Sunday, March 17, 2013

BW12: Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

The 7th book in the fictional category from Susan Wise Bauer's Well Educated Mind guide and list of great books, is The Scarlet Letter. Coincidentally, this is the anniversary of the book's publication 163 years ago on March 16, 1850.  Nathaniel Hawthorne born July 4th, 1804 in Salem Massachusetts, and a puritan was the direct descendant of Judge John Hathorne, one of the three judges involved in the Salem Witch Trails.  From 1846 to 1849 he worked as a surveyor in the U.S. Customs House but was fired for political reasons. He wrote an essay about it which is included in the preface of The Scarlet Letter in which he provides a tour of the property which is mostly true except for finding the the fictional cloth A. There are suppositions he found a cloth A in an old house or he got the idea from an incest trial in which two girls were made to wear cloth headbands.




CHAPTER I. THE PRISON-DOOR

A throng of bearded men, in sad-coloured garments and grey steeple-crowned hats, inter-mixed with women, some wearing hoods, and others bareheaded, was assembled in front of a wooden edifice, the door of which was heavily timbered with oak, and studded with iron spikes.


The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognised it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison. In accordance with this rule it may safely be assumed that the forefathers of Boston had built the first prison-house somewhere in the Vicinity of Cornhill, almost as seasonably as they marked out the first burial-ground, on Isaac Johnson's lot, and round about his grave, which subsequently became the nucleus of all the congregated sepulchres in the old churchyard of King's Chapel. Certain it is that, some fifteen or twenty years after the settlement of the town, the wooden jail was already marked with weather-stains and other indications of age, which gave a yet darker aspect to its beetle-browed and gloomy front. The rust on the ponderous iron-work of its oaken door looked more antique than anything else in the New World. Like all that pertains to crime, it seemed never to have known a youthful era. Before this ugly edifice, and between it and the wheel-track of the street, was a grass-plot, much overgrown with burdock, pig-weed, apple-pern, and such unsightly vegetation, which evidently found something congenial in the soil that had so early borne the black flower of civilised society, a prison. But on one side of the portal, and rooted almost at the threshold, was a wild rose-hush, covered, in this month of June, with its delicate gems, which might be imagined to offer their fragrance and fragile beauty to the prisoner as he went in, and to the condemned criminal as he came forth to his doom, in token that the deep heart of Nature could pity and be kind to him.

This rose-bush, by a strange chance, has been kept alive in history; but whether it had merely survived out of the stern old wilderness, so long after the fall of the gigantic pines and oaks that originally overshadowed it, or whether, as there is far authority for believing, it had sprung up under the footsteps of the sainted Ann Hutchinson as she entered the prison-door, we shall not take upon us to determine. Finding it so directly on the threshold of our narrative, which is now about to issue from that inauspicious portal, we could hardly do otherwise than pluck one of its flowers, and present it to the reader. It may serve, let us hope, to symbolise some sweet moral blossom that may be found along the track, or relieve the darkening close of a tale of human frailty and sorrow.

The story may be found online herehere or here.

For more biographical information on Hawthorne check out Hawthorne in Salem which includes historical information on his work places and homes in the 18th and 19th century. 

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1 comment:

  1. Hmm. Brings back the days of reading this one in high school. It was one of those I thought I really wouldn't like but turned out pleasantly surprised. :-)

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