So why did Hawthorne return to Salem? Let's skip to his most direct (and deceptive) answer:
On emerging from the Old Manse, it was chiefly [a] strange, indolent, unjoyous attachment for my native town, that brought me to fill a place in Uncle Sam's brick edifice, when I might as well, or better, have gone somewhere else. My doom was upon me. It was not the first time, nor the second, that I had gone away,--as it seemed, permanently,--but yet returned, like the bad half-penny; or as if Salem were for me the inevitable centre of the universe.
In fact, throughout "The Custom-House," Hawthorne resorts to multiple metaphors when trying to convey his feelings upon returning to Salem, after having lived in Concord from 1842 to 1846, to take up his new post, an appointment by President James Polk as "chief executive officer" of the Salem Custom-House. In part, these metaphors serve to minimize and obscure his connections with the Democratic Party. But only in part. As many Hawthorne critics have pointed out, they introduce themes and problematics that structure The Scarlet Letter and connect Hawthorne to his main characters. Putting that topic aside for the moment, let's examine Hawthorne's acknowledgement that Salem "possesses, or did possess, a hold on my affections, the force of which I have never realized during my seasons of actual residence here.... [T]hough invariably happiest elsewhere, there is within me a feeling for old Salem, which, in lack of a better phrase, I must be content to call affection." And while noting in passing his association of happiness and "elsewhere," and his highly qualified statement of affection for "old Salem," which together foreshadow his closing "citizen of somewhere else" declaration, let's focus instead on his discontent with "affection" to describe Salem's forceful hold on his feelings. Why does he keep returning to metaphors of "instinct," "curse," "spell," "destiny," and "doom" when discussing Salem? Because his feelings are complex, despite his efforts to look objectively at Salem or think rationally about it.
There are many such "objective" descriptions scattered throughout "The Custom-House," but as realistic as they are, they are saturated with Hawthorne's emotions. In his first sentence mentioning Salem, for instance, even though he is trying to get to a description of the Salem Custom-House itself, he sounds practically Faulknerian:
In my native town of Salem, at the head of what, half a century ago, in the days of old King Derby, was a bustling wharf,--but which is now burdened with decayed wooden warehouses, and exhibits few or no symptoms of commercial life; except, perhaps, a bark or brig half-way down in melancholy length, discharging hides; or, nearer at hand, a Nova Scotia schooner, pitching out her cargo of firewood,--at the head, I say, of this dilapidated wharf, which the tide often overflows, and along which, at the base and in the rear of a row of buildings, the track of many languid years is seen in a border of unthrifty grass,--here, with a view from its front windows adown this not very enlivening prospect, and thence across the harbour, stands a spacious edifice of brick.
Note in particular the extended contrast between past and present and the way the description seems to perpetuate itself, seemingly against the author's wishes, with its multiple dashes, dependent clauses, and editorializing adjectives. The next extended description of Salem continues these rhetorical practices and draws the logical conclusion:
Indeed, so far as its physical aspect is concerned, with its flat, unvaried surface, covered chiefly with wooden houses, few or none of which pretend to architectural beauty,--its irregularity, which is neither picturesque nor quaint, but only tame,--its long and lazy street, lounging wearisomely through the whole extent of the peninsula, with Gallows Hill and New Guinea at one end, and a view of the alms-house at the other,--such being the features of my native town, it would be quite as reasonable to form a sentimental attachment to a disarranged checkerboard.
Yet the attachment persists, and its strength is such that Hawthorne's declaration of independence again returns to "objective" description of Salem, this time embedded in an exended metaphor, in order to achieve the separation he desires:
Soon, likewise, my old native town will loom upon me through the haze of memory, a mist brooding over and around it; as if it were no portion of the real earth, but an overgrown village in cloud-land, with only imaginary inhabitants to people its wooden houses, and walk its homely lanes, and the unpicturesque prolixity of its main street. Henceforth, it ceases to be a reality in my life. I am a citizen of somewhere else.
I've already discussed this passage in the context of Hawthorne's ideas about romance and the imagination, but my point here is that Hawthorne's "objective" descriptions in "The Custom-House" read like an attempt to exorcise a haunting connection to Salem.
In trying to explain this connection, Hawthorne turns to a language of soil and roots, death and inheritance, but only to identify its limitations:
It is now nearly two centuries and a quarter since the original Briton, the earliest emigrant of my name, made his appearance in the wild and forest-bordered settlement, which has since become a city. And here his descendants have been born and died, and have mingled their earthy substance with the soil; until no small portion of it must be necessarily akin to the mortal frame wherewith, for a little while, I walk the streets. In part, therefore, the attachment which I speak of is the mere sensuous sympathy of dust for dust. Few of my countrymen can know what it is; nor, as frequent transplantation is perhaps better for the stock, need they consider it desirable to know.
Even though he dismisses the "mere sensuous sympathy of dust for dust" here, he returns to it a few paragraphs later, only to end on a more emphatic conclusion in favor of "transplantation":
This long connection of a family with one spot, as its place of birth and burial, creates a kindred between the human being and the locality, quite independent of any charm in the scenery or moral circumstances that surround him. It is not love, but instinct. The new inhabitant--who came from a foreign land, or whose father or grandfather came--has little claim to be called a Salemite; he has no conception of the oyster-like tenacity with which an old settler, over whom his third century is creeping, clings to the spot where his successive generations have been imbedded. It is no matter that the place is joyless for him; that he is weary of the old wooden houses, the mud and dust, the dead level of site and sentiment, the chill east wind, and the chillest of social atmospheres;--all these, and whatever faults besides he may see or imagine, are nothing to the purpose. The spell survives, and just as powerfully as if the natal spot were an earthly paradise. So it has been in my case. I felt it almost as a destiny to make Salem my home; so that the mould of features and cast of character which had all along been familiar here--ever, as one representative of the race lay down in his grave, another assuming, as it were, his sentry-march along the Main-Street--might still in his day be seen and recognized in the old twn. Nevertheless, this very sentiment is an evidence that the connection, which has become an unhealthy one, should at last be severed. Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil. My children have had other birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed soil.
Hawthorne's invocation of racialized discourses--of soil, roots, planting, replanting, and transplanting; of family and inheritance; of the features and character of one's "natal spot" that create an instinctive "kindred between the human being and the locality"; of spell, destiny, and doom--helps provide a context for his dismissal of those who can trace their ancestry back a mere three generations at most as having "little claim to be called a Salemite," as well as his earlier overview of Salem geography "with Gallows Hill and New Guinea at one end, and a view of the alms-house at the other," for New Guinea was a neighborhood where immigrants and free blacks lived. But Gallows Hill and the alms-house suggest that Hawthorne saw inheritance in more than physical terms. Indeed, he links Gallows Hill with his ancestors and the alms-house with the Custom-House, with his distant and recent past.
Let's look first at the ways in which Hawthorne describes how the distant past--his family history--connects him to Salem through strong and complex feelings:
But the sentiment has likewise its moral quality. The figure of that first ancestor, invested by family tradition with a dim and dusky grandeur, was present to my boyish imagination, as far back as I can remember. It still haunts me, and induces a home-feeling with the past, which I scarcely claim in reference to the present phase of the town. I seem to have a stronger claim to a residence here on account of this grave, bearded, sable-cloaked, and steeple-crowned progenitor,--who came so early, with his Bible and his sword, and trod the unworn street with such a stately port, and made so large a figure, as a man of war and peace,--a stronger claim than for myself, whose name is seldom heard and my face hardly known.
Here, the haunting "figure of that first ancestor" provides Hawthorne with a "stronger claim to residence" in Salem than his own efforts and "induces a home-feeling with the past, which I scarcely claim in reference to the present phase of the town." Yet the "moral quality" produced by his knowledge of ancestry and "family tradition" is ambivalent at best:
He was a soldier, legislator, judge; he was a ruler in the Chuch; he had all the Puritanic traits, both good and evil. He was a likewise a bitter persecutor; as witness the Quakers, who have remembered him in their histories, and relate an incident of his hard severity towards a woman of their sect which will last longer, it is to be feared, than any record of his better deeds, although these were many. His son, too, inherited the persecuting spirit, and made himself so conspicuous in the martyrdom of the witches, that their blood may fairly be said to have left a stain upon him. So deep a stain, indeed, that his old dry bones, in the Charter Street burial ground, must still retain it, if they have not crumbled utterly to dust! I know not whether these ancestors of mine bethought themselves to repent, and ask pardon of Heaven for their cruelties; or whether they are now groaning under the heavy consequences of them, in another state of being. At all events, I, the present writer, as their representative, hereby take shame upon myself for their sakes, and pray that any curse incurred by them--as I have heard, and as the dreary and unprosperous condition of the race, for many a long year back, would argue to exist--may be now and henceforth removed.
Doubtless, however, either of these stern and black-browed Puritans would have thought it quite a sufficient retribution for his sins, that, after so long a lapse of years, the old trunk of the family tree, with so much venerable moss upon it, should have borne as its topmost bough, an idler like myself. No aim, that I have ever cherished, would they recognize as laudable; no success of mine--if my life, beyond its domestic scope, had ever been brightened by success--would they deem otherwise than worthless, if not positively disgraceful. "What is he?" murmurs one gray shadow of my forefathers to the other. "A writer of story-books! What kind of business in life,--what mode of glorifying God, or being serviceable to mankind in his day and generation,--may that be? Why, the degenerate fellow might as well have been a fiddler!" Such are the compliments between my great-grandsires and myself, across the gulf of time! And yet, let them scorn me as they will, strong traits of their nature have intertwined themselves with mine.
Here, Hawthorne suggests simultaneously how tenuous his connection to Salem is--if his distant ancestors provide his strongest claim to citizenship and residence in Salem, he is in danger of beng disinherited by them as a worthless, disgraceful, degenerate idler--and how strongly he identifies with the republic of letters. To the extent that he has inherited their "spirit" and "traits," it is to condemn them for their "cruelties" and take shame upon himself for their "sins" against Quakers and the martyred victims of the Salem witch trials; despite their "scorn" for his most "cherished" aims, the entire purpose of "The Custom-House" is to explain his return to literary life, to vindicate the "writer of story-books" as fulfilling a serious and valued "business in life."
Of course, this return to literary life is a resurrection from political death and job-induced lethargy. But Hawthorne's repeated invocations of a kind of "culture of poverty" argument to describe the enervating effects of appointment to a political office--such as in his initial description of his Custom-House co-workers as being characterized by "that lack of energy that distinguishes the occupants of alms-houses, and all other beings who depend for subsistence on charity, on monopolized labor, or any thing else but their own independent exertions"--are framed by two key metaphors. Consider Uncle Sam:
An effect--which I believe to be observable, more or less, in every individual who has occupied the position--is, that, while he leans on the mighty arm of the Republic, his own proper strength departs from him. He loses, in an extent proportioned to the weakness of force of his original nature, the capability of self-support.... He usually keeps his ground just long enough for his own ruin, and is then thrust out, with sinews all unstrung, to totter along the difficult footpath of life as he may.... His pervading and continual hope--a hallucination, which, in the face of all discouragement, and making light of impossibilities, haunts him while he lives and, I fancy, like the convulsive throes of the cholera, torments him for a brief space after death--is, that, finally, and in no long time, he shall be restored to office.... Why should he toil and moil, and be at so much trouble to pick himself up out of the mud, when, in a little while hence, the strong arm of his Uncle will raise and support him? Why should he work for his living here, or go to dig gold in California, when he is so soon to be made happy, at monthly intervals, with a little pile of glittering coin out of his Uncle's pocket? It is sadly curious to observe how slight a taste of office suffices to infect a poor fellow with this singular disease. Uncle Sam's gold--meaning no disrespect to the worthy old gentleman--has, in this respect, a quality of enchantment like the devil's wages. Whoever touches it should look well to himself, or he may find the bargain to go hard against him, involving, if not his soul, yet many of its better attributes; its sturdy force, its courage and constancy, its truth, its self-reliance, and all that gives the emphasis to manly character.
"Neither the front nor the back entrance of the Custom-House opens on the road to Paradise," indeed. Instead, Uncle Sam's gold is the carrier of a cholera-like disease that can bring irreparable damage to body, character, and perhaps soul. In part this rhetoric is a parody of "repentance of the evil and corrupt practices, into which, as a matter of course, every Custom-House officer must be supposed to fall"--and of which Hawthorne himself was accused by those seeking to unseat him--and part of the series of puns on the word "custom" that run throughout the essay. Indeed, Hawthorne references "the received code" that it was his duty upon appointment to bring all his Whig subordinates to the "axe of the guillotine" and the "established rule" even they recognized to be replaced by "younger men, more orthodox in politics, and altogether fitter than themselves to serve our common Uncle," so as to emphasize his kindness in not firing all of them, whatever "discredit" and "detriment to [his] official conscience" this decision was supposed to bring. However, even more important than distinguishing himself from the Whigs who guillotined him--thereby giving in to one of the "ugli[est] traits of human nature...to grow cruel, merely because they possessed the power of giving harm"--Hawthorne uses the figure of Uncle Sam to imply the value of the literary realm over the political, not just in the self-reliant way it enables him to regain his vigor and support his family, but in a moral sense, as well.
Consider the other federal metaphor Hawthorne uses in "The Custom-House," the "enormous specimen of the American eagle, with outspread wings, a shield before her breast, and, if I recollect aright, a bunch of intermingled thunderbolts and barbed arrows in each claw," that hovers over the entrance to the Custom-House:
With the customary infirmity of temperament that characterizes this unhappy fowl, she appears by the fierceness of her beak and eye and the general truculency of her attitude, to threaten mischief to the inoffensive community; and especially to warn all citizens, careful of their safety, against intruding on the premises which she overshadows with her wings. Nevertheless, vixenly as she looks, many people are seeking, at this very moment, to shelter themselves under the wing of the federal eagle, imagining, I presume, that her bosom has all the softness and snugness of an eider-down pillow. But she has no great tenderness, even in her best of moods, and, sooner or later,--oftener sooner than late,--is apt to fling off her nestlings with a scratch of her claw, a dab of her beak, or a rankling wound from her barbed arrows.
Lauren Berlant has done an excellent reading of this passage that I will discuss in a future post, for her book The Anatomy of National Fantasy has many important and provocative readings of Hawthorne's "citizen of somewhere else" line. But for now let me just emphasize that Hawthorne links Uncle Sam and the federal eagle with the worst traits of his ancestors in his distant past and political opponents in his recent past.
I'll close with one last quote to illustrate how the republic of letters emerges from the realms of politics, religion, and commerce in "The Custom-House"--this time a reflection on how the "Surveyor of the Revenue" is seen by Hawthorne's "fellow-officers, and the merchants and sea-captains with whom my official duties brought me into any manner of connection":
It is a good lesson--though it may often be a hard one--for a man who has dreamed of literary fame, and of making for himself a rank among the world's dignitaries by such means, to step aside out of the narrow circle in which his claims are recognized, and to find how utterly devoid of significance, beyond that circle, is all that he achieves, and all he aims at.
As both girls are crying and today is the day we're celebrating onechan's third birthday, I'll have to draw the conclusion of this post next week. But for now note how the language of claims and aims and fame echoes the language Hawthorne uses when discussing his ancestors and the ties that bind him to Salem--and which he breaks in "The Custom-House."