An Entire Alphabet of Scarlet Letters

By Conley, Craig | Verbatim, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

An Entire Alphabet of Scarlet Letters


Conley, Craig, Verbatim


Is it preposterous to wonder whether letters of the alphabet have an inherent color? As I conduct ongoing research for the One-Letter Words: A Dictionary, I can't help but ask myself why it is that letters are so often described as having a rosy hue. Most readers will recall the infamous red A of Nathaniel Hawthorne's classic novel, but as Steven Heller pointed out, "The Scarlet Letter is not the only scarlet letter" (The Education of an Illustrator). Nor are scarlet letters solely brands of shame, sin, or doom. A red letter day is a holiday, or at least a memorable or happy day (the phrase likely dating from 1549, when saints' days were marked in red in the Book of Common Prayer). Can there be a natural wavelength that writers instinctively pick up on? Virginia Woolf's eyes seemed keen enough to detect infrared all the way to Z: "After Q there are a number of letters the last of which is scarcely visible to mortal eyes, but glimmers red in the distance" (To the Lighthouse).

Biblical allusions associate the color scarlet with sins of the body, and by coloring their letters red, authors seem to flesh them out and add a spark of life. Take, for example, this description by Brian Moynahan: "[W]hen I came to read [the psalms], they seemed written in letters of fire or of scarlet" (The Faith: A History of Christianity). Nathaniel Hawthorne also mentioned a burning quality to his scarlet letter: "[Placing it to my breast,] I experienced a sensation not altogether physical, yet almost so, as of burning heat; and as if the letter were not of red cloth, but red-hot iron" (The Scarlet Letter). Sparkling red letters can even burn the imagination: "In my head a scarlet letter blazed," says Betty Fussell (My Kitchen Wars). Whether or not the context involves physical branding with a red-hot iron (examples would be rather too gruesome for inclusion here), blood imagery often figures in. As John Lawton wrote, "She rubbed the [handkerchief's embroidered] scarlet letter between finger and thumb, felt the crispness of dried blood" (Bluffing Mr. Churchill). George C. Chesbro dramatically combines both blood and fire imagery in his depiction of an alphabet volcano "spewing what appeared to be incomplete, fractured sentences and clustered gobs of words that were half submerged in a river of blood red lava" (The Language of Cannibals). And consider this more serene example by poet Madeline Defrees, who seems to agree that scarlet letters are written by nature herself and in turn read by nature as well: "And who, / when scarlet letters / flutter in air from sumac and maple, / will be there to / receive them? Only a sigh / on the wind in the land of bending willow" ("Almanac," Blue Dusk: New and Selected Poems, 1951-2001).

In most cases, scarlet letters have a dazzling quality that you can't help but notice. Here's one example by Wilkie Collins: "[B]elow the small print appeared a perfect galaxy of fancifully shaped scarlet letters, which fascinated all eyes" (Hide and Seek). Groucho Marx recalled being fascinated by similar red letters: "In large, scarlet letters [the handbills] said, 'Would you like to communicate with your loved ones even though they are no longer in the flesh?'" (Memoirs of a Mangy Lover). It is as if the letters of Groucho's handbill had a rosy flesh of their own and enough charge to bridge the gap between the living and the dead. Here's another example of a dazzling red letter, by Ian Rankin: "There was a big letter X marking the spot [for a parachute jump]. It was made from two lengths of shiny red material, weighted down with stones" (Resurrection Men: An Inspector Rebus Novel). Michael McCollum sums up nicely the impact of scarlet letters: "The [comet collision] display froze, save for a single blinking word etched in scarlet letters: Impact!" (Thunderstrike!) Red letters have impact, all right!

What follows is an entire alphabet of scarlet letters that I have collected, many as marks of shame but others simply pulsing with the red blush of life (or at least a strawberry birthmark). …

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