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Figurations of Salem in "Young Goodman Brown" and "The Custom-House"

by Rita K. Gollin
SUNY Geneseo

Dr. Rita Gollin, SUNY, Geneseo,
photograph by permission of author

Information on Rita K. Gollin.  Books by Rita K. Gollin.
Dr. Rita Gollin, SUNY, Geneseo, photograph by permission of author Information on Rita K. Gollin. Books by Rita K. Gollin. (photography by Lou Procopio)

Writers write about what they know. Therefore it is hardly surprising that Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote about Salem--the town where he was born in 1804 and where he spent most of the next thirty-three years, the town he returned to in the fall of 1845 but left forever in the spring of 1850.

There he was born and schooled. There he walked from one end of town to the other; he clambered along its rocky seacoast and up Gallows Hill; he imbibed its legends and read about its past. And there in Salem, during what he called his "twelve lonely years" after graduating from Bowdoin College in 1825, he produced scores of narratives. Among them are self-observing reports of his own solitary rambles and ruminations including "Foot-prints on the Sea-shore" and "The Haunted Mind," genial vignettes of daily life including "A Rill from the Town-Pump" and "Little Annie's Ramble," and tales of Colonial Salem including "The May-Pole of Merry Mount" and "Endicott and the Red Cross." In many of those tales, he depicts Puritan patriarchs as self-righteous persecutors of those unlike themselves, Indians and Quakers among them. And Salem's witchcraft frenzy is central to the darkest of them. But Hawthorne's densest and most self-revealing yet self-crafting deployment of Salem materials followed his dismissal as the federally appointed Surveyor of Customs for the Port of Salem in 1849--the wily introduction to The Scarlet Letter that is appropriately yet punningly entitled "The Custom-House."

I. "Young Goodman Brown"

Whatever Hawthorne might have learned about Salem's witchcraft frenzy during his boyhood, the descendant of the notorious "witch-judge" John Hathorne pursued the facts and fantasies of that episode during his post-Bowdoin years--in court records, in histories including Thomas Hutchinson's History of Massachusetts Bay (1764), in contemporary justifications of the episode including Cotton Mather's Wonders of the Invisible World (1693), in contemporary vituperations including Robert Calef's More Wonders of the Invisible World (1700) (which presents John Hathorne as a ruthless interrogator of the accused), and in Charles W. Upham's Lectures on Witchcraft (1831). Not surprisingly, that episode explicitly surfaces in several of his early narratives.

The autobiographical narrator of the convoluted tale "Alice Doane's Appeal" informs us that he often "courted the historical influence" of Gallows Hill, where the witches were executed. He tells of conducting two young women there and reading them one of his manuscripts, a melodramatic tale of patricide, fratricide, and incestuous desire. But he moves them far more when he conjures up the actual shameful historical past--a procession of those condemned for witchcraft on their long walk to Gallows Hill, followed by their frenzied accusers. The guiltiest is a figure on horseback, so sternly triumphant, that my hearers mistook him for the visible presence of the fiend himself; but it was only his good friend, Cotton Mather, proud of his well won dignity, as the representative of all the hateful features of his time; the one blood-thirsty man, in whom were concentrated those vices of spirit and errors of opinion, that suffered to madden the whole surrounding multitude.

The narrator's virtual procession abruptly ends at the "barren summit" after he "pictured the scaffold--" His gentle companions shudder and weep.

Two decades later, in "Main-street"--a "shifting panorama" of Salem's history contrived by a "Showman"--Hawthorne would again invoke that same procession to the scaffold. Another shameful scene precedes it: the persecution of Quakers, during which a constable "zealous to fulfill the injunction" of Hawthorne's first American ancestor--Major William Hawthorne--"puts his soul into every stroke" on the naked back of Ann Coleman. But far more horrendous is the procession of accused witches on their way to Gallows Hill, innocent victims of self-righteous Puritans including Cotton Mather and William Hawthorne's son John. "The witches!" the Showman exclaims. "The witches!" Then he invites "us" to "watch their faces, as if we made a part of the pale crowd that presses so eagerly about them, yet shrinks back with such shuddering dread." They feel "horror, fear, and distrust; and friend looks askance at friend, and the husband at his wife, . . . as if in every creature God has made, they suspected a witch, or dreaded an accuser."

But in none of Hawthorne's narratives is that time of "horror, fear, and distrust" more powerfully evoked than in a story contemporaneous with "Alice Doane's Appeal"--"Young Goodman Brown," the story of a young Puritan who looked "askance" at his wife and came to suspect that everyone in Salem Village had covenanted with the Devil. It is a tale structured as a nightmare, one man's but also Salem's. As one scholar puts it, the breakdown of faith in Salem Village is enfigured in Goodman Brown, whose willingness to accept spectral evidence of guilt "could only end in nightmare."

The most specifically personal moment in the story is pivotal, the moment after Brown has left his Faith and rendezvoused with the Devil but then wants to turn back. "My father never went into the woods on such an errand, nor his father before him," he declares, unnerved by the thought that he would "be the first of the name of Brown, that ever took this path." Whether we read the story as a dream vision, a supernatural tale of witchcraft, a projection of the archetypical Puritan's guilty fantasies, or all of the above and then some, the Devil's reply is drenched in Hawthorne's family history: "I have been as well acquainted with your family as with ever a one among the Puritans. . . . I helped your grandfather, the constable, when he lashed the Quaker woman so smartly through the streets of Salem. And it was I that brought your father a pitch-pine knot, kindled at my own hearth, to set fire to an Indian village. . . . They were my good friends both. . . ." Beyond his fictional veil, Hawthorne accuses his two most eminent ancestors of consorting with the Devil. But the dark forest where Brown's horrific nighttime adventures occur is more than the locus of Salem's shameful past, including his ancestors'. It is also the dark interior of the self in which the author himself often wandered during his "twelve lonely years" in Salem. The story's climactic Witches' Sabbath where Salemites await the initiation of Goodman Brown and his Faith into evil is an analogue of the Salem witchcraft frenzy. The entire story dramatizes the either-or mentality which underlay the Puritans' persecution of Quakers and other non-believers and the events at Gallows Hill. But it must also be read as a journey into the dark inner reaches of the self.

During his bachelor years in Salem, as the occupant of what he called a dream-haunted chamber under the eaves of his family home on Herbert Street, Hawthorne often took that journey. By saying so, whether in a tale or a letter, he was mining his anxieties about his relatively isolated life and his fear that literary success might forever elude him. Of course, he was exaggerating a fear that was nonetheless all too pressing, a fear of psychic self-destruction and separation from healthy community. Years later, in "The Custom-House," he would put such self-flagellations into the mouths of his most eminent Puritan ancestors. But he had found other ways of saying so years before, as in a letter of 1837 to his college classmate Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: "By some witchcraft or other . . . I have been carried apart from the main current of life, and find it impossible to get back again." "Young Goodman Brown" offers a variant of that trope. Through Goodman Brown's nightmare journey away from the main current of life, Hawthorne figured forth the witchcraft delusions of seventeenth century Salem which he vicariously experienced. He was also trying to come to terms with what he called in "The Custom-House" his "inmost Me."

II. "The Custom-House"

Hawthorne wrote "The Custom-House" at the beginning of 1850--half a year after his ouster as Surveyor but just before he completed The Scarlet Letter and a few months before he left Salem forever. In it, his natal town emerges as a place in decline whose citizens are in decline, a place whose death in life he had shared, but from which he has been paradoxically expelled into rebirth. In that essay, fact is carefully selected and heavily manipulated to enlist the readers' sympathetic interest and belief. The narrator as self-described is a genial and apolitical individual who was unjustly yet providentially ousted from office. The readers he courted had no way of guessing that his crucial episode of discovering the scarlet letter--through which Hawthorne was reborn as a writer--was pure invention. But they could not have missed his scorn for Salem and for the Salemites who connived in his dismissal as Surveyor.

In his preface to the second edition of The Scarlet Letter, which appeared only a month after the first, Hawthorne claimed that "The Custom-House" was merely a sketch of his "official life" that had been written in "frank and genuine good-humor," with no "ill-feeling of any kind, personal of political." But the many Salemites who attacked the essay in local periodicals knew better.

In his first two paragraphs, Hawthorne misleadingly explains why he wrote it. Simply yielding to "an autobiographical impulse" as he had done in "The Old Manse," his introduction to the collection of short stories, Mosses from an Old Manse (1846), he decided to "seize the reader by the button and talk of my three years' experience in a Custom-House." Next comes an absolute falsehood: "a desire to put myself in my true position as editor, or little more" of The Scarlet Letter "is my true reason for assuming a personal relation with the public."

At that point he guides the reader up to and then into the Salem Custom House. That brick edifice is at the head of a dilapidated wharf "burdened with decayed wooden warehouses," he tells us, and above its entrance hovers an "enormous specimen of the American eagle" who holds, "if I recollect aright, a bunch of intermingled thunderbolts and barbed arrows in each claw" and seems apt to "fling off" those who seek shelter under her wings. The application to his own case seems all too clear: shelter, and then a wounding ouster. But whether or not Hawthorne simply misrecollected, the discrepancy between his description and the actuality might well have been calculated: the eagle clutches three barbed arrows (and no thunderbolts) in her left claw; but her right one holds an olive branch as well as a stars-and-striped shield.

Following up on his initial images of dilapidation and decay, Hawthorne blames the Port of Salem's decline on "her own merchants and shipowners, who permit her wharves to crumble to ruin" by shipping their merchandise through New York and Boston. But more explicitly insulting is Hawthorne's description of the soporific Custom House officials lined up in the entry--ineffectual old men in old-fashioned tipped-back chairs. From there, Hawthorne takes his "honored reader" into the room where he worked until he was "swept out of office," again peppering accurate description (it is about fifteen feet square) with scornful detail: it is "cobwebbed, and dingy with old paint; its floor was strewn with grey sand."

In the following paragraphs, Hawthorne struggles to comprehend the town's emotional hold on him:

Indeed, so far as its physical aspect is concerned, its flat, unvaried surface, covered chiefly with wooden houses, few or none of which pretend to architectural beauty,--its irregularity, which is neither picturesque nor quaint, but only tame,--its long and lazy street, lounging wearisomely through the whole extent of the peninsula, with Gallows Hill and New Guinea at one end and a view of the alms-house at the other,--such being the features of my native town, it would be quite as reasonable to form a sentimental attachment to a disarranged checkerboard.

Simply omitting to mention the fine Federal houses on Chestnut Street, for example, or his own personal investment in climbing Gallows Hill or walking along the seashore, he presents his attachment to Salem as a listless, passive response to his family's "deep and aged roots" there, a "mere sensuous sympathy of dust to dust."

More important, he still feels haunted by his first American ancestor, "invested by family tradition with a dim and dusky grandeur"--William Hawthorne, "who came so early, with his Bible and his sword, and trode the unworn streets with such a stately port," a "bitter persecutor" of the Quakers who "had all the Puritanic traits, both good and evil." But there is nothing grand or good about William's son John, who "made himself so conspicuous in the martyrdom of the witches that their blood may fairly be said to have left a stain upon him." Next come several surprises. As the descendant of those ruthless men and in that sense their victim, "the present writer" takes their shame upon himself and prays that any curse they incurred--which might account for the family's decline--"may now be removed." Yet entering their minds and putting words into their mouths, he berates himself as "a writer of story-books! What kind of business in life,--what mode of glorifying God, or being serviceable to mankind. . .,--may that be?" Of course, that question contains its own implicit answer. Indirectly, Hawthorne was affirming that whatever his single-minded ancestors might think, writing was an important vocation. As another twist, the writer who tells on them also identifies with them: "scorn me as they will, strong traits of their nature have intertwined themselves with mine."

The notion of hauntedness recurs in Hawthorne's claim that his return to Salem was a matter of destiny and doom--as if it were "for me, the inevitable centre of the universe." He was offering half-truths. In the language of romance, he said that Providence had brought him to Salem. In the language of the faculty psychology that he had studied at Bowdoin and that still permeated his thought, he said it was a healthy change to "exercise other faculties" at the Custom House than those of mind and imagination that he had exercised at Concord. But he failed to say that he had not been able to earn a living wage as a writer during his idyllic first years of marriage in Concord, and that he had petitioned influential friends in the Democratic Party for a patronage job.

Like his explanation of his return to Salem, Hawthorne's portrayals of Custom Officials are notable for what they say, how they say it, and what they elide or omit. That includes his self-presentation as a kindly and apolitical appointee who "had no great harm in him" and just happened to be a Democrat, and who did not follow the "received code" that entitled him to fire Whig appointees. When he casually admits to abbreviating "the offical breath of more than one" venerable Custom Official, he omits to mention what party they belonged to, and ironically claims that he did them a favor: "They were allowed . . . to rest from their arduous labors. and soon . . . withdrew to a better world."

Of the three densest portraits in "The Custom-House," the best known and the most sardonic is the first--the barely veiled portrait of a man Hawthorne cynically calls "the patriarch," the "certain permanent Inspector" whose "moderate proportion of intellect, and the very trifling admixture of moral and spiritual ingredients" were barely enough "to keep the old gentleman from walking on all fours," a man whose most "tragic" memory was of a goose he had carved twenty or forty years before, so tough that it "could only be divided with an axe and handsaw." In what was at best a mild attempt to hide the identity of the still-living William Lee but also expanding his invective, Hawthorne wrote in his penultimate paragraph that the Inspector "was overthrown and killed by a horse some time ago; else he would certainly have lived forever."

James T. Fields--the "literary partner" of Boston's most eminent publishing firm Ticknor and Fields, who had secured the unfinished The Scarlet Letter for publication and convinced Hawthorne to develop it into a novel rather than publish it in a collection of stories--heartily welcomed "The Custom-House." Fields was a shrewd marketer. He knew just what he was doing when he sent advance sheets to his friend and Hawthorne's, Evert Duyckinck, editor of the influential New York periodical Literary World, suggesting that the portrait of the Inspector would raise roars of laughter. Duyckinck published it and laughter ensued, though also a roar of complaint. Hawthorne's brag to his friend Horatio Bridge alludes to the most shameful episode in Salem's past: his essay had provoked "the greatest uproar since witch-times."

The second of Hawthorne's individuated portraits--of the venerable General Miller--did not excite uproar. Beyond the depredations of time, Hawthorne discerned Miller as the gallant soldier best remembered for his heroic response to a formidable military assignment in his youth: "I'll try, Sir!"

The third and briefest portrait is of Hawthorne's unnamed friend Zachariah Burchmore, a man five years his junior, an honest and efficient "man of business" who was perfectly adapted to his tasks. But that praise also contains an implicit criticism: Burchmore was not adapted to anything that required the higher human faculties of mind and imagination.

As to his own accommodation to his mind-and-imagination-shrinking Custom House duties, Hawthorne wryly observes that he had longed to see his name "blazoned on title-pages," but now "smiled to think" that it was stencilled on "all kinds of dutiable merchandise" that moved in and out of the Port of Salem.

At that point, following the multiply significant pronouncement that "the past was not dead," Hawthorne ushers his reader into the "second story" of the Custom House, literally into a large unfinished room on the second floor where musty papers were heaped up. This becomes the mise en scene of a pure invention: Hawthorne's discovery of a package left by the real Surveyor Pue which included a scarlet letter "A" twisted about a roll of dingy papers. These papers briefly recounted the story of "one Hester Prynne, who appeared to have been rather a noteworthy personage in the view of our ancestors." According to Surveyor Hawthorne, his "eyes fastened themselves upon the letter and would not be turned aside"; and he felt burning heat when he "happened to place" the scarlet letter on his breast. For anyone who has read The Scarlet Letter, all these statements resonate with irony.

By the time that Hawthorne made them, he had already completed all but the final chapters of The Scarlet Letter, which was unalterably set in Boston. But the real Surveyor Pue had worked in the Salem Custom House, and (according to Surveyor Hawthorne), Pue himself had stored the story of Hester Prynne there. Hawthorne therefore performed a geographical sleight of hand that seems to have gone unnoticed until now. Instead of saying that Hester Prynne had lived in Boston, he simply said she "had flourished between the old days of Massachusetts and the close of the seventeenth century." By blurring the distinction between Boston and Salem, Hawthorne was associating his fictive victim of Boston Puritans with Salem's martyrs of the witchcraft delusion, and also with another Salem victim--himself.

The invented incident of discovering Hester Prynne's story recalled his "mind, in some degree, to its old track," Hawthorne claimed. As he also claimed, he responded to Surveyor Pue's exhortation to bring that story "before the public" with words that echo the heroic General Miller's but go even further. Instead of saying merely "I'll try, sir," Hawthorne "said to the ghost of Mr. Surveyor Pue,--`I will!'"

Next comes his memorable and decidedly autobiographical account of the writer's block he suffered during his Surveyorship. Not even a sea-shore walk or a country ramble could revive his imagination, he said--the truth, though not the whole truth, since he did create the powerful "Ethan Brand" as well as "Main-street" before his ouster. But his imagination was simply not up to par, not even on evenings when he sat alone in a room illumined by a coal-fire and moonlight, striving "to picture forth imaginary scenes, which, the next day, might flow out on the brightening page. . . ." In a sense, the Custom House Surveyor was back in the dream-haunted Salem chamber of his bachelor days, albeit with a crucial difference. As his references to a child's shoe, a doll, and a hobby horse suggest, he was now a husband and father, no longer in danger of being "carried apart from the main current of life."

Then after expatiating on his depressing consciousness that his mind and imagination were dwindling away from disuse--a dreary prospect "for a man who felt it to be the best definition of happiness to live throughout the whole range of his faculties and sensibilities"--Hawthorne ironically celebrated what he called Providence's "better things"--his ouster from office as a consequence of the Whigs' Presidential victory. He said nothing about the financial predicament created by losing his job, and nothing about his repeated attempts to regain it by making a few truth-stretching claims through influential friends. His appointment was a consequence of his literary stature rather than his identity as a Democrat, he assured those friends, and he insisted that had never used his office to serve the Party. But through a few truth-stretching claims of their own, a few accurate claims, and a few outright lies, local Whig leaders convinced their superiors that Hawthorne had indeed served the Democratic party, and Hawthorne's ouster was not reversed.

In "The Custom-House," Hawthorne masked his bitterness at what he called the Whigs' "bloodthirstiness" through a black comic depiction of himself as a martyr. If his images of decapitation invoke the worst excesses of the French Revolution, his self-presentation as the martyred victim of bloodthirsty persecutors also invokes the worst excesses of Salem's witchcraft frenzy. That frenzy was still on his mind when he told Horatio Bridge that his essay had provoked "the greatest uproar since witch-times."

But because one of the purposes of his essay was to balance the sombreness of the novel it introduced, Hawthorne provided a kind of Grimm's fairy tale ending, declaring that the decapitated Surveyor--himself--survived his political guillotining and was restored to what he in fact had always wished to be--"a literary man." And since he had thereby exorcised the ghosts of Salem within himself, his condemning Puritan ancestors among them, he could now become "a citizen of somewhere else."

In a parting shot, Hawthorne said he had never found in Salem "the genial atmosphere which a literary man requires, in order to ripen the best harvest of his mind." He ended with a whimsical hope that is nonetheless drenched in irony: future Salemites might think kindly of him as the scribbler of "A Rill from the Town-Pump" (a gentle sketch of Salem's dull dailiness spoken by the pump, "talking through its nose").

Of course, it goes without saying that Hawthorne did not really leave Salem even after he moved away in April 1850. "I must confess, it stirs up a little of the devil within me, to find myself hunted by these political bloodhounds," he had told Longfellow in June 1849, before his ouster was final. If they succeeded in getting him out of office, he might "select a victim, and let fall one little drop of venom on his heart, that will make him writhe." This he did in his second novel, The House of the Seven Gables, written after he left Salem for the Berkshires. Its present day villain--the hypocritical Judge Pyncheon--is based on the Whig leader who had most actively connived in his ouster from office--Charles W. Upham, a man who until then Hawthorne had considered his friend. The malevolent Judge reincarnates a malevolent Puritan ancestor who had incurred a curse from his victim, the man he had contrived to have executed for witchcraft during Salem's darkest days. But Hawthorne's portrait of Judge Pyncheon is only one of the many ways that in his second novel as in "Young Goodman Brown" and "The Custom-House," he configured the town that had shaped him.

Page citation: http://www.hawthorneinsalem.org/page/10024/

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