Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter” was the furthest thing from Richard Kopley’s mind when the English teacher started working on what would become his first scholarly book.
But a string of literary coincidences and a bit of detective work have led to what one scholar calls a new way of looking at one of America’s best-known authors.
In a recent book from the University of Delaware Press, Kopley says Hawthorne transformed elements from “The Salem Belle: A Tale of 1692,” along with other popular stories from the period, in creating “The Scarlet Letter.”
What’s more, Kopley also thinks he has tracked down the identity of the book’s anonymous author, a Boston merchant who withheld his name to keep his money from creditors — and who had his own personal connections to Puritan Massachusetts.
Kopley, an associate professor of English at Penn State DuBois and president of the Poe Studies Association, was actually researching Edgar Allan Poe when he came across a review Poe had written praising “A Legend of Brittany,” a poem by prolific writer and publisher James Russell Lowell. Unfamiliar with the poem, Kopley sought it out.
When he read it, Kopley was struck by the similarity between some passages in “Brittany” and passages in “The Scarlet Letter.”
At the end of “Brittany,” Kopley says, “there’s this powerful passage about the church organ, and I immediately thought of the climax of ’The Scarlet Letter,’ in which Hawthorne draws an allusion to an organ in describing the powerful voice of Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale, the venerated preacher whose secret affair with Hester Prynne produced a child and led to Prynne’s public punishment and Dimmesdale’s private guilt.
“I sat with each text on one knee, looking back and forth and back and forth, and I saw that indeed my first impression was correct — in fact, there was more than I realized of a correspondence between the two texts,” Kopley said.
It wasn’t the first time Kopley had found a passage he felt Hawthorne had transformed from another contemporary work. Eight years ago, Kopley wrote an article for the journal Studies in American Fiction describing similarities between Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” first published in the January 1843 edition of Lowell’s magazine The Pioneer, and Chapter 10 of “The Scarlet Letter,” in which a man creeps up as Dimmesdale sleeps and uncovers the “A” burned into Dimmesdale’s chest.
Kopley argues that Hawthorne intentionally transformed elements of those stories when creating his own.
“I think he had his story down first,” Kopley said, “but as he worked through it, I think it would occur to him to include gentle allusions to previous works that were related thematically to his present work.
“It seems to me to have been his habit of mind to lend a sort of depth and richness to whatever he was writing by gently alluding to three, four, five other works that relate to this incident. Not that they get in the way — if you don’t see them, you’re fine, you still enjoy the story. But if you catch them, the story is obviously intensified and deepened.”
Influence or plagiarism?
The linchpin of the argument came from that issue of The Pioneer, where Kopley found a review of “The Salem Belle,” a novel published in 1842 about a man named Trellison who accuses Mary Lyford of witchcraft after she spurns his romantic advances.
—In the first, Lyford meets her brother, James, in a wooded area by a brook, where James seeks to comfort his sister. Kopley compares that to a passage in “The Scarlet Letter,” where it’s Prynne who seeks to comfort Dimmesdale.
—In the second, as Trellison encourages Lyford to escape by sea, saying he knows of a pirate ship in the harbor she could board, the narrator notes how odd it was that the intolerant Puritans seemed to tolerate piracy. Hawthorne, too, writes about a pirate ship in the harbor and the seeming inconsistency of Puritan morals.
—In the climactic scene, after Lyford’s escape, Trellison himself climbs the scaffold and declares his own guilt; the audience first is stunned, but then many say Lyford must have bewitched him and forced the confession. In “The Scarlet Letter,” Dimmesdale finally confesses his guilt from the pulpit, then dies; his congregation, too, sits in stunned silence, then dismisses his confession as a parable about how even the greatest of men are capable of sin.
“It sounds like he’s on to something,” said John Grammer, professor and chair of English at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn. “It’s perfectly clear that Hawthorne read The Pioneer in which that review appeared, the review of ’The Salem Belle’ — he wrote for The Pioneer, in fact. ... And he would have been totally unable to resist a historical novel about Salem. It’s perfectly clear that he would have tried to get that book and read it.”
But Grammer and other scholars are reluctant to call Hawthorne’s writing plagiarism in any way.
“Lots of writers were vying for the attention of a fairly small reading public and drawing on a fairly small and common body of material in American history and recent news,” Grammer said.
“This is a culture in which people are accusing people of plagiarism all the time, and lots of stories sort of resemble other stories. It’s almost hard to get to the bottom of it and figure out where any image or idea had its beginning.”
Kopley’s book is an entirely new direction of Hawthorne scholarship, said Nina Baym, a Hawthorne scholar and English professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She said most Hawthorne scholars have focussed on his anti-Puritan themes or his time spent among the Transcendentalists.
“Almost all your scholarship is going back and forth between the Transcendentalists and the Puritans,” Baym said.
A note written in a copy of “The Salem Belle” at Indiana University’s Lilly Library was the first clue to the author’s identity, naming him only as Wheelwright. The personal papers of the book’s former owner pointed to Ebenezer Wheelwright, a 19th-century Boston merchant who published in the same house as Hawthorne.
What’s more, Kopley argues, because they shared a publisher, Hawthorne likely would have known that Wheelwright was the author of “The Salem Belle,” and that Wheelwright, too, had connections to Puritan misdeeds. Wheelwright’s ancestor, John Wheelwright, along with Anne Hutchinson, were expelled from the Massachusetts colony during the Antinomian Crisis in the late 1630s because of their religious beliefs.
“Hawthorne knew everything about colonial New England,” the University of the South’s Grammer said. “He knew exactly who John Wheelwright was, so he’d have picked up on that.”
Hawthorne might have picked up on other things, as well. All his life, he was a voracious reader of both books and newspapers. Hawthorne scholar Baym said Kopley’s book might encourage other scholars to begin analyzing contemporary sources for their potential influence on Hawthorne’s work.
“I find it very interesting, and I think it opens up a lot of possibility for other scholars,” Baym said. “You know that Hawthorne was a very avid reader, and you can begin to look around to all kinds of places where you wouldn’t necessarily have expected Hawthorne to have been taking ideas, and you can begin to see Hawthorne as much more of an assimilative author than had been thought before.
“In terms of Hawthorne scholarship, it’s a very clear and exciting path to go down.”