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10 Fascinating Facts About The Scarlet Letter

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These days, we tend to think about The Scarlet Letter in relation to high school students struggling with their English papers, but we didn’t always see the book that way. When Nathaniel Hawthorne published the novel on March 16, 1850, it was a juicy bestseller about an adulterous woman forced to wear a scarlet ‘A’ on her chest by a community steeped in religious hypocrisy. Here are 10 things you might not have known about the classic tome.

1. HAWTHORNE WAS SO ASHAMED OF HIS PURITAN ANCESTORS, HE CHANGED HIS NAME.

Hawthorne, who was born in Salem, Massachusetts, was aware of his messy Puritan heritage. His great-great-grandfather William Hathorne came to Salem in 1636. As the Massachusetts Bay delegate, he tried to rid the town of Quakers by having them whipped and dragged through the street half naked. His son, John Hathorne, was even worse. As a magistrate during the Salem witch trials of 1692, he examined more than one hundred accused witches, and found them all guilty. Hawthorne detested this legacy and distanced himself from his ancestors by adding the “W” to the spelling of his name.

2. HE STARTED THE SCARLET LETTER AFTER HE WAS FIRED FROM HIS JOB.

Unable to support his family by publishing short stories, Hawthorne took a politically appointed post at the Salem Custom House in 1846. Three years later, he was fired because of a political shakeup. The loss of his job, as well as the death of his mother, depressed Hawthorne, but he was also furious at Salem. "I detest this town so much that I hate to go out into the streets, or to have people see me,” he said.

It was in this mood that he started The Scarlet Letter.

3. HESTER AND DIMMESDALE’S AFFAIR MAY BE MODELED AFTER A PUBLIC SCANDAL.

In 1846, Hawthorne's sister-in-law Elizabeth Peabody published the work of Hungarian linguist Charles Kraitsir. Two years later, it was discovered that Kraitsir’s wife had seduced several of his students at the University of Virginia. He left his wife and daughter in Philadelphia and fled to Peabody for help. Peabody responded by going to Philadelphia in an attempt to gain guardianship of the daughter. This didn’t go over so well with the wife. She followed Peabody back to Boston and confronted her husband. In response, Peabody and Kraitsir tried to get her committed to a lunatic asylum. The press got wind of the story and Kraitsir was skewered for looking weak and hiding behind Peabody’s skirts. Hawthorne watched as the scandal surrounding a woman’s affairs played out on the public stage, right as he was starting The Scarlet Letter.

4. THE PURITANS REALLY DID MAKE PEOPLE WEAR LETTERS FOR ADULTERY.

Hawthorne must have known there was historical precedence for The Scarlet Letter. According to a 1658 law in Plymouth, people caught in adultery were whipped and forced “to weare two Capitall letters namely A D cut out in cloth and sowed on theire vpermost Garments on theire arme or backe.” If they ever took the letters off, they would be publicly whipped again. A similar law was enacted in Salem.

In the town of York (now in Maine) in 1651, near where Hawthorne’s family owned property, a woman named Mary Batchellor was whipped 40 lashes for adultery and forced to wear an ‘A’ on her clothes. She was married to Stephen Batchellor, a minister over 80 years old. Sound familiar?

5. HAWTHORNE’S EDITOR TOOK CREDIT FOR TALKING HIM INTO WRITING THE NOVEL.

In an 1871 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, editor James T. Fields wrote about being Hawthorne’s champion. Not only did he try to get Hawthorne reinstated in his Custom House post, Fields said he convinced Hawthorne to write The Scarlet Letter as a novel. One day, while trying to encourage the despondent writer ("'Who would risk publishing a book for me, the most unpopular writer in America?' 'I would,' said I"), Fields noticed Hawthorne’s bureau. He said he bet Hawthorne had already written something new and that it was in one of the drawers. Hawthorne, flabbergasted, pulled out a manuscript. “How in Heaven's name did you know this thing was there?” he said. He gave Fields the “germ” of The Scarlet Letter. Fields then persuaded Hawthorne to alter “the plan of that story” and write a full-sized book. The rest is history.

Or is it? Hawthorne’s wife Sophia said of Fields’s claims: “He has made the absurd boast that he was the sole cause of the Scarlet Letter being published!" She added that Edwin Percy Whipple was the one who encouraged Hawthorne.

6. THE NOVEL IS ONE OF THE FIRST TO FEATURE A STRONG FEMALE CHARACTER.

Hester Prynne is a tall, dignified character who endures her outcast status with grace and strength. Although she has fallen to a low place as an adulteress with an illegitimate child, she becomes a successful seamstress and raises her daughter even though the authorities want to take the child away. As such, she’s a complex character who embodies what happens when a woman breaks societal rules. Hawthorne not only knew accomplished women such as Peabody and Margaret Fuller, he was writing The Scarlet Letter directly after the first women's rights convention in New York in 1848. He was one of the first American writers to depict “women’s rights, women’s work, women in relation to men, and social change,” according to biographer Brenda Wineapple.

7. THE SCARLET LETTER IS FULL OF SYMBOLS.

As you probably know, Hawthorne hits you in the head with symbolism throughout The Scarlet Letter, starting with the characters’ names—Pearl for an unwanted child, Roger Chillingworth for a twisted, cold man, Arthur Dimmesdale for a man whose education cannot lead him to truth. From the wild woods to the rosebush by the jail to the embroidered ‘A’ itself, it’s easy to see why The Scarlet Letter is the book that launched a thousand literary essays.

8. HAWTHORNE LOVED THE WORD "IGNOMINY."

In the 87,000-plus words that make up The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne used “ignominy” 16 times, “ignominious” seven times, and “ignominiously” once. He apparently had affection for the word, which means dishonor, infamy, disgrace, or shame. Either that, or he needed a thesaurus.

9. PEOPLE THOUGHT THE NOVEL WAS SCANDALOUS.

While the reviews were generally positive, others condemned The Scarlet Letter as smut. For example, this 1851 review by Reverend Arthur Cleveland Coxe: “Why has our author selected such a theme? … Is it, in short, because a running underside of filth has become as requisite to a romance, as death in the fifth act to a tragedy? Is the French era actually begun in our literature? … we honestly believe that "the Scarlet Letter" has already done not a little to degrade our literature, and to encourage social licentiousness.” This kind of rhetoric didn’t hurt sales. In fact, The Scarlet Letter’s initial print run of 2500 books sold out in 10 days.

10. HAWTHORNE DIDN’T MAKE MUCH MONEY FROM THE NOVEL.

The Scarlet Letter made Hawthorne a well-known writer, allowed him to purchase a home in Concord, and insured an audience for books like The House of Seven Gables. However, The Scarlet Letter didn’t make Hawthorne rich. Despite its success in the U.S. and abroad, royalties weren’t that great—overseas editions paid less than a penny per copy. Hawthorne only made $1500 from the book over the remaining 14 years of his life. He was never able to escape the money troubles that plagued him.

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The Best Children's Books of the Year, According to Bank Street College of Education
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The Children's Book Committee at Bank Street College of Education in New York City recently released its 2018 list of the best children's books on the market. Separated into five age-appropriate categories, the list includes more than 600 titles published in the U.S. and Canada in 2017.

In making their selection, judges considered books' literary merit, presentation, and potential emotional impact on young readers, as well as originality of the story, credibility of the characters, and absence of stereotypes. They also looked for positive representations of religious and ethnic differences.

Nonfiction books were checked for accuracy, balance, and documentation, while poetry books were assessed for their language, sound, rhythm, substance, and emotional intensity. Each book on the list was read and reviewed by at least two members of the committee, and then considered by the committee as a whole.

Of the books on the list, three are selected for special awards each year. For 2018, the Josette Frank Award—given to an outstanding novel in which a child character handles difficulty in a positive and realistic way—was awarded to Piecing Me Together by Renée Watson. The Claudia Lewis Award for poetry went to One Last Word: Wisdom from the Harlem Renaissance by Nikki Grimes, and the Flora Stieglitz Straus Award for inspiring nonfiction went to Hawk Mother: The Story of a Red-Tailed Hawk Who Hatched Chickens by Kara Hagedorn.

Below is a selection of some of the books on the list. All of the titles below were awarded "outstanding merit" by the committee. For the full selection, click on the PDF link next to each individual category.

Under five category [PDF]
Anywhere Farm by Phyllis Root and G. Brian Karas
Big Cat, Little Cat by Elisha Cooper
Creepy Pair of Underwear! by Aaron Reynolds and Peter Brown
Mine! by Jeff Mack
Noisy Night by Mac Barnett and Brian Biggs
Sam & Eva by Debbie Ridpath Ohi
Snow Scene by Richard Jackson and Laura Vaccaro Seeger
Winter Dance by Marion Dane Bauer and Richard Jones

Five to nine category [PDF]
After the Fall: How Humpty Dumpty Got Back Up Again by Dan Santat
Alfie: The Turtle That Disappeared by Thyra Heder
Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas by Russell Hoban and Lillian Hoban
Good Night, Planet by Liniers
Pandora by Victoria Turnbull
Robinson by Peter Sís
Sleep Tight, Charlie by Michael Escoffier and Kris Di Giacomo
Spiders!: Strange and Wonderful by Laurence Pringle and Meryl Henderson

Nine to twelve category [PDF]
All's Faire in Middle School by Victoria Jamieson
A Properly Unhaunted Place by William Alexander and Kelly Murphy
If Sharks Disappeared by Lily Williams
Little Bits of Sky by S. E. Durrant and Katie Harnett
Me and Marvin Gardens by Amy Sarig King
Sputnik's Guide to Life on Earth by Frank Cottrell Boyce
The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine by Mark Twain, Philip C. Stead, and Erin E. Stead
The War I Finally Won by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Twelve to fourteen category [PDF]
Girl Rising: Changing the World One Girl at a Time by Tanya Lee Stone
Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus by Dusti Bowling
Saints and Misfits by S. K. Ali
Satellite by Nick Lake
The Book of Chocolate: The Amazing Story of the World's Favorite Candy by H. P. Newquist
The Exact Location of Home by Kate Messner
Thick as Thieves by Megan Whalen Turner and Maxime Plasse
Yvain: The Knight of the Lion by M. T. Anderson and Andrea Offermann

Fourteen and up category [PDF]
Between Two Skies by Joanne O'Sullivan
Eliza and Her Monsters by Francesca Zappia
Far From the Tree by Robin Benway
I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez
Midnight at the Electric by Jodi Lynn Anderson
Saint Death by Marcus Sedgwick
The Epic Crush of Genie Lo by F. C. Yee
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

A print copy of The Best Children's Books of the Year, 2018 Edition ($10, plus $3 shipping) can be purchased by emailing bookcom@bankstreet.edu.

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You Can Now Rent the Montgomery, Alabama Home of Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald Through Airbnb
Chris Pruitt, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

The former apartment of Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, perhaps the most famous couple of the Jazz Age, is now available to rent on a nightly basis through Airbnb, The Chicago Tribune reports. While visitors are discouraged from throwing parties in the spirit of Jay Gatsby, they are invited to write, drink, and live there as the authors did.

The early 20th-century house in Montgomery, Alabama was home to the pair from 1931 to 1932. It's where Zelda worked on her only novel Save Me the Waltz and F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote part of Tender Is the Night. The building was also the last home they shared with their daughter Scottie before she moved to boarding school.

In the 1980s, the house was rescued from a planned demolition and turned into a nonprofit. Today, the site is a museum and a spot on the Southern Literary Trail. While the first floor of the Fitzgerald museum, which features first-edition books, letters, original paintings, and other artifacts related to the couple, isn't available to rent, the two-bedroom apartment above it goes for $150 a night. Guests staying there will find a record player and a collection of jazz albums, pillows embroidered with Zelda Fitzgerald quotes, and a balcony with views of the property's magnolia tree. Of the four surviving homes Zelda and F. Scott lived in while traveling the world, this is the only one that's accessible to the public.

Though the Fitzgerald home is the only site on the Southern Literary Trail available to rent through Airbnb, it's just one of the trail's many historic homes. The former residences of Flannery O'Connor, Caroline Miller, and Lillian Smith are all open to the public as museums.

[h/t The Chicago Tribune]

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