It was on this day in 1850 that “The Scarlet Letter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne was first published. I remember my 11th grade American Literature teacher in high school assigning it to us to read and how legalistic in their religious practice I found the Puritans to be. Sadly, it reminds me of many who still operate in that fashion today.
Hawthorne was living at a time when there was almost no such thing as American literature, in part because the American publishing industry was so behind the times. In order to publish a book, a single printer would edit the manuscript, set the type, operate the printing press, bind the pages into books, and then sell them. It was remarkably inefficient, and so it was almost impossible to produce a best-seller, since so few copies were available to be sold.
But by 1850, books were being printed by machines. Long, continuous sheets of paper were fed into steam-powered printing presses, and factories of workers folded, pressed, and stitched the pages into books.The Scarlet Letter became the first great American novel in part because it was the first novel that could reach a large audience.
Hawthorne had long been fascinated by America’s Puritan history, especially since one of his own ancestors had been a judge in the Salem witch trials. Ten years before starting “The Scarlet Letter”, he had read a historical account of a woman who had to wear the letter A on her chest as a punishment for adultery. He used that woman as the main character of the novel, and he named her Hester Prynne.
He finished writing the book on February 2, 1850. He was exhausted and felt sick from spending so much time indoors, without exercise. The next evening, he read the conclusion to his wife; he said, “It broke her heart, and sent her to bed with a grievous headache, which I look upon as a triumphant success.”
On March 16, 2,500 copies of The Scarlet Letter were published, and they sold out within 10 days. Critics loved it, and it established Hawthorne as one of the best writers in America. Henry James would later call it “the finest piece of imaginative writing yet put forth in this country.”
Over the course of the weeks my American Literature teacher spent dissecting and analyzing the book (I read it though completely the first night it was assigned, then read along with the class), allowing us to ask our questions and state our views, I came to truly enjoy the characters of Hester Prynne, Pearl, and Arthur Dimmesdale, while feeling sorry for what anger did to Roger Chillingworth and intolerant legalism did to the Puritans of the town.
If you’ve never read “The Scarlet Letter”, I highly recommend it.
Thanks to “The Writer’s Almanac” for portions of the above.