History of the Text

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The Scarlet Letter’s Reception and Publication History: Published in 1850, The Scarlet Letter was an instant best seller. Despite critical acclaim, religious leaders objected to the novel’s allegedly blatant depiction of immorality, while citizens of Salem disliked Nathaniel Hawthorne’s portrayal of their town in his introduction, “The Custom House.” Hawthorne, as described in his preface to The Scarlet Letter’s second edition, refused to change anything.

A Cornerstone of American Literature: The Scarlet Letter was one of the first mass-produced books in the United States and has been adapted into plays, films, and even a television miniseries. Hawthorne’s depiction of forbidden love inspired many artists after him to engage with the subjects of sin, desire, guilt, and religious hypocrisy in their works.

  • Nathaniel Hawthorne was fascinated by colonial New England, especially in the context of his own ancestral history. His great-great grandfather, John Hathorne, was one of the judges who presided over the infamous Salem witch trials from 1692 to 1693. The trials, which have become synonymous with mass hysteria and violation of due process, greatly influenced Hawthorne’s interest in the roles of Puritanism and religious hypocrisy in American culture. The Scarlet Letter is perhaps the best-known example of his exploration of these topics. Hawthorne’s skilled fusion of the genres of romance and psychological realism, paired with an overt authorial purpose, impressed and influenced many writers after him.

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