Hawthorne’s Letters

by zunguzungu

In 1855, Hawthorne famously wrote a letter to his publisher complaining about how hard it was to get anyone to read your books because of all the chick-lit they were publishing nowadays:

America is now wholly given over to a damned mob of scribbling women, and I should have no chance of success while the public is occupied with their trash— and should be ashamed of myself if I did succeed. What is the mystery of these innumerable editions of The Lamplighter, and other books neither better nor worse?—worse they could not be, and better they need not be, when they sell by the hundred thousand.

That infamous letter has provided us with the phrase “damned mob of scribbling women” (here and here, for example) as a kind of shorthand for American criticism’s generalized disdain for sentimental fiction. I’ll get back to Hawthorne in a minute, but I thought of it when I read this review of the recent documentary about Italian pop culture, Videocracy:

“The problem of becoming famous is that there are so many girls,” observes Ricky Canevali. “They’re willing to do anything to get on the fast track to stardom. Nowadays, Italian television is full of girls.” An aspiring celebrity, Ricky practices karate in his backyard and dance moves in front of his bedroom mirror. He sees himself as a combination of Jean-Claude Van Damme and Ricky Martin. He’s been working at his dream for years, he says, but still, “The girls always steal our places. It’s the girls that attract an audience. People at home here in Italy, as soon as they see half-naked girls in G-strings, they’re interested…Gazing out on the rain from the balcony of the home he shares with his mama, he explains, “If you had to give a part of your body to some powerful man, there’d be rumors.” Because, of course, there are no such costs for women, who only do what they must.

Videocracy is, ostensibly, about Silvio Berlusconi and his effect on TV in Italy, and as such, it’s a historically and geographically specific engagement with a particular media empire and national public attached to it. Yet there’s something interestingly consistent about the way the specter of the unjustly preferred — and apparently less talented — woman becomes the scapegoat for the otherwise unthinkable fact that a real star like Ricky Canevali (this incredible “combination of Jean-Claude Van Damme and Ricky Martin”) cannot seem to find his just audience, the same displacement of personal artistic failure onto those who have the unfair advantage of being born female.

After all, Ricky actually seems sort of wistful for that beautiful day when he, too, will be able to sell his body to some powerful man without there being “rumours.” And Hawthorne wrote another letter a month later “praising” Fanny Fern — pseudonym of the bestselling Sara Willis Parton — in terms that, well, this is what he wrote:

“The woman writes as if the Devil was in her and that is the only condition under which a woman ever writes anything worth reading. Generally women write like emasculated men, and are only to be distinguished from male authors by greater feebleness and folly; but when they throw off the restraints of decency and come before the public stark naked, as it were — then their books are sure to possess character and value.”

The great thing about great women writers is that their books are really just their naked bodies, see? Or something. Does Hawthorne, too, wish to throw off the restraints of decency and flash his audience? Hard to tell, but I‘m sure if he had, his friend Herman would have been ready to help him figure out how. In any case, placing Hawthorne’s moment of ugly pettiness in that first letter within the larger context of his career makes it a lot more interesting; after all, just before writing the bit that’s always quoted, he fed his publisher this line about how great it was for his writing career that he had the office of the US Consulate in Liverpool:

But I had rather hold this office two years longer anyway; for I have not seen half enough of England, and there is the germ of a new romance in my mind, which will be all the better for ripening slowly. Besides, America is now wholly given over to a damned mob of scribbling women.. [etc.]”

As Nina Baym points out, it changes the sense of that scribbling women crack, perhaps, if we recognize that the line preceding it is almost certainly nonsense. After all, it’s generally accepted that he didn’t even begin his next novel — 1860’s The Marble Faun — until a trip to Italy in 1858. Which is why, most likely, it was nothing more than the sort of thing a writer says to their publisher to keep the lines of dialogue open when they‘re completely blocked. And Hawthorne was completely blocked. He wrote that letter to his publisher right smack in the middle of a very unproductive seven year period, in which, after having published three magnificent novels and two books of short stories in less than four years (1849-1853), he sold out with a vengeance, writing a hack campaign biography for his old school friend Franklin Pierce (which Horace Mann called “the greatest work of fiction he ever wrote”), and in doing so inaugurated both a comfortable living as a political appointee in Liverpool and seven years of essentially ceasing to be a writer. As his son Julian charitably wrote:

…the date of his first popular success in literature also marks the commencement of a worldly prosperity which, though never by any means splendid (as we shall presently see), at any rate sufficed to allay the immediate anxiety about to-morrow’s bread-and-butter, from which he had not hitherto been free. The three American novels were written and published in rapid succession, and…[t]here is every reason to believe that during the ensuing years other romances would have been written; and perhaps they would have been as good as, or better than, those that went before. But it is vain to speculate as to what might have been. What actually happened was, that Hawthorne was appointed United States Consul to Liverpool; and for six years to come his literary exercises were confined to his consular despatches and to the six or eight manuscript volumes of his English, French, and Italian Journals.

And the most obvious explanation is also the one Hawthorne circa-1849 would have given: being a political hack was not conducive to being a writer. Hawthorne had had a burst of creativity when he lost his job in 1849, and when he got another political appointment in 1854, he stopped being a writer until he lost it again.

Which brings me back to that letter; I’m struck by the word “office” in the line preceding the scribbling women business. After all, the word “office” is a hugely important term in The Scarlet Letter, as most critics have had, on one way or another, to contend with. And this is especially the case in the Custom-House sketch that introduces The Scarlet Letter, in which Hawthorne makes much of the fact that he could only write his most famous novel once he was fired or lost his “office,” that when he got his job in the Custom-House, as he had put it:

I had ceased to be a writer of tolerably poor tales and essays, and had become a tolerably good Surveyor of the Customs. That was all…examining myself and others, I was led to conclusions in reference to the effect of public office on the character, not very favorable to the mode of life in question…Suffice it here to say, that a Custom-House officer, of long continuance, can hardly be a very praiseworthy or respectable personage, for many reasons; one of them, the tenure by which he holds his situation, and another, the very nature of his business, which—though, I trust, an honest one—is of such a sort that he does not share in the united effort of mankind.

The Scarlet Letter was mostly written when he composed the Custom-House sketch. But as a counter-text to The Scarlet Letter, in fact, “The Custom-House” sketch almost forces us to contrast the benefit he gets from  his forced liberation from the house of “custom” — the literary freedom he tells us he got from being uprooted — with Hester’s inability to uproot herself, the fact that she stays in Boston and is eventually reincorporated into the community. And its hard to see that contrast in any other terms than gender. I don’t have a fresh take on the issue, really, but it does stand out to me as to sharp and obvious a reference point to overlook: while (as Sacvan Bercovitch argues) the “office” of the Scarlet Letter is, in some sense, to domesticate and redeem the wayward Hester by bringing her back within the bounds of the community (and in this sense, it eventually does do “its office”), Hawthorne was able to write his romance about grey old patriarchs wearing Hester down and socializing/domesticating her at the very moment he escaped from the stultifying effect that withered old patriarchs were having on him. He gets to write about how she’s the object of an office by getting out of the office himself.

As I said, I don’t so much have a clear argument about how the term is used in The Scarlet Letter, except to emphasize how ambiguous it is, and how closely that ambiguity is tied to the problem of how gender patrols the border between community and freedom, a problem the book does much more to explore as such than really solve. And while the Bercovitch reading gives you a very conservative Hawthorne — since he argues that the Scarlet Letter’s work is to domesticate a woman whose actions have taken her out of pocket — actually extending that sense of Hawthorne’s conservativism to “The Custom-House” seems sort of weak: while the job he needs to support his family is the only thing holding him back from fulfilling his literary vocation, in a certain sense, it’s actually the grey bearded custom house officers who sterilize Hawthorne (not a nagging wife or something). And since they’re also identified with the puritans in sad-colored hats that give Hester hell, Hester and Hawthorne get quite interestingly/confusingly identified with each other, both writers of letters whose struggles with society are far too interestingly complicated for a political label to give us much more than a very superficially satisfying sense of what’s really going on there. 

In short, as always happens when I read Hawthorne, the most interesting thing to me is the way his best writing ultimately resists easy characterization, easy summary, the way his terms and metaphors turn over on themselves like a Möbius strip. But it’s precisely by contrasting the meaning(s) of “office” in the dialogue between The Scarlet Letter and the custom-house sketch with his use of it in that letter — in which exactly none of the creative-spirit-stultifying connotations seem to be active — that we see a contrast between Hawthorne the writer and Hawthorne the purveyor of stereotypes. They were the same man in reality, of course. But there’s nothing more opposed to the spirit and letter of what makes The Scarlet Letter such a great novel than the spirit and voice that animated that letter to his publisher in 1855. Which is, in its way, precisely a vindication of what he had been up to in 1849 in the first place, whatever that was.