Scholarly sleuthing reveals little-known source for Hawthorne's 'Scarlet Letter'

DUBOIS, Pa. — "The Scarlet Letter," by Nathaniel Hawthorne, has been a staple in literary studies and English courses for generations. Now, thanks to the work of Penn State DuBois Distinguished Professor of English Emeritus Richard Kopley and his discovery in Pattee Library's News and Microforms Library, more is known about how this novel came to exist.

Kopley has edited and re-released "The Salem Belle: A Tale of 1692" (Penn State Press), a novel first published, anonymously, in 1842. The unidentified author was Ebenezer Wheelwright. Kopley considers the book as a major source for the 1850 novel "The Scarlet Letter." However, Wheelwright’s book had fallen into obscurity and was nearly lost to history. Kopley’s research shows that Hawthorne drew inspiration for his classic from this previously little-known work. The new edition includes an introduction and notes by Kopley, which detail his research into the two novels and their connection.

“Reading 'The Salem Belle' enables us to think through Hawthorne’s reading experience and allows us to work out why Hawthorne came to use this volume as an inspiration for the composition of his greatest work,” Kopley said.

Studying the creation of a classic is known as genetic scholarship, Kopley explained. Such work illuminates a work’s composition, a process that would otherwise be less well understood. “To see the process that Hawthorne used to create a masterwork in a way that you could not see it before is incredibly satisfying,” Kopley added.

All that Kopley had to go on at first was a brief review of "The Salem Belle," which, he explained, launched a fascinating journey to learn more. “I first read of 'The Salem Belle' when I was reading James Russell Lowell’s monthly magazine, The Pioneer, which ran for three issues: January, February and March 1843,” Kopley recalled.

“I was familiar with The Pioneer since Edgar Allan Poe’s 'The Tell-Tale Heart' first appeared there in January 1843. I’d shown that this story was a source for 'The Scarlet Letter,' and I knew that Lowell was a friend of Hawthorne’s. So I decided to read the entirety of The Pioneer.

"In that first issue (which Sophia Hawthorne, in a letter, mentioned receiving) is a two-paragraph review of 'The Salem Belle.' What caught my attention was the end of the second paragraph: ‘The heroine’ is ‘carried off to Virginia, on the day previous to that appointed for her death on the scaffold.’ 'The Scarlet Letter' ends with a death on the scaffold. I decided to read 'The Salem Belle.' I read it in microform at Pattee Library [at University Park] and that is when I discovered three parallel passages.”

From here, Kopley set out to identify the author of the book, relying on markings in first editions. The librarian at the Lilly Library noted that the Lilly copy was attributed to a man named Wheelwright. Consulting the papers of the family of the woman who wrote the attribution, Jane Ann Reed — and Boston directories of the time — Kopley discovered that the name of the author was Ebenezer Wheelwright, and that Wheelwright's publisher, Tappan & Dennett, was also Hawthorne’s.

In all likelihood, Kopley suggests, Tappan & Dennett provided a copy of this book about Salem witchcraft by one of their authors to another of their authors, the Salem writer who was so interested in witchcraft, Hawthorne.

The result of Kopley’s research has been to put back into print an important work that was all but lost to history. Additionally, his close analysis of that work has clearly laid out the significant impact it had on American literature, thus recovering a vital piece of literary history.

“It was my interest to get the book published again,” said Kopley, “because of its importance as a source for one of the great books of American literature.”

"The Salem Belle, A Tale of 1692," is available through Penn State Press at http://www.psupress.org/.

Kopley will appear for a book signing event beginning at 4 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 21, at Webster's Bookstore Café on East Beaver Avenue in State College.

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Last Updated August 25, 2016