Facts in The Scarlet Letter
Here Hawthorne explains that although he got fired, and it was an embarrassing problem at the time, it was a actually good because it made him pursue his dream of being a writer. Ending this introductory essay with the sentiment of this dream is serendipitous because Hawthorne became an iconic American literary figure almost instantly after the release of The Scarlet Letter.
Nathaniel Hawthorne included “The Custom-House” as an introductory essay for the original publication of The Scarlet Letter because he believed the book was too short for successful publication. While Hawthorne is the narrator of the story, it should be noted that this is a fictionalized account of Hawthorne’s time as a Custom-House Officer. Although this does not have to be read to understand the plot of The Scarlet Letter, it gives the story a historical background.
The famous English poet Geoffrey Chaucer is best known for writing The Canterbury Tales. Hawthorne mentions Chaucer and Burns to make the point that the people he comes in contact with on a daily basis would not care, if they knew, if he was a good writer, not only because he wasn’t yet successful, but because they do not have refined literary taste.
Zachary Taylor was the 12th President of the United States and a member of the Whig Party. Hawthorne was a Democrat and would have been strongly opposed to Taylor being elected president.
This is the first mention of Hester Prynne in the entire essay. Finally, as readers we understand why this story preludes the The Scarlet Letter: the A was Prynne’s almost 200 years ago and the story, is her story.
Hawthorne’s short story “Main Street” gives a reasonably accurate account of Salem in the 17th century. The story focuses on the changing roles of Native Americans in society.
Hawthorne had a deep admiration for the work of Scottish poet and songwriter Robert Burns. It is thought that his short story “Young Goodman Brown” was inspired by Burns’s poem “Tam O’Shanter.” Burns’s mention here can be read as a tribute from Hawthorne acknowledging Burns as one of his inspirations.
The American author and lawyer George Stillman Hillard rented rooms to Hawthorne, who had recently taken a job at the Custom-House. He was a Democrat who opposed slavery and founded the Five of Clubs, an informal social group. His political beliefs were influential in Hawthorne’s own decision to be a Democrat.
Salem is a coastal town in Massachusetts, historically famous for the Salem witch trials. The witch trials began when a group of young girls claimed to be possessed by the devil and accused several local women of witchcraft. Between February 1692 and May 1693 more than 200 people were accused of witchcraft while 20 of them were executed, before the hysteria calmed down.
The American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was among the first to write about American history, landscape, and Native American themes in a changing land. Longfellow met Hawthorne when the they were young and they became lifelong friends. When Hawthorne died, Longfellow wrote him a tribute poem called “The Bells of Lynn.”
The Transcendentalist educator Amos Bronson Alcott was influential in developing educational programs. He introduced fine arts, nature study, field trips, and physical education into his schools, and he abandoned traditional forms of physical punishment. He was a neighbor and longtime friend of Hawthorne’s, and served as pallbearer at his funeral.
The American poet Henry David Thoreau was a Transcendentalist who wrote a number of essays and other publications. He is most famous for Walden, an essayed account of the two years he spent living by Walden Pond near Concord, Massachusetts. Hawthorne criticized Thoreau for desiring to live a simple life in the face of civilization.
Ellery Channing was an American Unitarian leader during the first half of the 19th century. Unitarianism is a Christian denomination that accepts the moral teachings of Jesus but rejects the concept of the Holy Trinity, suggesting that God exists in one form. Channing was neighbors with Hawthorne at the Old Manse and they became good friends who discussed philosophy, nature, and religion.
The American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson was considered one of the founders of the American Transcendental movement. Transcendentalism is a philosophy that seeks to discover the nature of reality through spiritual intuition. Emerson left his career as a Unitarian minister to become a writer and public speaker. Hawthorne and Emerson were extremely close, so much so that Emerson was a pallbearer at Hawthorne’s funeral.
Ticonderoga is a fort in northeast New York that was originally built by the French, seized by the British, and then seized again by the Americans during the Revolutionary War. This allusion suggests that the former inspector was a historical artifact, comically as old as Fort Ticonderoga.
Boreas was a Greek god artistically depicted as strong man with winged feet who brought winter, controlled the north wind, and whose name means “North Wind” or “Devouring One.”
The Whigs were members of the American political party in the 19th century. The party opposed the Democratic Party and promoted the protection of industry and limitation on the power of the executive branch.
A manse is a house meant for the minister of a presbyterian church. The Old Manse is a historic building in Concord, Massachusetts, originally built for Ralph Waldo Emerson’s father, Rev. William Emerson. It housed Nathaniel Hawthorne and his wife Sophia Peabody for three years soon after their marriage.
Quakers are members of the Religious Society of Friends, a sect of Christianity founded by George Fox in England during the late 17th century. Quakers strongly oppose violence and have no formal creeds, rites, or clergy.
The Puritans were a powerful religious and political force in the 16th century. They emerged when certain Protestants were not satisfied with Henry VIII’s Church of England. Those that segregated became known as Puritans because they wanted the church to return to its “purest” state. New England Puritans were descendants of the pilgrims who traveled to North America, seeking religious freedom. Puritans believed any deviation from biblical teachings would bring the wrath of God on the community, so governments made sins punishable offenses.
A New England ship owner of high repute who went from being a poor ship boy to a grandiose owner and became an iconic figure for a “rags to riches” American story. The allusion to Simon Forrester is ironic because while he is an example of rising success, his mention is meant to emphasize the decline of Salem’s port trading. The slow business of the Custom-House gives the narrator a lot of free time to write.
The word "Loco-Foco" is an allusion to the defunct Locofoco Party that existed in the USA in the mid 19th century. It was an offshoot of the Democratic Party and was originally called the Equal Rights Party. They pushed for the rights of the common working man and passionately campaigned against monopolies.
King Derby refers to a man named Elias Derby, who lived in the late eighteenth century. He was the son of the merchant who helped establish Salem as trade center, helping establish Salem as an important town in the Americas.
Anne Hutchinson was born in England, but came to North America as a Puritan leader seeking religious freedom. There, she had a change of heart that saw the correspondence between church and state as a suffocating mechanism for human life. She campaigned for unpopular ideas including Native American rights, women’s rights, and the belief that human consciousness is more important in moral decision making than the word of the church. She was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony and excommunicated for her unpopular beliefs.
Elizabethan is characteristic of the period of Queen Elizabeth's rule in England from 1558 to 1603. During her rule, Queen Elizabeth stressed the ending of religious tensions between Catholics and Protestants in England. Elizabethan ruff is the clothing fabric ruffle worn around the neck by both men and women, popular during this time in England and New England.
Hester is publicly shamed in front of the townspeople as a punishment for breaking religious law, but here the “townsman” says the man who fathered Hester’s baby also receives punishment, even if unrevealed, because he can’t hide from God. This is a double standard indicative of the inequality that exists between man and women in this Boston community.
King James was the King of Scotland between 1567 and 1625. He inherited the throne only one year after being born, and when he was older, he had a long, thick beard that rested on the ruffs he wore around his neck. The comparison between Governor Bellingham and King James suggests Bellingham’s high social status.
King’s Chapel was the first Anglican Church in colonial New England, originally built in 1686 by the order of Governor Sir Edmund Andros. It still stands today and is historically famous for being Boston’s only burial site for 30 years between 1630 and 1660 (before the church was built). Famous people buried there include William Emerson (Ralph Waldo Emerson’s dad), John Wilson (minister of the First Church of Boston), and John Winthrop (first Puritan Governor of Massachusetts).
Sir Kenelm Digby (1603-1665) was a greatly respected natural philosopher and English diplomat, historically famous for being a Roman Catholic intellectual. He is known for having been extremely versatile in his different fields of scientific, philosophical, and religious fields of study.
This biblical allusion refers to the story in the Book of Acts when the twelve apostles were gathered for a feast when a powerful wind filled the room, and they all saw tongues that looked like fire. The tongues descended on each one of them, and they were then filled with the Holy Spirit.
This refers to the actual historical figure John Eliot (1604-1690) who was a Puritan missionary that set out to convert Native Americans to Christianity. One of his greatest legacies is a 75-acre land donation to the Eliot School with the requirement that they accept, without prejudice, Africans and Native Americans for admission. (This was extremely progressive at the time.)
Anne Turner is a historical figure who was hanged for poisoning Sir Thomas Overbury in 1613. She was a widow who was accused of being a witch and practicing sorcery. When Turner was hanged for the murder, she famously wore a yellow-starched band and cuffs.
Bristol is a city in southwest England that was the second-most prominent port in England between the 15th and 17th centuries.
In the biblical book of Ephesians 2:2, Satan is referred to as “the prince of the power of the air” because Satan has true power in both the mundane and spiritual worlds. In this context, Mistress Hibbins uses the “Prince of the Air” to allude to the fact that Dimmesdale is evil, and his evilness is disguised by his holy appearance in their society.
Increase Mather (1639-1723) was a Puritan minister in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. He was heavily involved with government operations and formation. Although he campaigned that it would be better to let witches go free than to kill an innocent person, he was criticized for not condemning all those suspected of witchcraft.
The Knights Templar was a Catholic military order from the 12th through 14th centuries. It was formed soon after the First Crusade because groups of Catholics wanted to make pilgrimages to the Holy Land and needed military escorts because the area was not safe due to the religious turmoil of the time.