‘Impossibly rare’: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s corrected page proofs for The Scarlet Letter

The Bruce M. Lisman Collection presents an unrivalled selection of works from Hawthorne’s oeuvre, as well as those of his peers

‘What lies beyond or above an imitation of life?’ wrote Nathaniel Hawthorne’s son, Julian, in an 1886 review of The Scarlet Letter. ‘Nothing more or less, it must be confessed, than life itself… A soul is in [this book]; it is conceived on the spiritual plane.’ 

The publication of Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter 36 years earlier had set a new foundation for American literature, helping to establish the novel as the preeminent form of writing for the century to come. It centres around Hester Prynne, a woman who gives birth to a child out of wedlock while living in a Puritan society in New England. The eloquence and mastery with which Hawthorne addresses the moral and ethical nuances of the story led to its initial run of 2,500 copies being sold in ten days, and propelled the author to the immediate literary fame that endures to this day. 

Offered this June as part of The Bruce M. Lisman Collection of Important American Literature: Part One, Christie’s is proud to present the page proofs for Hawthorne’s ground-breaking novel, annotated in the author’s own hand, demonstrating the winding trajectory from idea to opus. 

‘This is the best Hawthorne collection in private hands,’ says Christie’s Specialist in Books, Manuscripts and Archives, Heather Weintraub. ‘There are books from his library, letters, extremely scarce presentation copies, the manuscript excerpt from The Scarlet Letter, and the page proofs — these page proofs are particularly noteworthy, as they are not something we generally see survive from the 19th century.'

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Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864), The Scarlet Letter corrected page proofs, 1850. Annotated printed page proofs. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1865. Estimate: $600,000-800,000. Offered in The Bruce M. Lisman Collection of Important American Literature: Part One, on 15 June 2023 at Christie's New York

The Bruce M. Lisman Collection tells the story of early American literature. From Hawthorne's early publication in a Christmas literary supplement called The Token, to revered literary works from the 18th and 19th centuries, like as an inscribed copy of Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, and a copy of Washington Irving’s Salmagundi with original wrappers, the collection gives a look into how post-revolution American literature appeared in its time. Even in this context, however, these proofs from The Scarlet Letter are the crown jewel. They are what Lisman himself would call ‘impossibly rare’. 

Proofs were typically discarded in the publication process, and Hawthorne stated multiple times that the original manuscript for The Scarlet Letter had been destroyed — or as he put it, ‘burnt’ and sent ‘up the chimney’. 

With more than 600 corrections over 140 pages, these corrected proofs are, according to Hawthorne scholar Richard Kopley, ‘as close as we can come to the entire original work — the greatest achievement of the man whom Herman Melville extolled as “the American, who up to the present day, has evinced, in literature, the largest brain with the largest heart.”’ 

Hawthorne, originally named Nathaniel Hathorne, was born in Salem, Massachusetts in 1804 to a family with deep ties to the city. His great-great-grandfather, the first in the family to be born in Britain’s American colonies, was one of the judges who oversaw the Salem Witch Trials at the end of the 17th century.

‘[I] do not much care about the book's coming out before I get away from Salem. It will give me rather more local celebrity than I desire.’ - Nathaniel Hawthorne

Hawthorne’s own heritage undoubtedly inspired his novel, which addresses morality with an eye to the Puritan ideals that dominated the early Massachusetts Bay Colony of his ancestors, and he likely added the ‘w’ to his surname to distance himself from it. 

This family history is also perhaps why he was adamant about having the final say in how The Scarlet Letter was edited — as the novel touched on themes that were personal to him, having a hand in the editing process allowed him to make sure he was preserving his relationship to this history. 

As he wrote in a postscript to his publisher James T. Fields, on 15 January, 1850: ‘P.S. The proof-sheets will need to be revised by the author. I write [with] such an infernal hand that this is absolutely indispensable.’ 

While many of these corrections concern style, grammar, and punctuation, there are also notable revisions to key words. Some add an element of poetry to his prose, like where he removes two words and adds ‘-anthem’ to produce the phrase ‘the solemn wind-anthem among the tree-tops’. In other cases his revisions change the meaning entirely, like where he replaces ‘unwisely’ with ‘universally,’ showcasing the changing trajectory of his plan for the novel.

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Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864), The Scarlet Letter. Boston: Ticknor, Reed, and Fields, 1850. Together with autograph manuscript signed 'Nath. Hawthorne,' n.d.; 1 page, 3.7 x 2.4 in (136 x 88mm). Estimate: $100,000-150,000. Offered in The Bruce M. Lisman Collection of Important American Literature: Part One, on 15 June 2023 at Christie's New York

In a later letter to Fields — also included in the sale — Hawthorne writes: ‘I send you the remainder of the Scarlet Letter, and hope you will like it as well [as] the preceding part. Thank God, it is off my mind!’ 

He notes in the same letter that ‘[I] do not much care about the book's coming out before I get away from Salem. It will give me rather more local celebrity than I desire.’ 

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Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864), Sending the final instalment of The Scarlet Letter, 4 February, 1850. One page, bifolium. 5.3 x 3.4 in (191 x 123mm). Estimate: $100,000-150,000. Offered in The Bruce M. Lisman Collection of Important American Literature: Part One, on 15 June 2023 at Christie's New York

The internationally iconic status of Hawthorne’s novel today far eclipses his written anticipation of local notoriety. The scene of the protagonist Hester clutching her baby Pearl, as she stands tall while being violated by the townspeople’s stares, is a singularly enduring moment akin to Melville’s white whale. 

The autograph manuscript — of which no similar example has ever been recorded at auction — gives us a singular insight into this scene’s genesis. 

In the first edition, he writes that Hester clutches Pearl ‘to her breast’. In this manuscript, he has changed it to ‘heart’. 

‘Could it be true?’ it reads. ‘She clutched the child fiercely to her heart, that it sent forth a cry; she turned her eyes downward to the scarlet letter, and even touched it with her finger, to assure herself that the infant and the shame were real.’ 

This is one of many instances in this collection that reveal previously unexplored aspects of Hawthorne’s writing. For fans of his, these are essential editions that delve into his personal relationship to his work. For those who have just begun their foray into early American literature, his proofs offer a uniquely personal connection with one of the most celebrated authors in American history.

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