Columnists > Voices

A deadening ease

It took a job loss for Hawthorne-and for me-to get to work

Issue: "A mighty fortress is our sect," Oct. 20, 2007

I do not like you, Mr. Hawthorne. I see what you are up to in The Scarlet Letter and am helpless to avert it, like Elisha staring Hazael to shame but not, for all that, able to head off the damage he will do to Israel (2 Kings 8). "Whoever is not with me is against me and whoever does not gather with me scatters." The Puritans were slipping from that purity of love and needed chastening, but woe the instrument who throws out baby with the bath water. You use the word Satan in quotation marks, as it were, as poetic device. (You are so modern.) You paint the sky of Boston black and silent: God is remote and irrelevant.

But we do have some common confluence of fate, as I was charmed to learn in your biography. I read about your job loss and was put in mind of mine, and how what seemed a frown of fortune turned to our advancement. In 1848 your services are made "redundant," as your English forebears might say. And then bang: 1850, The Scarlet Letter; 1851, The House of the Seven Gables; 1852, The Blithedale Romance. Not bad recompense for forced retirement.

I'm referring to the Salem Custom House, of course, where you once plied a dubious trade inspecting quantity and value of imported goods, and generally wasting away in the safety therein. I had a job like that. I will not judge as to whether Sandwich maker beats Surveyor-but it was safe! And I would fain have stayed were I not pushed. And I would not have tried my hand at harder things (like reading Hawthorne with an inner-city clientele) as you would not have writ another word after the Twice-Told Tales and Manse.

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But it's the manner of your civil job that much amuses and reminds us that our vices are not new. We come upon the scene, behind closed doors of this brick harbor edifice which the unwary pedestrian could reasonably expect to conceal brisk industry, and we find this:

"They spent a good deal of time, also, asleep in their accustomed corners, with their chairs tilted back against the wall; awaking, however, once or twice in a forenoon, to bore one another with the several thousandth repetition of old sea-stories. . . . The discovery was soon made, I imagine, that the new Surveyor had no great harm in him. So, with lightsome hearts, and the happy consciousness of being usefully employed,-in their own behalf, at least, if not for our beloved country,-these good old gentlemen went through the various formalities of office."

Did you have the saying then, "Plus ca change, plus ca ne change pas"?

Of course, this is what we all think we want- reliable pay with minimum exertion. But you made a discovery: "An effect-which I believe to be observable, more or less, in every individual who has occupied the position-is that, while he leans on the mighty arm of the Republic, his own proper strength departs from him. He loses . . . the capability of self-support. . . . He forever afterwards looks wistfully about him in quest of support external to himself."

After eight years at the café, getting languid myself, I understand this sentiment: "So little harvest of fancy and sensibility, that, had I remained there through ten Presidencies yet to come, I doubt whether the tale of 'The Scarlet Letter' would ever have been brought before the public eye. My imagination was a tarnished mirror."

Worse still: "I endeavored to calculate how much longer I could stay in the Custom House, and yet go forth a man." Goodness! The building inspector came to our eatery not a minute too soon!

So I amen to what follows: "The real human being . . . brought himself to the comfortable conclusion that everything was for the best: and, making an investment in ink, paper, and steel-pens, had opened his long-disused writing-desk, and was again a literary man. . . . Rusty through long idleness, some little space was requisite before my intellectual machinery could be brought to work upon the tale."

The tale you refer to is Hester Prynne's. And while we have in common certain superficialities of work history, do not expect that I will not, behind my classroom door, denounce with great exertion your most literary beguilements tending to the death of God.

Andrée Seu
Andrée Seu

Andrée is the author of three books: Won't Let You Go Unless You Bless Me, Normal Kingdom Business, and We Shall Have Spring Again.


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