The U.S. Custom House in Salem: Introduction

Exterior of the Salem Custom House, 2000Hawthorne’s description of the Custom House emphasizes the nearby dilapidated wharves and decayed wooden warehouses crumbling to ruin and his office “cobwebbed and dingy with old paint.” Hawthorne offers us an almost gothic Custom House, a fitting element in the introduction to a romance novel.

The Custom House is, in fact, an airy, handsome structure, flooded with light. This is characteristic of Federal period buildings. Hawthorne does recognize these qualities when he describes the building as “a spacious edifice of brick” and mentions the lofty height of the ceiling in his office. —Jan Arabas
The U.S. Custom House in Salem: Introduction (Hawthorne In Salem)

Hawthrone’s The Scarlet Letter begins with a description of this building, where in an upper room the narrator tells us he found the historical documents that formed the basis of the tale of Hester Prynne.

I never envisioned this structure as nearly this solid. Imposing and boxy, yes, but still charming.

Because I teach this novel early in the course, I tell my students to skip the Custom House introduction, and begin with the first chapter. The pace of The Scarlet Letter is so different from modern fare that I find the students have enough trouble adjusting to it. Asking them to identify and appreciate the self-mocking humor of the Customs House introduction, where the narrator enacts in words the idleness and uselessness of the “work” done by the customs house officials, is just a bit too much to do right away. (We go back and pick up the introduction after we’ve finished the novel.)