Phil Kaveny

The Works of Philip Kaveny

From Maypole To Whipping Post The Letter A:in The Scarlet Letter,The Customs-House Section

Philip Kaveny

English 440 Dr Pace

Paper One

November 17, 2016

From Maypole to Whipping Post the Letter A: in The Scarlet Letter, the Customs- House Section.


This first paper is a brief explication of, my apparently unique  tectonic[1] theory of literature.[2]  I have developed this theory across the fabric my lifetime, a lifetime where I worked, but was not always paid, as a teacher, playwright, academic critic, public intellectual, writer of the fantastic, radio, television, and web producer, and academic critic, and editor.   My intent for this project is to demonstrate the fruitfulness of casting light on a specific and very small unit of textual analysis from some larger work in any of the fields mentioned above. In this paper I will be focusing on the single letter A as it for appears in the Custom-House section of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel (page twenty-seven of the Amazon Kindle edition). My inspiration for using a small unit of textual analysis, in this case the single letter A, came from a lecture I attended nearly forty years ago. This lecture was supplemented by my readings, conversations with fellow classmates, and discussions with Dr. Pace. All these activities evoked this literary theory. I heard an early versions of the theory from the eminent critic and literary theorist J. Hillis Miller[3]. He presented it a lecture for The UW-Madison Comparative Literature Department in a seminar that was part of my wife’s doctoral program. At the time, they let me sit in after I got off work as a night janitor and I was wearing my janitor’s uniform, having worked all night. [4]



Hillis Miller used the fractal-based metaphor of a single meter on the coastline of Maine embodying, expressing, and reflecting topographic features of a hundred kilometer section of that same coastline. In the same way, a very small unit of text might reflect the entire contents and structure of a larger work. My metaphorical use of a tectonic theory of literature is based on a kind of utilitarian view of literature, a view that has its roots in my early study of Platonic philosophy. What this means is that a work becomes interesting when a masked historical reality manifests itself in an artistic creation. We ask ourselves the question: Is there something about a process that is not simply part of the author’s intentionality?



For example, there is a section of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick where Captain Ahab tells Starbuck why he hunts the White Whale.   A hundred years before the introduction of the scientific field of geomorphology of tectonic theory, we see its literary foreshadowing.  In  Moby Dick  Melville  through Ahab alludes to a universe of forms, and masks. For most of the time, the underlying reality is not accessible to us except for certain rifts and.  These rifts are where the seismic action is and where great continental plates smash together as they float on lakes of liquid molten rock. We note in this scene.





“But what’s this long face Mr. Starbuck; wilts thou not chase the white whale! Art thou not game for Moby Dick?”

“I am game for his crooked jaw, and for the jaws of death too, Captain Ahab, if it comes in the way of the business we follow; but I am to hunt whales not my commander’s vengeance, how many barrels will they vengeance yield thee even if thou grittiest it Captain Ahab? It will not fetch much in the Nantucket Market.

“Hark yet again—the little lower layer. All visible objects man sees are but pasteboard masks. But in each event—in the living act, the undoubted deed—some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the molding of its features from behind the un- reasoning mask. If man will strike through the mask. (Kindle loc 2662 0f 9590).


It is important that my theory not be misread as a variation of vulgar Marxist sub- and super-structure analysis. Alternatively, for that matter, and equally unacceptable is any thinly disguised Hegelian idealism theologically footslogging up a seemingly upward trail on an Escher like stairwell. That is to say, a stairwell that gives the illusion of progress but historically has functioned more like a treadmill to oblivion. If you can  find any of  them still living ask any of the survivors on either side of the titanic conflict  between  the Hegelian right-or the Hegelian left-side of the Battle of Stalingrad, that is to say Hitler or  Stalin’s forces, ask  them if  history  is synonymous with progress on any dialectical plane, material or  spiritual [5].




So then what more can I say about the nature of this underlying historical reality which we know by its effects in the same way that we note the movements of tectonic forces by shaking, crashing, skyscrapers, exploding pipelines, gas mains, and broken nuclear containment fields pouring hot wastes into the Sea of Japan. A global manifestation of this image presents itself as a tsunami racing and across the Pacific Ocean, driving water at near supersonic speed to crash onto distant shores. Presently it is only beer-can height.  However, as it approaches the shallow shoreline it is on the verge of rearing up into ten-meter-high walls water. It is an existential reality stripped of metaphysical pretensions, in the form of a reality that is even linguistically undeniable to the glibbest practitioners of philosophical word games.



It is a good idea at this point to say something about Nathaniel Hawthorne’s America from our mobile perspective, which has moved well into the second decade of the 21st century. For most of us 21st century Americans, it is a done deal.   By that, I mean no new stars added to the American flag since Alaska and Hawaii in 1959 and for Americans lucky enough to have been born accident white with the right stuff, things are somewhat stable if one has, by that accident has  the proper (in some folks eyes) skin color, sexual orientation, citizenship, and socioeconomic status. Yet from the perspective of the America Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote about in the Custom-House as the introduction of The Scarlet Letter that done deal was very much a work in progress in 1850 the year of its publication.[6]

What I mean is that in the preceding half century, which corresponded with the first forty-six years of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s life from 1804 to 1850, the United States of America was very much a work in progress. In the preceding half century, the United States of America had increased in population from slightly more than five- to twenty-five-million.  It increased in area five fold from the original thirteen colonies plus Maine and Georgia.  According to United States Census Data in 1800 New York City was the Largest Urban Area with a population of 60515 followed by Philadelphia with a population of 41, 220, Baltimore 26,515 and, Boston 24, 937. By 1850, these cities had grown to New York City, NY 515,547 Baltimore, MD 169,054 Boston, MA 136,181: Philadelphia, PA 121,376. Incidentally, by 1864 the year of Hawthorne’s death, New York City had increased to an estimated in population of over one million if one includes Brooklyn. During that same first forty-six years of Hawthorne’s life, the United States increased its territory fivefold and successfully waged wars against England, Mexico, Canada, several European powers, and a score of Native American Nations, and Spain.


Reading the first twenty-six pages of The Custom-House is like playing chess against an International Master in that it is a masterpiece of miss-direction in at least three instances. First, it seems to be an exercise in self-deprecation by an out-of-work political hack who at one time had friends in high places. Then it seems to be a two-hundred-twenty-five-year saga of the great port of Salem now along with its local aristocracy turning into a seedy little backwater. Then it seems like an attempt at portraying some colorful local goofs. Then when you do not think you can take one more word it becomes clear that Nathaniel Hawthorne is not wasting a letter, word line, or sentence. As it all erupts in your face just like the last few moves in an unexpected, twelve-move checkmating combination that your grandmaster opponent was building to all along, as you thought you were winning.  How do I know how do I know this?  On my road to a couple of University of Wisconsin Chess Championships in another iteration of my life, I had a chess master or two for breakfast, and I don’t mean they were my guests.


Then it becomes clear that what you are really reading a clever misdirection. On page 25 history’s molten magna starts to rock and roll and to push its way into the text. In the longer version of this paper it can be demonstrated that it does so much earlier. The historical reference to the records from the customhouse that were carried off to Halifax Nova Scotia accompanied by the British Army after the end of the American Revolution. It is just a simple sentence or two and gets to the informed reader as a sentence with which one evokes the image of the last American helicopter out of Saigon, Vietnam soon to become Ho Chi Minh City, where I am certain the University currently offers study abroad and faculty exchange programs. So one might say that the author’s reflection on a few scraps of paper embodies the emergence of a Post-Colonial United States of America.

Now as we turn to page 27 we are drawn, along with the narrator, to an object that has unique attention-demanding properties that will dominate the entire remainder of the text.

“But the object that drew my attention to the mysterious package was a certain affair of fine red cloth, much worn and faded, there were traces around it of fine gold embroidery, which however, were greatly frayed and defaced, so that none or very little , if any of  the glitter  was left.”


Thus then narrator ascribes unique living dynamic properties to the Letter A Perhaps making it immune to dissection and highly resistant to Post Modernism. Here I see a fore shadowing in this passage of feigned history with the work of J.R.R Tolkien s dictum


“In Dasent’s words I would say: ‘we must be satisfied with the soup that is set before me, rather than the bones it  was made from  … “[7]


Perhaps here it is important to distinguish between the narrator of the Custom House introduction to The Scarlet Letter and its author and the author of the text itself Nathaniel Hawthorne.  Perhaps we should not too quickly assume that either of them is making a polemic that we read The Scarlet Letter a certain way. As to reading a text in a particular prescribed way. This evokes in my mind the image of colleague the Late G.M Norton, the most literate and articulates man, I ever met in my life. Though the first time I met, he evoked the images from the Robert Frost poem “The death of the Hired  Man.”

In a way, he was my literary mentor and about a decade older than I was.  He and I studied Thomas Pynchon with when Pynchon was not cool to study. In any case he was connected   with Hemingway scholars who towards the end of Hemingway’s life when he lived in Cuba. Found that he made himself accessible to long distance telephones calls would listen for hours’ theories about his work at their expense.  Then when asked to respond he profusely thanked his critics for their attention and say good-bye and then cheerfully hang up.



What I am suggesting is that Hawthorne through his narrator suggests to us strategies for reading First Custom House Introduction section of The Scarlet Letter and then the rest of the work. However, for me, this will have to wait for my next paper.  However, I will say this much by way of provisional conclusion Hawthorne seems favor a phenomenological engagement with the text, and certainly with the Letter A He is constrained also. He, being a working writer who had  earn a living, and persuade his working class readers and there were some to give up a day’s wages to purchase The Scarlet Letter. Further, this was a time when the very few American Public Libraries, in existence, that even allowed fiction.[8]

Of course I am not saying that is the best and only way to approach his text. I would think of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Ghost perhaps looking over my shoulder as I write and  sort wrinkling up his nose, in the same as  Russian Chess Grandmaster Garry Kasparov former World Chess Champion  And  Candidate  for the Russian presidency might read  the score sheet  of  the best chess game I ever in my life.



But here is what I contend Hawthorne would have us do with his text since as readers. Because his  narrator is not his mouth piece  but rather the  author’s stand in for us readers  when he says

“My eyes fastened on the old scarlet letter and they would not be turned aside. Certainly the was some deep meaning  in it most worthy of interpretation , and which stem forth from the Mystic symbol , subtly communicating with my sensibilities, but evading the analysis of my mind..”








[2] I chose the phrase my apparently unique realizing the difference between apparent and real.

[3] Hillis Miller, in full Joseph Hillis Miller (born March 5, 1928, Newport News, Va., U.S.) American literary critic who was initially associated with the Geneva group of critics and, later, with the Yale school and deconstruction. Miller was important in connecting North American criticism with Continental philosophical thought.


[4] In addition, I would not so long after that I was encouraged to give a paper on the H.G.  Well’s Henry James literary debate at Graduate Student Comparative Literature   conference at UW Milwaukee Center for 20th Century Studies in 1977.  I was encouraged even though I was not student and was working for UW Madison as a fulltime civil service Janitor.



[6] Here must comment on how A Historical American Students appear to have become in my lifetime.  For example, yesterday, Nov 15th, 2016   I was the only student in a class of about fifty students in my Buddhism course who was aware that the American Naval Officer Commodore Perry, with a Naval Taskforce, ended over 200 years of Japanese anti-colonial isolation in 1853.  Some have argued he set off a chain of events, which led to the American use of nuclear weapons on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki 92 years later with a death toll of 200,000 Japanese Civilians


[7] Tolkien produced his finest in criticism of Beowulf’s critics (1983 [1936], 7-8):.


[8] See my unpublished paper The Fiction Question in 19th century American Public Libraries


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