It was on this day in 1850 that Nathaniel Hawthorne’s masterpiece, The Scarlet Letter, was published (books by this author). He was living at a time when there was almost no such thing as American literature, in part because the American publishing industry was so behind the times. In order to publish a book, a single printer would edit the manuscript, set the type, operate the printing press, bind the pages into books, and then sell them. It was remarkably inefficient, and so it was almost impossible to produce a best-seller, since so few copies were available to be sold.
But by 1850, books were being printed by machines. Long, continuous sheets of paper were fed into steam-powered printing presses, and factories of workers folded, pressed, and stitched the pages into books. The Scarlet Letter became the first great American novel in part because it was the first novel that could reach a large audience.
Hawthorne began the novel shortly after he was fired from his position at the Salem Custom House, and he spent almost all of his time working on it from June 1849 through February 1850. His wife, Sophia, said she was “almost frightened about it. … He has written vehemently morning & afternoon & has not walked as much as he used to do. He has become tender from confinement & brain work.”
Hawthorne had long been fascinated by America’s Puritan history, especially since one of his own ancestors had been a judge in the Salem witch trials. Ten years before starting The Scarlet Letter, he had read a historical account of a woman who had to wear the letter A on her chest as a punishment for adultery. He used that woman as the main character of the novel, and he named her Hester Prynne.
He finished writing the book on February 2, 1850. He was exhausted and felt sick from spending so much time indoors, without exercise. The next evening, he read the conclusion to his wife; he said, “It broke her heart, and sent her to bed with a grievous headache, which I look upon as a triumphant success.”
Hawthorne thought The Scarlet Letter was too bleak to be published by itself, and he planned to include it in a collection with a few other short stories. His publisher thought it was good enough to stand alone, but Hawthorne still had doubts about it. He wrote: “Is it safe, then, to stake the fate of the book entirely on this one chance? A hunter loads his gun with a bullet and several buck-shot. … It was my purpose to conjoin the one long story with half a dozen shorter ones; so that, failing to kill the public outright with my biggest and heaviest lump of lead, I might have other chances with the smaller bits.”
On March 16, 2,500 copies of The Scarlet Letter were published, and they sold out within 10 days. Critics loved it, and it established Hawthorne as one of the best writers in America. Henry James would later call it “the finest piece of imaginative writing yet put forth in this country.”
The Scarlet Letter begins with Hester Prynne emerging from the town prison as a crowd of people look on. Hawthorne wrote: “When the young woman — the mother of this child — stood fully revealed before the crowd, it seemed to be her first impulse to clasp the infant closely to her bosom; not so much by an impulse of motherly affection, as that she might thereby conceal a certain token, which was wrought or fastened into her dress. In a moment, however, wisely judging that one token of her shame would but poorly serve to hide another, she took the baby on her arm, and, with a burning blush, and yet a haughty smile, and a glance that would not be abashed, looked around at her townspeople and neighbours. On the breast of her gown, in fine red cloth, surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread, appeared the letter A.”