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Nathaniel Hawthorne

hawthorne the custom house essay

❶At some future day, it may be, I shall remember a few scattered fragments and broken paragraphs, and write them down, and find the letters turn to gold upon the page.

The Custom-House: Introductory

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The Scarlet Letter

The preface sets the atmosphere of the story and connects the present with the past. But this philosophy was eventually swallowed up by the commercialism and financial interests of the s. The clashing of the past and present is further explored in the character of the old General.

He is "the soul and spirit of New England hardihood. A further connection to the past is his discussion of his ancestors. Hawthorne has ambivalent feelings about their role in his life. In his autobiographical sketch, Hawthorne describes his ancestors as "dim and dusky," "grave, bearded, sable-cloaked, and steel crowned," "bitter persecutors" whose "better deeds" will be diminished by their bad ones. The heat that had formerly pervaded his nature, and which was not yet extinct, was never of the kind that flashes and flickers in a blaze; but rather a deep red glow, as of iron in a furnace.

Weight, solidity, firmness—this was the expression of his repose, even in such decay as had crept untimely over him at the period of which I speak.

And, in so intense a moment his demeanour would have still been calm. Such an exhibition, however, was but to be pictured in fancy; not to be anticipated, nor desired. What I saw in him—as evidently as the indestructible ramparts of Old Ticonderoga, already cited as the most appropriate simile—was the features of stubborn and ponderous endurance, which might well have amounted to obstinacy in his earlier days; of integrity, that, like most of his other endowments, lay in a somewhat heavy mass, and was just as unmalleable or unmanageable as a ton of iron ore; and of benevolence which, fiercely as he led the bayonets on at Chippewa or Fort Erie, I take to be of quite as genuine a stamp as what actuates any or all the polemical philanthropists of the age.

I have not known the man to whose innate kindliness I would more confidently make an appeal. Many characteristics—and those, too, which contribute not the least forcibly to impart resemblance in a sketch—must have vanished, or been obscured, before I met the General. All merely graceful attributes are usually the most evanescent; nor does nature adorn the human ruin with blossoms of new beauty, that have their roots and proper nutriment only in the chinks and crevices of decay, as she sows wall—flowers over the ruined fortress of Ticonderoga.

Still, even in respect of grace and beauty, there were points well worth noting. A ray of humour, now and then, would make its way through the veil of dim obstruction, and glimmer pleasantly upon our faces. There, beside the fireplace, the brave old General used to sit; while the Surveyor—though seldom, when it could be avoided, taking upon himself the difficult task of engaging him in conversation—was fond of standing at a distance, and watching his quiet and almost slumberous countenance.

He seemed away from us, although we saw him but a few yards off; remote, though we passed close beside his chair; unattainable, though we might have stretched forth our hands and touched his own. The evolutions of the parade; the tumult of the battle; the flourish of old heroic music, heard thirty years before—such scenes and sounds, perhaps, were all alive before his intellectual sense. Meanwhile, the merchants and ship—masters, the spruce clerks and uncouth sailors, entered and departed; the bustle of his commercial and Custom—House life kept up its little murmur round about him; and neither with the men nor their affairs did the General appear to sustain the most distant relation.

There was one thing that much aided me in renewing and re—creating the stalwart soldier of the Niagara frontier—the man of true and simple energy.

The accidents of my life have often afforded me this advantage, but never with more fulness and variety than during my continuance in office. There was one man, especially, the observation of whose character gave me a new idea of talent.

Bred up from boyhood in the Custom—House, it was his proper field of activity; and the many intricacies of business, so harassing to the interloper, presented themselves before him with the regularity of a perfectly comprehended system.

In my contemplation, he stood as the ideal of his class. He was, indeed, the Custom—House in himself; or, at all events, the mainspring that kept its variously revolving wheels in motion; for, in an institution like this, where its officers are appointed to subserve their own profit and convenience, and seldom with a leading reference to their fitness for the duty to be performed, they must perforce seek elsewhere the dexterity which is not in them.

Thus, by an inevitable necessity, as a magnet attracts steel—filings, so did our man of business draw to himself the difficulties which everybody met with. With an easy condescension, and kind forbearance towards our stupidity—which, to his order of mind, must have seemed little short of crime—would he forth—with, by the merest touch of his finger, make the incomprehensible as clear as daylight.

The merchants valued him not less than we, his esoteric friends. His integrity was perfect; it was a law of nature with him, rather than a choice or a principle; nor can it be otherwise than the main condition of an intellect so remarkably clear and accurate as his to be honest and regular in the administration of affairs. A stain on his conscience, as to anything that came within the range of his vocation, would trouble such a man very much in the same way, though to a far greater degree, than an error in the balance of an account, or an ink—blot on the fair page of a book of record.

Here, in a word—and it is a rare instance in my life—I had met with a person thoroughly adapted to the situation which he held. Such were some of the people with whom I now found myself connected. I took it in good part, at the hands of Providence, that I was thrown into a position so little akin to my past habits; and set myself seriously to gather from it whatever profit was to be had.

Even the old Inspector was desirable, as a change of diet, to a man who had known Alcott. I looked upon it as an evidence, in some measure, of a system naturally well balanced, and lacking no essential part of a thorough organization, that, with such associates to remember, I could mingle at once with men of altogether different qualities, and never murmur at the change.

Literature, its exertions and objects, were now of little moment in my regard. I cared not at this period for books; they were apart from me. Nature—except it were human nature—the nature that is developed in earth and sky, was, in one sense, hidden from me; and all the imaginative delight wherewith it had been spiritualized passed away out of my mind.

A gift, a faculty, if it had not been departed, was suspended and inanimate within me. There would have been something sad, unutterably dreary, in all this, had I not been conscious that it lay at my own option to recall whatever was valuable in the past. It might be true, indeed, that this was a life which could not, with impunity, be lived too long; else, it might make me permanently other than I had been, without transforming me into any shape which it would be worth my while to take.

But I never considered it as other than a transitory life. There was always a prophetic instinct, a low whisper in my ear, that within no long period, and whenever a new change of custom should be essential to my good, change would come. Meanwhile, there I was, a Surveyor of the Revenue and, so far as I have been able to understand, as good a Surveyor as need be.

My fellow—officers, and the merchants and sea—captains with whom my official duties brought me into any manner of connection, viewed me in no other light, and probably knew me in no other character. None of them, I presume, had ever read a page of my inditing, or would have cared a fig the more for me if they had read them all; nor would it have mended the matter, in the least, had those same unprofitable pages been written with a pen like that of Burns or of Chaucer, each of whom was a Custom—House officer in his day, as well as I.

I know not that I especially needed the lesson, either in the way of warning or rebuke; but at any rate, I learned it thoroughly: In the way of literary talk, it is true, the Naval Officer—an excellent fellow, who came into the office with me, and went out only a little later—would often engage me in a discussion about one or the other of his favourite topics, Napoleon or Shakespeare.

This was my all of lettered intercourse; and it was quite sufficient for my necessities. No longer seeking or caring that my name should be blasoned abroad on title—pages, I smiled to think that it had now another kind of vogue.

The Custom—House marker imprinted it, with a stencil and black paint, on pepper—bags, and baskets of anatto, and cigar—boxes, and bales of all kinds of dutiable merchandise, in testimony that these commodities had paid the impost, and gone regularly through the office.

Borne on such queer vehicle of fame, a knowledge of my existence, so far as a name conveys it, was carried where it had never been before, and, I hope, will never go again. But the past was not dead. Once in a great while, the thoughts that had seemed so vital and so active, yet had been put to rest so quietly, revived again. One of the most remarkable occasions, when the habit of bygone days awoke in me, was that which brings it within the law of literary propriety to offer the public the sketch which I am now writing.

In the second storey of the Custom—House there is a large room, in which the brick—work and naked rafters have never been covered with panelling and plaster.

The edifice—originally projected on a scale adapted to the old commercial enterprise of the port, and with an idea of subsequent prosperity destined never to be realized—contains far more space than its occupants know what to do with.

At one end of the room, in a recess, were a number of barrels piled one upon another, containing bundles of official documents. Large quantities of similar rubbish lay lumbering the floor. It was sorrowful to think how many days, and weeks, and months, and years of toil had been wasted on these musty papers, which were now only an encumbrance on earth, and were hidden away in this forgotten corner, never more to be glanced at by human eyes.

But then, what reams of other manuscripts—filled, not with the dulness of official formalities, but with the thought of inventive brains and the rich effusion of deep hearts—had gone equally to oblivion; and that, moreover, without serving a purpose in their day, as these heaped—up papers had, and—saddest of all—without purchasing for their writers the comfortable livelihood which the clerks of the Custom—House had gained by these worthless scratchings of the pen.

Yet not altogether worthless, perhaps, as materials of local history. Here, no doubt, statistics of the former commerce of Salem might be discovered, and memorials of her princely merchants—old King Derby—old Billy Gray—old Simon Forrester—and many another magnate in his day, whose powdered head, however, was scarcely in the tomb before his mountain pile of wealth began to dwindle.

The founders of the greater part of the families which now compose the aristocracy of Salem might here be traced, from the petty and obscure beginnings of their traffic, at periods generally much posterior to the Revolution, upward to what their children look upon as long—established rank,.

It has often been a matter of regret with me; for, going back, perhaps, to the days of the Protectorate, those papers must have contained many references to forgotten or remembered men, and to antique customs, which would have affected me with the same pleasure as when I used to pick up Indian arrow—heads in the field near the Old Manse.

But, one idle and rainy day, it was my fortune to make a discovery of some little interest. This envelope had the air of an official record of some period long past, when clerks engrossed their stiff and formal chirography on more substantial materials than at present.

There was something about it that quickened an instinctive curiosity, and made me undo the faded red tape that tied up the package, with the sense that a treasure would here be brought to light. Surveyor Pue, about fourscore years ago; and likewise, in a newspaper of recent times, an account of the digging up of his remains in the little graveyard of St. Nothing, if I rightly call to mind, was left of my respected predecessor, save an imperfect skeleton, and some fragments of apparel, and a wig of majestic frizzle, which, unlike the head that it once adorned, was in very satisfactory preservation.

But, on examining the papers which the parchment commission served to envelop, I found more traces of Mr. They were documents, in short, not official, but of a private nature, or, at least, written in his private capacity, and apparently with his own hand.

I could account for their being included in the heap of Custom—House lumber only by the fact that Mr. On the transfer of the archives to Halifax, this package, proving to be of no public concern, was left behind, and had remained ever since unopened. The ancient Surveyor—being little molested, suppose, at that early day with business pertaining to his office—seems to have devoted some of his many leisure hours to researches as a local antiquarian, and other inquisitions of a similar nature.

These supplied material for petty activity to a mind that would otherwise have been eaten up with rust. The remainder may perhaps be applied to purposes equally valuable hereafter, or not impossibly may be worked up, so far as they go, into a regular history of Salem, should my veneration for the natal soil ever impel me to so pious a task. Meanwhile, they shall be at the command of any gentleman, inclined and competent, to take the unprofitable labour off my hands.

As a final disposition I contemplate depositing them with the Essex Historical Society. But the object that most drew my attention to the mysterious package was a certain affair of fine red cloth, much worn and faded, There were traces about it of gold embroidery, which, however, was greatly frayed and defaced, so that none, or very little, of the glitter was left.

It had been wrought, as was easy to perceive, with wonderful skill of needlework; and the stitch as I am assured by ladies conversant with such mysteries gives evidence of a now forgotten art, not to be discovered even by the process of picking out the threads.

This rag of scarlet cloth—for time, and wear, and a sacrilegious moth had reduced it to little other than a rag—on careful examination, assumed the shape of a letter. It was the capital letter A. By an accurate measurement, each limb proved to be precisely three inches and a quarter in length. It had been intended, there could be no doubt, as an ornamental article of dress; but how it was to be worn, or what rank, honour, and dignity, in by—past times, were signified by it, was a riddle which so evanescent are the fashions of the world in these particulars I saw little hope of solving.

And yet it strangely interested me. My eyes fastened themselves upon the old scarlet letter, and would not be turned aside.

Certainly there was some deep meaning in it most worthy of interpretation, and which, as it were, streamed forth from the mystic symbol, subtly communicating itself to my sensibilities, but evading the analysis of my mind. When thus perplexed—and cogitating, among other hypotheses, whether the letter might not have been one of those decorations which the white men used to contrive in order to take the eyes of Indians—I happened to place it on my breast. It seemed to me—the reader may smile, but must not doubt my word—it seemed to me, then, that I experienced a sensation not altogether physical, yet almost so, as of burning heat, and as if the letter were not of red cloth, but red—hot iron.

I shuddered, and involuntarily let it fall upon the floor. In the absorbing contemplation of the scarlet letter, I had hitherto neglected to examine a small roll of dingy paper, around which it had been twisted. There were several foolscap sheets, containing many particulars respecting the life and conversation of one Hester Prynne, who appeared to have been rather a noteworthy personage in the view of our ancestors.

She had flourished during the period between the early days of Massachusetts and the close of the seventeenth century. Aged persons, alive in the time of Mr. Surveyor Pue, and from whose oral testimony he had made up his narrative, remembered her, in their youth, as a very old, but not decrepit woman, of a stately and solemn aspect.

It had been her habit, from an almost immemorial date, to go about the country as a kind of voluntary nurse, and doing whatever miscellaneous good she might; taking upon herself, likewise, to give advice in all matters, especially those of the heart, by which means—as a person of such propensities inevitably must—she gained from many people the reverence due to an angel, but, I should imagine, was looked upon by others as an intruder and a nuisance.

On the contrary, I have allowed myself, as to such points, nearly, or altogether, as much license as if the facts had been entirely of my own invention. What I contend for is the authenticity of the outline. This incident recalled my mind, in some degree, to its old track. There seemed to be here the groundwork of a tale.

It impressed me as if the ancient Surveyor, in his garb of a hundred years gone by, and wearing his immortal wig—which was buried with him, but did not perish in the grave—had bet me in the deserted chamber of the Custom—House. How unlike alas the hangdog look of a republican official, who, as the servant of the people, feels himself less than the least, and below the lowest of his masters. With his own ghostly hand, the obscurely seen, but majestic, figure had imparted to me the scarlet symbol and the little roll of explanatory manuscript.

With his own ghostly voice he had exhorted me, on the sacred consideration of my filial duty and reverence towards him—who might reasonably regard himself as my official ancestor—to bring his mouldy and moth—eaten lucubrations before the public. It was the subject of my meditations for many an hour, while pacing to and fro across my room, or traversing, with a hundredfold repetition, the long extent from the front door of the Custom—House to the side entrance, and back again.

Great were the weariness and annoyance of the old Inspector and the Weighers and Gaugers, whose slumbers were disturbed by the unmercifully lengthened tramp of my passing and returning footsteps. Remembering their own former habits, they used to say that the Surveyor was walking the quarter—deck. They probably fancied that my sole object—and, indeed, the sole object for which a sane man could ever put himself into voluntary motion—was to get an appetite for dinner.

And, to say the truth, an appetite, sharpened by the east wind that generally blew along the passage, was the only valuable result of so much indefatigable exercise. My imagination was a tarnished mirror.

It would not reflect, or only with miserable dimness, the figures with which I did my best to people it. The characters of the narrative would not be warmed and rendered malleable by any heat that I could kindle at my intellectual forge.

They would take neither the glow of passion nor the tenderness of sentiment, but retained all the rigidity of dead corpses, and stared me in the face with a fixed and ghastly grin of contemptuous defiance. It was not merely during the three hours and a half which Uncle Sam claimed as his share of my daily life that this wretched numbness held possession of me.

It went with me on my sea—shore walks and rambles into the country, whenever—which was seldom and reluctantly—I bestirred myself to seek that invigorating charm of Nature which used to give me such freshness and activity of thought, the moment that I stepped across the threshold of the Old Manse.

The same torpor, as regarded the capacity for intellectual effort, accompanied me home, and weighed upon me in the chamber which I most absurdly termed my study. Nor did it quit me when, late at night, I sat in the deserted parlour, lighted only by the glimmering coal—fire and the moon, striving to picture forth imaginary scenes, which, the next day, might flow out on the brightening page in many—hued description.

If the imaginative faculty refused to act at such an hour, it might well be deemed a hopeless case. Moonlight, in a familiar room, falling so white upon the carpet, and showing all its figures so distinctly—making every object so minutely visible, yet so unlike a morning or noontide visibility—is a medium the most suitable for a romance—writer to get acquainted with his illusive guests.

There is the little domestic scenery of the well—known apartment; the chairs, with each its separate individuality; the centre—table, sustaining a work—basket, a volume or two, and an extinguished lamp; the sofa; the book—case; the picture on the wall—all these details, so completely seen, are so spiritualised by the unusual light, that they seem to lose their actual substance, and become things of intellect.

Nothing is too small or too trifling to undergo this change, and acquire dignity thereby. He finds the establishment to be a run-down place, situated on a rotting wharf in a half-finished building. His fellow workers mostly hold lifetime appointments secured by family connections. They are elderly and given to telling the same stories repeatedly.

The narrator finds them to be generally incompetent and innocuously corrupt. The narrator spends his days at the customhouse trying to amuse himself because few ships come to Salem anymore. He then reads the manuscript.

It is the work of one Jonathan Pue, who was a customs surveyor a hundred years earlier. The narrator has already mentioned his unease about attempting to make a career out of writing.

It will not be factually precise, but he believes that it will be faithful to the spirit and general outline of the original.

While working at the customhouse, surrounded by uninspiring men, the narrator finds himself unable to write. This section introduces us to the narrator and establishes his desire to contribute to American culture.

Although this narrator seems to have much in common with Nathaniel Hawthorne himself—Hawthorne also worked as a customs officer, lost his job due to political changes, and had Puritan ancestors whose legacy he considered both a blessing and a curse—it is important not to conflate the two storytellers.

The narrator is not just a stand-in for Hawthorne; he is carefully constructed to enhance the book aesthetically and philosophically.

Moreover, Hawthorne sets him up to parallel Hester Prynne in significant ways. Like Hester, the narrator spends his days surrounded by people from whom he feels alienated.

In his case, it is his relative youth and vitality that separates him from the career customs officers.

After she is released from prison, Hester remains in Boston because

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The Custom House is largely an autobiographical sketch describing Hawthorne's life as an administrator of the Salem Custom House. It was written to enlarge the tale of The Scarlet Letter, since Hawthorne deemed the story too short to print by itself. It also serves as an excellent essay on society. Free Essay: In the "Custom House," written as an introduction to The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne gives an autobiographical description of his life.

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The Design of Hawthorne's "Custom-House" A writer of story-books! What kind of a business in life,—what mode of the God, or being math homework helpers bcps to mankind in his day and generation,—may that be? See Important Quotations Explained. essays research papers - Custom House in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter.