The Scarlet Letter

Publication history

It was long held that Hawthorne originally planned The Scarlet Letter to be a shorter novelette, part of a collection named Old Time Legends, and that his publisher, James T. Fields, convinced him to expand the work to a full-length novel.[9] This is not true: Fields persuaded Hawthorne to publish The Scarlet Letter alone (along with the earlier-completed "Custom House" essay) but he had nothing to do with the length of the story.[10] Hawthorne's wife Sophia later challenged Fields' claims a little inexactly: "he has made the absurd boast that he was the sole cause of the Scarlet Letter being published!" She noted that her husband's friend Edwin Percy Whipple, a critic, approached Fields to consider its publication.[11] The manuscript was written at the Peter Edgerley House in Salem, Massachusetts, still standing as a private residence at 14 Mall Street. It was the last Salem home where the Hawthorne family lived.[12]

The Scarlet Letter was first published in the spring of 1850 by Ticknor and Fields, beginning Hawthorne's most lucrative period.[2] When he delivered the final pages to Fields in February 1850, Hawthorne said that "some portions of the book are powerfully written" but doubted it would be popular.[13] In fact, the book was an instant best-seller, though, over fourteen years, it brought its author only $1,500.[2] Its initial publication brought wide protest from natives of Salem, who did not approve of how Hawthorne had depicted them in his introduction "The Custom-House". A 2,500-copy second edition included a preface by Hawthorne dated March 30, 1850, that stated he had decided to reprint his Introduction "without the change of a word... The only remarkable features of the sketch are its frank and genuine good-humor ... As to enmity, or ill-feeling of any kind, personal or political, he utterly disclaims such motives".[14]

The Scarlet Letter was also one of the first mass-produced books in America. In the mid-nineteenth century, bookbinders of home-grown literature typically hand-made their books and sold them in small quantities. The first mechanized printing of The Scarlet Letter, 2,500 volumes, sold out within ten days,[2] and was widely read and discussed to an extent not much experienced in the young country up until that time.

A signed first edition, first printing of Scarlet Letter from March 1850 published by Ticknor, Reed and Fields sells for $22,500. Unsigned, the retail price is $12,500.[15]


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