The ABCs of the Scarlet Letter

Article excerpt

Hawthorne's troubled relationship with the premier antebellum children's publisher and literary entrepreneur Samuel G. Goodrich is a well-known feature of the development of Hawthorne's career. Though Hawthorne complained that Goodrich was "not particularly trustworthy" and a "rogue" on the basis of bitter experience, it was Goodrich, not Hawthorne, whose successes in the two decades leading up to the publication of The Scarlet Letter read as an antebellum model of literary productivity and best-selling popular acclaim. (1) Just as the shape of Goodrich's career suggests that connection with the children's literary market was often linked to prosperity and fame more generally, The Scarlet Letter calls out for reconsideration in part as a reflection of Hawthorne's own conflicted intimacy with writings for children. By reading The Scarlet Letter as a primer for adults--a novel that challenges the definition of literacy itself in its refusal to articulate that word for which the novel's title presumably stands, and whose very structure as a mystery or detective story foregrounds the process of reading more generally--I suggest that The Scarlet Letter is inextricably linked to what could be called Hawthorne's own education in and indoctrination into the mysteries of the antebellum literary marketplace through the production of writings for children.

In a love letter to Sophia Peabody written in the fail of 1840, Hawthorne includes an ironic reference to his children's work Grandfather's Chair(1840), a book that he had hoped might prove a cash cow but whose poor sales led to compensatory labors in the barns of Brook Farm. Published by Sophia's sister Elizabeth earlier in 1840 and already hanging heavy on their collective hands, Hawthorne remarks: "And this reminds me to ask whether thou hast drawn those caricatures--especially the one of thy husband, staggering, and puffing, and toiling onward to the gate of the farm, burthened with the unsaleable remnant of Grandfather's Chair. Dear us, what a ponderous, leaden load it will be!" (2) Despite Hawthorne's self-deprecatory cheer, he would continue to be haunted by the remainders of his foray into the realm of children's literature as well as by what these books reminded him about his pecuniary failures in the world of antebellum publishing more generally. In the following months neither Brook Farm nor his writings for children were able to produce the solid returns he sought. After joining the community in April of 1841, he left only to return again in the fall of that same year in yet another fitful attempt to patch together his finances, an effort whose urgency was underscored by what was continuing to be a frustratingly lengthy engagement to Sophia Peabody.

In June of 1841, he wrote a letter that reeks of humiliation to Elizabeth Peabody about her attempts to interest the publishing house of James Munroe in the remainders of Grandfather's Chair. First published without illustrations--a serious error of judgement in the world of antebellum children's publishing--a new edition with cuts, Elizabeth was confident, would sell respectably, even though a sizeable quantity of the first edition was still languishing unsold. (3) In a rhetorical gesture that conveys the extent to which the author wished to distance himself from yet another financial chastening, received this time from the parental arm of the antebellum book-buying public, Hawthorne speaks of himself tersely in the third person: "Mr. Hawthorne particularly desires that the bargain with Mr. Munroe, in respect to the remaining copies of Grandfather's Chair, may be concluded on such terms as Miss Peabody thinks best, without further reference to himself." As Hawthorne angrily surmises, "Being wholly ignorant of the value of the books," the author "could do no other than consent to any arrangement" that Miss Peabody "might propose." (4) Hawthorne's use of the third person signals an ongoing "quarrel" with Elizabeth Peabody over what quite literally seems to be "the value of the books"; for, although Peabody did manage to interest the firm of Tappan and Dennet in a new edition (with illustrations by Sophia), she was still unable to dispose of the remainders of the first edition, and later advertised them for sale at half price, provoking another angry letter from "Mr. …