Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

Hawthorne and the "Scribbling Women": Publishing the Scarlet Letter in the Nineteenth-Century United States

Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

Hawthorne and the "Scribbling Women": Publishing the Scarlet Letter in the Nineteenth-Century United States

Article excerpt

Besides, America is now wholly given over to a d--d mob of scribbling women, and I should have no chance of success while the public taste 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 100,000.


It may well be that no single passage written by Nathaniel Hawthorne is better known than this or, at least over the past few decades, more widely quoted. (1) An extraordinary possibility, especially as the passage comes from the middle of a rather long private letter, written to his publisher and friend William D. Ticknor on January 19, 1855, and first published only in 1910. (2) Nevertheless, this passage has resonated through recent discussions of American literary history, for it raises questions that are key to our understandings of that tradition: What is the relationship between popular success and literary quality? What role do gender politics play in our assessment of a work? In what ways have the economic factors facing authors and publishers fostered or discouraged authorship in the United States? And how is it that during the 1850s, a decade that came to be dubbed the "American Renaissance," sentimental novels could have enjoyed such popular success, while the "classics" by Hawthorne, Melville, Thoreau, and Whitman did not?

Although he could hardly have thought in such terms, clearly these issues bothered Hawthorne as he pondered in what direction to continue his literary career. He returned to the subject in his very next letter to Ticknor, written two weeks later, but here at least he selects one of that "scribbling mob," Fanny Fern, for praise. (3) His original outburst had been directed specifically at the work of another, Maria Susannah Cummins, whose best-selling novel The Lamplighter was making a tremendous success. Published in early March 1854, this work is reported to have sold 20,000 copies in twenty days, and 40,000 copies in eight weeks. By year's end, nearly 75,000 copies had been produced; by the end of the decade, total sales in the United States were somewhere around 90,000. (4) Nevertheless, Hawthorne clearly exaggerated when in his exasperation he claimed that books written by women were selling by the hundred thousand. Although sales of The Lamplighter approached that figure, its success was exceptional, and its sales were not matched by other novels of the decade. The exception, of course, was Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, which indeed did sell in the hundred thousands--around 310,000 copies during the 1850s. (5)

Hawthorne's frustration is understandable. Consider his most popular work, The Scarlet Letter, which was published in March 1850: only 11,800 copies had been produced by 1860. For the short term at least, sales of his works had to be reckoned in the thousands instead of tens of thousands, much less hundreds of thousands. But as we pass the sesquicentennial of the original publication of The Scarlet Letter, it pays to look at the longer term. What was the publication history of the work for the remainder of the nineteenth century? And how does this history compare to that of Uncle Tom's Cabin? What can the comparison tell us about these works' subsequent histories and reputations?

The story of the composition and original publication of The Scarlet Letter is well known. (6) Hawthorne, who was an established writer of short stories and sketches, began work on the manuscript sometime--probably late summer--during 1849, the same year that he was dismissed from his job at the Salem Custom House. Before year's end, the Boston publisher James T. Fields called on Hawthorne in Salem and came away with a draft of "The Scarlet Letter," which Hawthorne imagined as one of several stories in a collection to be called Old-Time Legends (or possibly The Custom-House). …

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