Wednesday, May 4, 2011
The Germ Theory of THE SCARLET LETTER
This little essay was published in the Hawthorne Society Newsletter, 11 (Spring 1985), and lost sight of. Using IRIS, I resurrected it in January 2011 and bring it into May because I will want to talk about it in relation to Brenda Wineapple's HAWTHORNE: A LIFE.
"THE GERM THEORY OF THE SCARLET LETTER" Hershel Parker
This talk was delivered on 9 November 1984 at the South Atlantic Modern Language Association meeting in Atlanta, in the "American Literature I Section" chaired by J. A. Leo Lemay, with Nathalia Wright sitting in the front row. My informal references to Professor Wright and Pro¬fessor Lemay are retained in this printing of the talk, which I have not tried to stiffen into a formal essay. I decided to investigate this topic before I knew Thomas Woodson could, and would, send me xeroxes of page-proofs of his forthcoming edition of the Hawthorne letters, but as it turns out his generous help has made me feel a good deal more secure in daring to talk about Hawthorne.
Nathalia Wright could tell you how frustrating it is for us Melvilleans to get the Hawthorne people to tell us the simplest things about the Man of Mosses. Lacking a Hawthorne Log, lacking a full edition of Hawthorne’s letters, and being naturally reluctant to do the work of Hawthorneans, we Melvilleans have had to put our questions about old-time Hawthorne legends on hold, sometimes for decades. Some of the old-time legends in Hawthorne scholarship and criticism are charming fairy tales: witness the accounts of 8 June 1849, the day Haw¬thorne was fired from the Custom House, the very day he began The Scarlet Letter. In that story Sophia Hawthorne intuits that her husband has had a trying day at the office and produces "quite a large pile of gold" (Julian Hawthorne in the 1885 version): "So he began 'The Scarlet Letter' that afternoon; and blessed his stars, no doubt, for sending him such a wife!" Forty-six years later Julian has Sophia saying "well, hundreds of dol-lars!" and speaking these immortal words: "Now you can write that Great Romance!” The 1931 version continues: "So the cloud turned its silver lining; and we may imagine the little domestic scene!" Louise Hall Tharp makes it "a hundred and fifty dollars in bills, in silver, even in coppers"---money earned from painting lampshades and fire--screens. Leaving the treasure with Sophia, "Haw-thorne went to his study to experience a miracle. The spirit was upon him and he could write again." It's a good story.
Other old-time legends need to be reexamined seriously, rather than just enjoyed. I would like to see a Hawthorne scholar set out once for all the circumstances of Hawthorne's firing and the public reaction to it. Stephen Nissenbaum makes me ex¬tremely uneasy when he relies on good but old work rather than doing the job himself, from scratch. I would like to know more about the relationship between The Scarlet Letter and the Custom House essay (we know the essay was completed before The Scarlet Letter—was it started before The Scarlet Letter was started?). It must make some difference to the way we read the essay and the story when we realize that the essay was not written to introduce The Scarlet Letter alone but The Scarlet Letter and several other pieces as well, and it must affect our reading of the essay when we recognize that it was not retro-fitted to serve its new function as introduction only to The Scarlet Letter, except for Fields's or Hawthorne's or someone's addition of a perfunctory footnote.
These last problems have alluring aesthetic implications~ but the questions that have most intrigued me, decade after decade, have been about the germ theory of The Scarlet Letter, the theory (or was it veritable publishing history?) that James T. Fields persuaded Hawthorne to alter his plan to write a longish short story (or shortish novel?) and instead to enlarge the work in progress to the length of The Scarlet Letter we know. I had hoped that my questions would be answered when Norman Holmes Pearson's forthcoming edition of the letters appeared. (Remember how he used to tantalize us by reading snippets aloud?--"If the Judgment Letter is to be the title . . . .") Then (here we pass from old irritation into sadness) I thought my questions would be answered when Claude Simpson's edition was published, and then when Neal Smith got the letters out. All this time we Melvilleans have had to make do with what we had, such as the well-known letter from Sophia Hawthorne to her mother on 2 September 1849, presumably early during the composition of either the "Custom House" essay or The Scarlet Letter—or both: "Mr. Hawthorne writes immensely. I am almost frightened about it. But he is well now, and looks very shining."
Arlin Turner quoted part of the letter Hawthorne wrote to Fields on 3 November 1850, from Lenox, when he was stewing over a set of possible titles for the Pyncheon book, which had been much harder to write than The Scarlet Letter. Thomas Woodson sent me the entire text of the letter, of which this portion is most relevant to the germ theory: "I write diligently, but not so rapidly as I had hoped. I find the book requires more care and thought than the 'Scarlet Letter';--also, I have to wait oftener for a mood. The Scarlet Letter being all in one tone, I had only to get my pitch, and could then go on interminably."
Questions remain, despite Woodson's generous bundle of letters, so with Leo Lemay as instigator and brown champion, and with Nathalia to give me moral support, I am venturing across that threshold which separates the firm reality of Melvillean study from the nebulous sphere of the Hawthornesque.
We have known one thing all along--who started the germ theory of The Scarlet Letter. It was feisty, foppish little James T. Fields, that intimate friend who Sophia decided was robbing her of her royalties, and he did it first in his magazine, the Atlantic Monthly, in February of 1871. According to Fields, on a visit at Salem, during the dreary period after Hawthorne's dismissal from the Custom House, he had extracted from Hawthorne "a roll of manuscript" which contained “the germ" of The Scarlet Letter, then read it in the railway car on the ride back to Boston. Living as he did in the Hub of the Universe, Fields took for granted that everyone would get the point--that the "germ" was so short that he had read it during the twenty minutes or so that the ride took. (He doesn't mention the Devil's supernatural speed in the other direction in "Young Goodman Brown.") Brilliant critic and enterprising publisher that he was, Fields had persuaded Hawthorne to alter "the plan of that story" and to elaborate and (this is synonymous) enlarge it. Without Fields we would have had a much shorter story than we have, and, the implication is, a less worthy story, than we have.
Fields’s account has generally been accepted. Here is the germ theory as faithfully laid out in 1954 by Hubert H. Hoeltje in "The Writing of The Scarlet Letter,” describing what happened after Hawthorne had finished or pretty much finished a short version of the work: "It was Fields’ suggestion . . . that the tale of 'The Scarlet Letter' be enlarged and published as a separate work. Before publication, therefore, there remained the difficult and wearisome task of revision and addition." (He didn't know about getting the pitch and going on interminably.) In 1962 Hoeltje elaborated his version of the germ theory: "At Fields’ suggestion, fortunately, the short story which Hawthorne had planned was extended to novel length, an illustration of how helpful a publisher can be, and a piece of good advice for which Hawthorne always remained grateful." Here, from 1962, is William Charvat's version of the germ theory: Fields "not only accepted The Scarlet Letter after reading it in an early, brief version, but persuaded Hawthorne to 'elaborate' it as a separate work."
In 1968 Hyatt H. Waggoner and George Monteiro quoted at length from Fields’ story then commented: "No doubt we must allow for Fields’ neatly rounded account of the prescient publisher's encounter with the shy, reluctant author, but the account has, in spite of this, the feel of fundamental, if not detailed, truth." James R. Mellow in 1980 credited Fields with persuading Hawthorne "that the story should be elaborated further" (as opposed to "continued," one assumes). More cautiously, Arlin Turner in 1980 kept referring to "what became" or "turned out to be" The Scarlet Letter, something at first intended "to be not a book but a tale" (Turner also quoted Sophia Hawthorne's late attempt to give E. P. Whipple credit for being the one who most wanted the firm of Ticknor, Reed, and Fields to publish the work.) Watson Branch in 1982 went beyond these writers and explored “a pattern that could indicate how Hawthorne enlarged The Scarlet Letter from the 'germ' James T. Fields said he read in late 1849 to the finished book Fields published for him on March 16, 1850.” Branch believed that the "imperfections in Hawthorne's published book" are the result "of his hurried efforts to supply Fields with a finished manuscript."
In 1984 Stephen Nissenbaum not only swallowed the whole of the Fields account but compounded it with a New-Time Legend, the story that the "decision to add 'The Custom House' was made at the last minute, after the book was already set in type." That's just not true, as a bibliographer would have known after a glance at the book, and even the well-known letters show it's not true. Such comments, which could be multiplied, are bemusing to any plain bluff Melvillean long accustomed to straightforward, reliable accounts of how Melville upon his retirement from the Custom House sat down and wrote the word "Preface" on a page, wrote the preface to “Billy Budd,” and continued straight through to the poem "Billy in the Darbies," all in the order and wording of the Weaver edition, never blotting a line.
The germ theory of The Scarlet Letter has proved so contagious and so nearly untreatable that one hesitates to come near it. Watch my circling around! Emboldened by Professors Lemay and Wright, I ask, first, "what did Fields claim that he persuaded Hawthorne to do?" I ask, second, "Was what he claimed true?"
In the 1871 Atlantic Monthly account I pass over the extensive passage of verbatim dialogue between Fields and Hawthorne in which Hawthorne coquettishly denies that a manuscript is secreted in a particular "bureau or set of drawers" near where they are sitting, then capitulates to the enticer and turns over to the triumphant Fields the roll of manuscript. If you believe Hawthorne spoke the words Fields puts in his mouth you'll believe Hawthorne made a pass at Melville. I skip to Fields’s germ story: "At my suggestion he had altered the plan of that story. It was his intention to make 'The Scarlet Letter' one of several short stories, all to be included in one volume, and to be called
TOGETHER WITH SKETCHES,
EXPERIMENTAL AND IDEAL.
His first design was to make 'The Scarlet Letter' occupy about two hundred pages in his new book; but I persuaded him, after reading the first chapters of the story, to elaborate it, and publish it as a separate work." So “it was settled that 'The Scarlet Letter’ should be enlarged and printed by itself in a volume.”
Hawthorne scholars have not focused on the fact that there are two major parts to Fields's claims--first that he persuaded Hawthorne to alter the size he had planned the story to be, from tale length to novel length, and second that he persuaded Hawthorne to publish The Scarlet Letter alone except for the introductory Custom House essay--that is, without the other tales and sketches. Some of what Fields says here and in the passages I quoted earlier is self-contradictory, some of it can be contradicted by other evidence, and some of it is true.
What's true, beyond any reasonable doubt, is that Fields persuaded the cautious and self-doubting Hawthorne to publish The Scarlet Letter separately, which is to say in a volume with nothing else besides the Custom House essay. On 15 January 1850 Hawthorne wrote Fields: "I send you, at last, the manuscript portion of my volume; not quite all of it, however, for there are three chapters still to be written of 'The Scarlet Letter.’” Hawthorne was afraid Fields would “not like the book nor think well of its prospects with 'the public," and did not consider him under any obligation to publish it. He mentioned the “delicate subject" of The Scarlet Letter in a way which does not make it absolutely clear that Fields already knew what the subject was, but he made it clear that Fields had not seen the "article entitled 'Custom House,’” which he asked Fields to read first. Hawthorne did not yet have a title for the collection, but he did have a sense of how long the book would run: "Calculating the page of the new volume at the size of that of the 'Mosses,' I can supply 400 and probably more. 'The Scarlet Letter,' I suppose, will make half of that number; otherwise, the calculation may fall a little short, though I think not." Before mailing the letter, or package, Hawthorne added the title: "Old-Time Legends; together with sketches, experimental and ideal."
In the next days Fields told Hawthorne that he liked the introduction and recommended publishing it with only The Scarlet Letter. In his reply of 20 January 1850 Hawthorne was cautious: "I have some doubts of the expediency; because, if the book is made up entirely of 'The Scarlet Letter,' it will be too sombre." He was afraid it would "weary very many people, and disgust some." He continued: "Is it safe, then, to stake the fate of the book entirely on this one chance? A hunter loads his gun with a bullet and several buck-shot; and, following his sagacious example, it was my purpose to conjoin the one long story with a half a dozen shorter ones, so that, failing to kill the public outright with my biggest and heaviest lump of lead. I might have other chances with the smaller bits, individually and in the aggregate. However, I am willing to leave these considerations to your judgment, and should not be sorry to have you decide for the separate publication." In that case, Hawthorne concluded, “the only proper title for the book would be 'The Scarlet Letter'; for ‘The Custom House' is merely introductory." No question at all: Fields persuaded Hawthorne to publish The Scarlet Letter alone (except for the introductory essay).
But did Hawthorne ever write a short version of "The Scarlet Letter" and did Fields ever see such a short version? At one place Fields calls what he carried from Salem to Boston the "germ" of The Scarlet Letter, but he also refers to the same roll of manuscript as containing “the first chapters of the story." If the germ consisted of chapters, that itself is an indication that the work was going to be fairly long, and that other, later, chapters were presumably planned, enough for a work long enough to be divided into a fair number of chapters. Fields also says that Hawthorne's "first design" was to make the story occupy "about two hundred pages in his new book" and that he later persuaded Hawthorne to enlarge it. Yet Hawthorne did not make that 200-page estimate in November or December 1849, when there was time for the plan of the story to be altered, but in the 15 January 1850 letter, and in the form of a guess as to what the material he is sending will amount to when added to what Fields already had copies of, the pieces which had appeared in print, such as "Main Street" from Aesthetic Papers, probably "Unpardonable Sin," printed the previous week in the Boston Weekly Museum.
Hawthorne did not quite say that he expected The Scarlet Letter to be 200 pages--he said he could supply 400 and probably more pages," of which The Scarlet Letter "will make half of that number." The Scarlet Letter was not all written, but he had a decent sense of how long it would run, although he hadn't had much experience with estimating book-page equivalents for long manuscripts, and the only enlargement on his mind was the writing of the final three chapters. There's nothing about Fields’s sending back the manuscript Hawthorne had sent him on 15 January and there is pretty strong evidence that what Fields did with it was give it to the compositors, fast. Letters written by Hawthorne on 4 February specify that he had finished the book the previous day, and that the "end" of the book had still been in his head while the first end was already "in the press in Boston," already being set before he completed what were surely those last chapters. (When you get a good gag, milk it: he wrote that day to two people [if not others]saying that the story had been "at least fourteen miles long," one end being in the press in Boston and the other in his head there in Salem.)
Fields's account is quite misleading in its claim that his persuading Hawthorne to enlarge the story was a consequence of his persuading Hawthorne to publish it separately; the evidence conclusively shows that the decision to publish separately was quite independent of the question of the length of The Scarlet Letter, since the length the manuscript had reached in mid-January was plainly going to be sufficient to go into book form (once it was completed), especially with such a long introduction. The surviving evidence indicates that The Scarlet Letter was never partly written in a shorter version (where, say, the first twelve chapters took up less space than the same chapters do in the work we know) and the evidence is conclusive that the work was never complete in a shorter version than the one we know. The last three chapters were written after the decision was made to publish the work with the Custom House essay and nothing else, so any arguments about Hawthorne's expanding and enlarging his planned story should be restricted to these three chapters. A critic can call the work diffuse in comparison with Hawthorne's best short stories, but he has to blame Hawthorne for it, not Fields, for Fields, we can say with some confidence, had nothing to do with its reaching the length it did, although he had everything to do with its being published as a novel.