He Saved The Scarlet Letter
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Written by James T. Fields

Demi Moore as Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter © copyright 1995 - Cinergi Pictures Entertainment, Inc.LITERARY LIONS

Stephen King, legend says, was living in a trailer when he threw away his manuscript to the horror novel Carrie. His wife pulled it from the trashbin, and the rest is history. Likewise, Nathaniel Hawthorne was in the dumps when Portsmouth-born publisher James T. Fields rescued his mansucript to The Scarlet Letter. Here’s the story in Fields’ own words.


Nathaniel Hawthorne was hiding his best work

READ:  Hawthorne on the Isles of Shoals

Portsmouth-born writer James T. Fields, met Nathaniel Hawthorne soon after his 35th birthday just after the publication of Twice Told Tales. Now considered a masterpiece of American literature, Hawthorne’s book did not originally sell well. Shy, handsome and insecure about his work, Hawthorne needed to be encouraged to keep writing. Fields, a successful publisher, lavished praise on Hawthorne who, for a time, was working as a clerk at the counting house in Salem. When Hawthorne lost that job, Fields saw it as opportunity to push the author to greater works. But Hawthorne was depressed and uncertain.

James T. Fields picks up the story from here:

In the winter of 1849, after he had been ejected from the custom-house, I went down to Salem to see him and inquire after his health, for we heard he had been suffering from illness. He was then living in a modest wooden house in Mall Street, if I remember rightly the location. I found him alone in a chamber over the sitting-room of the dwelling; and as the day was cold, he was hovering near a stove.

We fell into talk about his future prospects, and he was, as I feared I should find him, in a very desponding mood. "Now," said I, "is the time for you to publish, for I know during these years in Salem you must have got something ready for the press."

"Nonsense," said he; "what heart had I to write anything, when my publishers (M. and Company) have been so many years trying to sell a small edition of the 'Twice-Told Tales'?"

I still pressed upon him the good chances he would have now with something new.

"Who would risk publishing a book for me, the most unpopular writer in America?"

"I would," said I, "and would start with an edition of two thousand copies of anything you write."

"What madness!" he exclaimed; "your friendship for me gets the better of your judgment. No, no," he continued; "I have no money to indemnify a publisher's losses on my account."

Scarlet Letter on SeacoastNH.com from ClipArt.comI looked at my watch and found that the train would soon be starting for Boston, and I knew there was not much time to lose in trying to discover what had been his literary work during these last few years in Salem. I remember that I pressed him to reveal to me what he had been writing. He shook his head and gave me to understand he had produced nothing. At that moment I caught sight of a bureau or set of drawers near where we were sitting; and immediately it occurred to me that hidden away somewhere in that article of furniture was a story or stories by the author of the "Twice-Told Tales," and I became so positive of it that I charged him vehemently with the fact. He seemed surprised, I thought, but shook his head again; and I rose to take my leave, begging him not to come into the cold entry, saying I would come back and see him again in a few days.

I was hurrying down the stairs when he called after me from the chamber, asking me to stop a moment. Then quickly stepping into the entry with a roll of manuscript in his hands, he said: "How in Heaven's name did you know this thing was there? As you have found me out, take what I have written, and tell me, after you get home and have time to read it, if it is good for anything. It is either very good or very bad,—I don't know which."

On my way up to Boston I read the germ of "The Scarlet Letter"; before I slept that night I wrote him a note all aglow with admiration of the marvellous story he had put into my hands, and told him that I would come again to Salem the next day and arrange for its publication. I went on in such an amazing state of excitement when we met again in the little house, that he would not believe I was really in earnest. He seemed to think I was beside myself, and laughed sadly at my enthusiasm. However, we soon arranged for his appearance again before the public with a book.

This quarto volume before me contains numerous letters, written by him from 1850 down to the month of his death. The first one refers to "The Scarlet Letter," and is dated in January, 1850. At my suggestion he had altered the plan of that story. It was his intention to make "The Scarlet Letter" one of several short stories, all to be included in one volume, and to be called:

Together With Sketches,

His first design was to make "The Scarlet Letter" occupy about two hundred pages in his new book; but I persuaded him, after reading the first chapters of the story, to elaborate it, and publish it as a separate work. After it was settled that "The Scarlet Letter" should be enlarged and printed by itself in a volume he wrote to me:—

"I am truly glad that you like the Introduction, for I was rather afraid that it might appear absurd and impertinent to be talking about myself, when nobody, that I know of, has requested any information on that subject.

"As regards the size of the book, I have been thinking a good deal about it. … "In the present case, however, I have some doubts of the expediency, because, if the book is made up entirely of 'The Scarlet Letter,' it will be too sombre. I found it impossible to relieve the shadows of the story with so much light as I would gladly have thrown in. Keeping so close to its point as the tale does, and no otherwise than by turning different sides of the same to the reader's eye, it will weary very many people and disgust some. Is it safe, then, to stake the fate of the book entirely on this one chance? A hunter loads his gun with a bullet and several buckshot; and, following his sagacious example, it was my purpose to conjoin the one long story with half a dozen shorter ones, so that, failing to kill the public outright with my biggest and heaviest lump of lead, I might have other chances with the smaller bits, individually and in the aggregate. However, I am willing to leave these considerations to your judgment, and should not be sorry to have you decide for the separate publication.


James T. Fields published The Scarlet Letter the following year in 1850. Perhaps many high school students wish he had not. This gothic novel of sin and love set in 17th century puritan New England, went on to become one of the best know works of American Literature. Hawthorne gained the fame that had eluded him. Since then, untold thousands of students have written essays about Hester Prynne and her illegitimate child fathered by the town’s minister. Hawthorne broke convention by writing about adultery in what was the first mass-produced American best seller. The first edition of 2,500 copies sold out immediately and Fields and Hawthorne both profited. The next year Hawthorne wrote his equally famous House of Seven Gables before summering at the Isles of Shoals. He died just four years later in 1854. Fields died in 1881. – JDR

SOURCE: Selection from Hawthorne by James T. Fields, Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1871 and Yesterdays with Authors by James T. Fields, 1879.