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If the Custom House gave Hawthorne the chance to find his subject matter, it also gave him a stiff case of Writer's block. Hawthorne couldn't write while he was still employed as Surveyor. There were too many distractions, too many petty details to attend to, to much jobbing and inefficiency about the place. The Custom House was no atmosphere for a Romantic writer. Hawthorne needed, as he recognized, a more ethereal ambiance of moonbeams and firelight.
Perhaps we may see "The Custom House" as a sign of departure in American literature. Hawthorne was working his way out of a realistic tradition. He was reaching-it was the subject of every one of his prefaces-for a special blend of the actual and the imaginary. The imaginary is what pulled Hawthorne away from sunlit contemporary scenes, where the details were too sharp and clear, toward ancient shadowy places: prisons, castles, primeval forests. (Poe had arrived there shortly before him.)
Hawthorne would later distinguish between the novel, a type of work closely tied to historical fact, and the romance, a slightly different genre that gave the creative writer more elbow room. He would position himself as a writer of romances and demand all the license that the term bestowed.
There is another sense in which we can see "The Custom House" as a break with tradition. When he wrote the essay, Hawthorne was being anti-Progressive, critical of commerce, skeptical about the American dream. His was not the usual optimistic note of American writers. Only fifty years before, for example, Benjamin Franklin had gloried in the financial opportunities offered by the New World. He had chosen for his subject what we now call upward mobility. Here in America- unheard of in Europe-was the chance for a son to rise above his father's station in life.
Franklin fairly oozed with confident assurance that people could better themselves through hard work and perseverance. "The early bird catches the worm." "A penny saved is a penny earned." Listen to Poor Richard, and you were practically guaranteed success in life.
Hawthorne was not of Franklin's mind. He was not an optimist. He distrusted easy guarantees. And he questioned the whole definition of success when it was presented to him in economic terms. For Hawthorne, commerce was not the upward climb to affluence. It was the path of descent from higher concerns.
We can see Hawthorne's slant in "The Custom House." His contemporary Salem fostered, not financial growth, but spiritual decay. Once New England's trade had smacked of adventure. But now the old sailors sat on the Custom House porch, warming their hides in the spring sun. Wards of the government, they had lost the vitality which characterizes men who live by their own efforts. They had sunk, in their dotage, into corruption and laziness.
Even the one efficient man in the outfit-shall we call him the Clerk or the Accountant? Hawthorne gives him no title-tended to confuse good bookkeeping with good morals. His integrity was really a matter of fastidiousness. A stain on his conscience would bother him in much the same way as an ink blot in his accounting book.
Compare these Custom House officials, if you will, with the Puritans in the opening chapters of The Scarlet Letter. These early inhabitants of Salem enjoy a robustness and vitality their descendants have lost.
Grim the characters may be and forbidding, severe even to cruelty in their treatment of Hester Prynne. But they keep their sights not on receipts of purchase, but on the eternal truths revealed to them by God.
The Puritans have belief, conviction, faith-choose whatever word you like to convey that inner force which makes a human being stand for something larger than himself. Perhaps you will say the Puritans have soul, if you mean by that an inviolate spirit.