"The life of the Custom House lies like a dream behind me . . . Soon, likewise, my old native town will loom upon me through the haze of memory, a mist brooding over and around it; as if it were no portion of the real earth, but an overgrown village in cloud-land, with only imaginary inhabitants to people its wooden houses, and walk its homely lanes, and the unpicturesque prolixity of its main street . . . It may be, however, — oh, transporting and triumphant thought! — that the great-grandchildren of the present race may sometimes think kindly of the scribbler of bygone days . . ."
In the mid-1800s when Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote these words in the Custom House preface to The Scarlet Letter, he could not have imagined the millions of readers a century later who would "think kindly of the scribbler of bygone days" and continue to make his novel a best-seller. The mist of imagination that falls over Salem, Massachusetts, in his description is the same aura that permeates the setting of his novel. Look for the Boston of 1640 in history books, and you will not find the magical and Gothic elements that abound in Hawthorne's story. For the mind of genius has created a Boston that is shrouded in darkness and mystery and surrounded by a forest of sunshine and shadow. In writing The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne was creating a form of fiction he called the psychological romance, and woven throughout his novel are elements of Gothic literature. What he created would later be followed by other romances, but never would they attain the number of readers or the critical acclaim of The Scarlet Letter.
Hawthorne began The Scarlet Letter in September, 1849, and finished it, amazingly, in February, 1850. Its publication made his literary reputation and temporarily eased some of his financial burdens. This novel was the culmination of Hawthorne's own reading, study, and experimentation with themes about the subjects of Puritans, sin, guilt, and the human conflict between emotions and intellect. Since its first publishing in March of 1850, The Scarlet Letter has never been out of print. Even today, Hawthorne's romance is one of the best-selling books on the market. Perhaps The Scarlet Letter is so popular, generation after generation, because its beauty lies in the layers of meaning and the uncertainties and ambiguities of the symbols and characters. Each generation can interpret it and see relevance in its subtle meanings and appreciate the genius lying behind what many critics call "the perfect book."
An interest in the past was not new to Hawthorne. As a boy, he had read novelists, such as James Fenimore Cooper and Sir Walter Scott, who wrote historical romances. Although the past appeared an appropriate subject for romance, Hawthorne wanted to go beyond the shallow characters of his predecessors' books and create what he called a "psychological romance" — one that would contain all the conventional techniques of romance but add deep, probing portraits of human beings in conflict with themselves.
Complementing this intriguing theory of a new type of romance, Hawthorne's writing prior to 1850 hinted at the masterpiece yet to come. In "The Gentle Boy," he wrote of an emotional creature faced with the hostility of Puritans, who did not understand emotions. The ambiguity of sin was the subject of still another story, "Young Goodman Brown." These stories helped Hawthorne develop some of the themes that would become part of The Scarlet Letter. Two other stories that would predate the conflict of head and heart in his novel were "Rappaccini's Daughter" and "The Birthmark." The cold intellect of Chillingworth, man of science, can be seen in the earlier conflict of these two stories. Both concern men of science or cold intellect who lack human sympathy and compassion and so sacrifice loved ones. This idea was further developed in "Ethan Brand," a study in the conflict of head and heart. In this story, Hawthorne defined the unpardonable sin as the domination of intellect over emotion. He was to develop this idea in The Scarlet Letter with his portrayal of Chillingworth, the husband who seeks revenge.
In The Scarlet Letter, the reader should be prepared to meet the real and the unreal, the actual and the imaginary, the probable and the improbable, all seen in the moonlight with the warmer light of a coal fire changing their hues. What is Truth and what is Imagination? This is the Boston of the Puritans: Bible-reading, rule making, judgment framing. Surrounding it is the forest of the Devil, dark, shadowy, momentarily filled with sunlight, but always the home of those who would break the rules and those who listen to their passions. Enter this setting with Hawthorne and ample imagination, and the reader will find a story difficult to forget.