While thus perplexed,--and cogitating, among other hypotheses, whether the letter might not have been one of those decorations which the white men used to contrive, in order to take the eyes of the Indians,--I happened to place it on my breast. It seemed to me,--the reader may smile, but must not doubt my word,--it seemed to me, then, that I experienced a sensation not altogether physical, yet almost so, as of burning heat; and as if the letter were not of red cloth, but red-hot iron. I shuddered, and involuntarily let it fall upon the floor.
Who's speaking? It's in the first person, and it's autobiographical, but it's not exactly Hawthorne himself (at least not the "inmost Me" who remains "behind the veil," as he puts it early in the essay). Instead, it's the speaker formerly known as the "Loco-foco Surveyor," the "I" who refers to "The Custom-House" and The Scarlet Letter as "POSTHUMOUS PAPERS OF A DECAPITATED SURVEYOR." It's a ghostly voice speaking "from the realm of quiet" as a "citizen of somewhere else."
What adds another level of complexity to the question is the fact that the highly dramatic "discovery" of the scarlet letter and Surveyor Pue's six-page document outlining the "life and conversation of one Hester Prynne" (which this passage transitions between), not to mention the remains of the letter and the document themselves, are inventions on Hawthorne's part. The reader, it seems, is bound to do more than smile or doubt the speaker's word, but also to smile at and doubt the speaker himself, in some sense. The speaker's later claim that "the main facts of the story [of The Scarlet Letter] are authorized and authenticated by the document of Mr. Surveyor Pue" is highly ironic (and funny), as Hawthorne was in fact founding his romance on an imaginary source "discovered" by a fictionalized version of himself.
What's He Talking About? While trying to solve the "riddle" of a "certain" "much worn and faded" "affair of fine red cloth" with "greatly frayed and faded" "traces of gold embroidery" upon it--"how it was to be worn, or what rank, honor, and dignity, in by-past times, were signified by it"--or otherwise arrive at the "deep meaning, most worthy of interpretation," of "the mystic symbol" that was "subtly communicating itself to my sensibilities, but evading the analysis of my mind," the speaker tries it on. In a highly qualified passage--"it seemed to me, then, that I experienced a sensation not altogether physical, yet almost so, as of burning heat; and as if the letter were not of red cloth, but red-hot iron"--the speaker implies that he almost felt as if he were being branded by the letter. So he "involuntarily" drops the letter and turns his attention to the document--and never refers to the letter itself in the rest of "The Custom-House."
So What Is Going On Here? This is going to have to be very telegraphed, but I see this passage as encapsulating what makes Hawthorne so interesting (at least to me). The explicit reference to Indians and implicit reference to the branding of slaves in the midst of an entirely fictional explanation of "how a large part of the following pages came into my possession" that "offers proofs of the authenticity of the narrative therein contained" (lines that never fail to remind me of white abolitionists' editorial or authenticating prefaces to slave narratives), one preceded by an admitted failure to imagine a time "when India was a new region, and only Salem knew the way thither," narrated by this fictionalized and ghostly autobiographical persona hits all my formalist, intertextualist, historicist, and comparativist buttons at the same time. And don't get me started on what other Hawthornists have done with this passage! Is Hawthorne identifying with Hester? Seared by her sin? Admitting he can't take the heat she withstands? Allegorizing his relationship with antebellum feminism? Appropriating the experience of (especially female) slaves? The possibilities, if not endless in themselves, are endlessly debate-able.
Work calls, so maybe I'd better pick up this stream of consciousness on Intertextual Thursday by linking the "scarlet letter as social death" argument I made in my dissertation with my yet-to-be-finished manuscript's treatment of Morrison's rearticulation of The Scarlet Letter in Beloved. That way if travel prevents me from doing CitizenSE's Latest Crazy Hawthorne Idea on Saturday (going back to Chiba, Chiba, Chiba....), at least I'll have laid the groundwork for the following Saturday's entry.