and the 17th-century village where grim-faced Puritans, swathed in black, trod the narrow streets with Bible in hand.
How could Hawthorne reach back into Salem's past and mine this rich vein for the characters and stories he wanted to write about? The Custom House pointed the way. The place, with its ancient officials, turned out to be a sort of local archives.
Hawthorne found that his co-workers, if they chose, had some fascinating stories to tell. The General, for instance, had fought in his youth in the War of 1812. He had even become a legend in his own time by uttering, when ordered to charge a British battery, a simple but courageous phrase. "I'll try, sir," the young officer had replied.
On a more mundane level, the Inspector also had a positive genius for summoning up the past. Why, the man could recall gourmet dinners he had eaten sixty or seventy years ago! As an appetizer, the inspector was better than an oyster. He could make your mouth water with descriptions of long-since- devoured turkeys and roasts.
The officials aside, the Custom House itself was a repository of the past. On the second floor, a little-used cobweb-covered room housed a collection of ancient records. One day, while rummaging through the rubbish heaps, Hawthorne found a small package, neatly wrapped in yellowing parchment. It had apparently been overlooked by generations of previous Custom House employees.
Unwrapping the package, Hawthorne found "a certain affair of fine red cloth," shaped like the letter A. And along with that curious piece of cloth, he discovered a manuscript, which upon examination proved to date from Colonial times, recording the story of Hester Prynne.
Such, at any rate, is the story Hawthorne tells, for the discovery of the letter and the manuscript is a fabrication. Or perhaps, it is a metaphor for a far less poetic truth. The Custom House job was a relatively undemanding one that left Hawthorne with a lot of time on his hands. He used that time to continue his exhaustive research into the history of early New England. And in that research, or rather in the blend of historical fact with his creative imagination, Hawthorne found the story of The Scarlet Letter.