'Threads' in the 'Scarlet Letter' reveal anonymous author's presence

December 15, 2003

University Park, Pa. — Little did a Penn State literary detective tracing sources for Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter" dream of discovering an anonymous novelist's significance for the renowned work, or the rigors it would take to unearth that novelist's identity.

Reading a single issue of a short-lived magazine from the 1840s, this detective followed a trail of clues that also led to the recognition of parallels too close to be coincidental between Hawthorne's fiction and a famous tale by Edgar Allan Poe and a once-celebrated work by poet James Russell Lowell.

In "The Threads of The Scarlet Letter: A Study of Hawthorne's Transformative Art" (University of Delaware Press, 2003), Richard Kopley, associate professor of English at the Penn State DuBois campus, details years of research on the genesis of key scenes and subtexts of "The Scarlet Letter."

"In writing parts of 'The Scarlet Letter,' Hawthorne transformed elements from Poe's 'The Tell-Tale Heart'; Lowell's long-neglected poem, 'A Legend of Brittany'; and the anonymous novel, 'The Salem Belle,' a work about the Salem witchcraft trials that is practically unknown today, but that was popular in its time," said Kopley. "My argument is that Hawthorne adapted these sources for aesthetic reasons, deftly transforming contemporary works for his masterpiece."

It was a review in the inaugural issue of "The Pioneer," a literary magazine edited by Lowell, of an anonymous 1842 novel, "The Salem Belle: A Tale of 1692," that catalyzed Kopley's most unexpected revelation. The Penn State researcher knew from a January 1843 letter from Hawthorne's wife that the author had already received the issue, some seven years before he published "The Scarlet Letter." Aware that Hawthorne was a voracious reader of works by his contemporaries, and curious to see if an earlier novel set in Salem, Hawthorne's native town, might have somehow contributed to Hawthorne's first novel, Kopley was spurred to track down the obscure "The Salem Belle."

"It turns out that three passages from 'The Salem Belle' were transformed for 'The Scarlet Letter,'" Kopley says. "Although Hawthorne lessened the emphasis on witchcraft in 'The Scarlet Letter' as compared to the emphasis in the earlier novel, he preserved 'The Salem Belle''s concern with persecution, guilt and atonement."

Reading "The Salem Belle," which was published by Hawthorne's own publisher, Tappan and Dennet, was just a first step for Kopley. By obtaining copies of markings in first editions of the book, Kopley was able at last to bring the true author of "The Salem Belle" -- someone unsuspected by other authorities -- to light.

The previous owner of one copy of the first edition of "The Salem Belle," held in Indiana University's Lilly Library, had written her own name and offered an attribution to a Mr. Wheelwright on the book's title page. A search through correspondence to and from members of the book owner's family, conducted at Columbia University's Rare Book and Manuscript Library, eventually rewarded Kopley with a tantalizing reference to Mr. Wheelwright and his wife, who had apparently lived on Dover Street in Boston. Examination of the Boston directory for 1841 revealed that only one of the 12 Wheelwrights listed lived on Dover Street: an Ebenezer Wheelwright who, in the next year, moved to the Temple Place, the same address as that of one of the publishers of "The Salem Belle."

"Wheelwright was born in Newburyport, Mass., in 1800 and never attained the great success of his entrepreneurial brother, William," says Kopley. "Before 'The Salem Belle' was published, in 1842, Wheelwright, a West Indies merchant, declared bankruptcy. Perhaps this is why he did not identify himself as the book's author."

In "The Salem Belle," a spurned suitor accuses a woman of witchcraft, but she is rescued in the end. According to Kopley, three passages in the final third of "The Salem Belle" anticipate passages in the final third of "The Scarlet Letter." Both books feature a forest scene in which one character tries to bolster another and recommends escape; both describe an escape ship in a nearby harbor; and both include a confession at the scaffold -- by the false accuser in "The Salem Belle" and by Hester Prynne's minister lover, Arthur Dimmesdale, in "The Scarlet Letter."

"No other work that we know that Hawthorne would have been likely to read prior to writing 'The Scarlet Letter' offers the equivalent of these three passages," Kopley says. "Although 'The Salem Belle' and 'The Scarlet Letter' are clearly two very different works, the parallels warrant inferring Hawthorne's transformative borrowing.

"What's more, Ebenezer Wheelwright's most famous ancestor was a leader in the Antinomian Controversy, an event in Puritan times that serves as a critical leitmotif in Hawthorne's book," Kopley adds. "Since Hawthorne would have been aware that Ebenezer Wheelwright wrote 'The Salem Belle' -- through their common publisher, and perhaps through other sources, as well -- he was able to suggest covertly that renowned ancestor, John Wheelwright. Twice in 'The Scarlet Letter,' Hawthorne mentions Anne Hutchinson, John Wheelwright's more famous Antinomian ally. Wheelwright and Hutchinson disobeyed the authorities and were expelled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. We may infer here that Hawthorne used the historical tale to suggest a Biblical tale that he treated frequently: the disobedience and expulsion of Adam and Eve. Both overtly and covertly, 'The Scarlet Letter' is a tale of the Fall."

Years after the publication of "The Salem Belle," Ebenezer Wheelwright acknowledged that he was the author of several anonymously-published works, but named only one of them, 1864's "Traditions of Palestine," which Kopley found resembles "The Salem Belle" in theme, plot and language.

Meanwhile, the same issue of The Pioneer in which "The Salem Belle" was reviewed also featured the first appearance of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart." From his teaching of early American literature to Penn State DuBois classes, Kopley had already noticed a resonance between passages in "The Tell-Tale Heart" and "The Scarlet Letter" in scenes featuring one character creeping up on another (sleeping) character. In "The Tell-Tale Heart," it is the murderous narrator obsessing over his soon-to-be victim, while in "The Scarlet Letter," it is a vengeful Roger Chillingworth looking beneath Dimmesdale's shirt to discover what readers later learn was an "A" on the minister's breast.

Furthermore, since The Pioneer 's editor, Lowell, was a friend of Hawthorne's, Kopley examined Lowell's works from before the publication of "The Scarlet Letter." A review by Poe had already called attention to Lowell's "A Legend of Brittany." Kopley's side-by-side comparison of Lowell's 1844 narrative poem and "The Scarlet Letter" revealed an echo in scenes concerning otherworldly sounds in church settings. In "Brittany," extraordinary organ music helps reveal a pregnant woman's murder by a man of religious station who thereupon dies with an amaranth flower on his breast. In "The Scarlet Letter," Dimmesdale's "vocal organ" takes on peculiar qualities in what is called the Election Sermon passage, just before the tortured minister confesses his adultery with Hester, reveals the scarlet letter on his own breast, and dies.

In addition to teaching at Penn State DuBois, Kopley is head of the Division of English for Penn State's 12-campus Commonwealth College system of undergraduate sites. He also is president of the Poe Studies Association and co-editor of the journal, Resources for American Literary Study.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated March 19, 2009