April 9, 2010

Hawthorne sworn in

Like most other early American writers, Nathaniel Hawthorne struggled financially. In fact, it is said that he was kicked out of the Old Manse in Concord, Massachusetts for not paying rent. Knowing that his writing alone would not support him and his family (by this time, he was married and had two children, Una and Julian), he sought full-time work. As an avowed democrat, he looked to the political world and was soon offered a job at the Custom House in his home town of Salem, Massachusetts, an appointment approved by President James K. Polk. He was sworn in on April 9, 1846 as surveyor. His appointment earned him an annual salary of $1,200.

The author assumed the job overlooking Derby Wharf would allow ample time for him to write but, he soon learned, free time was not the issue. His experience at the Custom House was trying for other reasons. As he wrote to his friend Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:

I am trying to resume my pen... Whenever I sit alone, or walk alone, I find myself dreaming about stories, as of old; but these forenoons in the Custom House undo all that the afternoons and evenings have done. I should be happier if I could write.

Hawthorne had previously worked at the Custom House in Boston so he should have known the drudgery of this line of work. The building is today preserved as part of the Salem Maritime National Historic Site. Inside, the desk he used (pictured) is on display to the public.

He was forced out of his Salem position in the spring of 1849 when the democrats lost power. He did not take part in the public discussions about losing his job. As he wrote, "There is no use in lamentation. It now remains to consider what I shall do next." He eventually turned his experience into the sketch "The Custom-House," printed as an introduction to The Scarlet Letter in 1850.


  1. Hello Rob,

    Hawthorne's anguished words so poignantly describe what many a writer has struggled-with: the desire--and even inspiration--to write, ground down by the burdensome need of "earning a living": which we know from the likes of Poe was excrutiatingly difficult in nineteenth-century America. As a former employee of the National Endowment for the Arts, I can say without question that America does not sufficiently value its artists, of any stripe.

  2. Very true! Poor Hawthorne struggled just as much as Poe. I think if Poe had survived a bit longer, however, he may have seen more money flowing towards him. I think the American publishing climate changed after The Scarlet Letter in 1850.

  3. Just a quick note to say that I just found this site and am saving it for more indepth perusal. I live in Salem, Mass., and am a descendant of Nathaniel Hawthorn(e) from his Ingersoll line (my great grandmother was married to an Ingersoll who can be traced back to Hawthorn(e). I am no scholar, just an old retired lady of minimal means and brains, but I am happy on finding this web site and will be back.