In the middle of 1849, during a summer of torrid heat in Salem, Massachusetts, the contending forces in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s life were drawing into battle formation, as for a civil war ling in preparation. His mother lay dying in a guest chamber of his “narrow house.” He had just lost the job in the customhouse that had been arranged for him by friends in politics. In the politically motivated hearings that terminated his appointment he had been slandered and deceived by pious hypocrites among the Whig opposition.
The financial problems that had marred his courtship and harassed the first seven years of his belated marriage still plagued him, and were proving all the more malignant for having been postponed. Add to the practical pressures the fact that he was a man of New England conscience to whom failure was a matter of shame.
For four years his literary production had been small. No less a critic than Edgar Allan Poe had scolded him for his addiction to allegory, and he himself had said of the stories that made up the bulk of his previous work, “they blossomed in too retired a shade.” As shade-scattering as the intellectual contacts of recent years had been, his friendship with Boston transcendentalists had rubbed him raw between the decaying claims of Puritanism and the rude potency of the Emersonian optimism.
He was forty=five years old now, and the fame that he had wished for since his college days still flirted just beyond his grasp. It would come too late to offer an appeasement for the knotted emotions that had estranged him from the silent woman dying in the guest room. On one hot evening of that summer he recalled, ” I love my mother; but there has been, ever since boyhood, a sort of coldness of intercourse between us, such as is apt to come between persons of strong feelings if they are not managed rightly.”
When Hawthorne looked back at his mother, ” he seemed to see the whole of human existence at once, standing in the dusty midst of it.”
This was the summer and these were the furious circumstances in which he began to write The Scarlet Letter. In a house full of women that included his two sisters as well as his mother, wife, and daughter, he was trying not only to resume and extend his career as a writer but, by a reckless vault of imagination, to reconcile all that was terrible and enchanting in the enigma of a woman’s life. While his wife tended the dying woman, he had to work much of the time with his study door open to keep an eye of the children in the yard. Of his daughter Una he noted, “There is something that almost frightens me about that child- I know not whether elfish or angelic, but at all events, supernatural… a spirit strangely mingled with good and evil, haunting this house where I dwell.”
In that summer the task that loomed was simply to seize fear in his bare hands and, while it burned him, to shape of it a novel without precedent in American letters, a unique and brilliant point of light in the constellation of world literature.