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Nathaniel Hawthorne: Custom House

Eventually Hawthorne realized that he was too broke to stay in his cocoon. In 1839, he was hired at the Boston Custom House to weigh and measure goods. In the diary he kept during this period, it's clear that Hawthorne worked hard to keep his spirits from collapsing into the soul-sucking tediousness of his work. On good days, particularly those when he was allowed out of the office to weigh or inspect cargo on a ship, he exulted in the labor: "Late in the afternoon there was a sunny shower, which came down so like a benediction, that it seemed ungrateful to take shelter in the cabin or to put up an umbrella."11 On other days, he was just depressed: "I do think that it is the doom laid upon me of murdering so many of the brightest hours of the day at the Custom-House, that makes such havoc with my wits."12

Jobs at the Custom House were by political appointment, and Hawthorne detested the scheming and political maneuvering that went on there. He told himself that his experience in the world of working men would ultimately benefit his writing. He worried that he would be unable to recall the details he observed on the job when they mattered: "On board my salt vessels and colliers there are many things happening, many pictures which in future years, when I am again busy at the loom of fiction, I could weave in; but my fancy is rendered so torpid by my ungenial way of life, that I cannot sketch off the scenes and portraits that interest me, and I am forced to trust them to my memory, with the hope of recalling them at some more favorable period."13

In 1841, he quit the Custom House for a more interesting experiment. Hawthorne agreed to purchase a $500 share in a new utopian community in West Roxbury, Massachusetts named Brook Farm. Brook Farm was founded by Transcendentalist George Ripley on the principle that, by sharing their labor, members would receive not only a profit but plenty of time to learn, think, and discuss. Hawthorne was skeptical of the idea, but he needed the money. He had fallen in love with a woman named Sophia Peabody and wanted money to start their life together. At first he gloried in the labor, enjoying the fresh air and the hearty feeling of working with his hands. Within a few months, he realized that the exhausting life of a farmer was consuming all of his energy—energy that he needed for writing. Hawthorne worked on the farm for six months before demanding his $500 back.

Fortunately, Sophia didn't mind marrying a poor man. The couple married on 9 July 1842. They moved to a rented house in Concord, Massachusetts named the Old Manse, owned by a relative of their friend and neighbor Ralph Waldo Emerson. The Hawthornes were in the middle of a flourishing circle of artistic and intellectual revolutionaries that included Emerson, Bronson Alcott, Margaret Fuller, and Henry David Thoreau. Hawthorne was friendly with his neighbors, going on walks with Fuller and engaging in rowing contests with Thoreau. However, his neighbors found the shy, reserved writer difficult to get to know. In his journal Bronson Alcott called Hawthorne "A coy genius. . . . Nobody gets a chance to speak with him unless by accident. He never calls on anyone, is seldom seen outside of his gate."14 Another friend said of him, "I love Hawthorne, I admire him; but I do not know him. He lives in a mysterious world of thought and imagination which he never permits me to enter."15

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