Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

The Bureaucratic Origins of the Scarlet Letter

Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

The Bureaucratic Origins of the Scarlet Letter

Article excerpt

Official culture takes its paperwork very seriously. When Asok, the business intern on the syndicated comic strip "Dilbert," finds a document marked "Proprietary," he wryly asks his pointy-haired boss: "If I were to spend my whole life searching, do you think I could find anyone who would care about this?" (1) In poking fun at modern corporate culture's over-inflated sense of self-importance, the strip is making a larger point about the way in which bureaucratic culture fosters official meanings that nobody actually cares much about. More broadly, we can observe that "proprietary" or classified documents accrue power within a particular cultural sensibility, however pointless that power or meaning may be to those outside that sensibility. Somewhat paradoxically, bureaucratic orders of representation foster exclusive or private forms of meaning, even though it would seem that any theory of official representation would hold that the rationalized system through which official acts are executed, communicated, and certified be broadly, even universally, communicable within the public domain it serves. This essay will consider the emergence of bureaucratic individualism in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, a novel preoccupied with the sorts of individual privacy derived from official forms of public meaning-making.

One of the funnier moments of "The Custom-House" comes when Hawthorne relates how he "found" the "Scarlet Letter" while "poking and burrowing into the heaped-up rubbish in the corner" of an abandoned storeroom: the joke being, of course, that the narrative found is part of the discarded rubbish. (2) In lightheartedly equating the narrative of The Scarlet Letter with the forgotten paperwork of Salem's colonial import/export trade--dryly noting how such records refer to matters "never heard of now on 'Change"--Hawthorne brings literary and bureaucratic labor into close proximity to one another. "This envelope," he goes on, "had the air of an official record of some period long past," a reference that refers both to the historical novel, The Scarlet Letter, as a record of the historical past, as well as to the documentary accumulation of the economic transactions overseen by the historical clerks of the Custom House. Thus the production of historian, narrator, and bureaucrat emerges together as the work of Hawthorne's Custom-House predecessor, Surveyor Jonathan Pue, whose initial burrowing into America's Puritan past produced the "certain affair of fine red cloth" (31) that Hawthorne has just found: "documents, in short, not official, but of a private nature, or, at least, written in his private capacity, and apparently with his own hand" (30). In spite of the rhetoric of privacy invoked here, "The Custom-House" not only trades in the public language of "record" and "account," but titularly proposes literature's simultaneity with civic productions. Although the private affairs of the heart are of a fundamentally different order of representation than those of trade and excise, they at least share a similar packaging. Moreover, the emphasis here falls on the "privacy" not exclusively of the "affair," but also of the package; the record of a long forgotten affair is itself an affair of private exertion.

In his story of the Scarlet Letter's origins in the precinct of bureaucracy, the "Custom-House" narrator trades on the presumptive difference between affairs of the heart and affairs of documentation, only to thin the line dividing them. The proximity of literary to bureaucratic representation thus complicates the psycho-biographical history of the novel's creation, which tends to hold that Hawthorne's expulsion from the anti-literary precinct of the Custom House was the necessary prelude to his being able to write the novel. This critical tradition has assumed a certain incompatibility between the work of the Custom House and the work of the "Custom-House": that Hawthorne had to get out of the former before he could articulate the latter. …

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