Hawthorne in the Boston Custom-House

"I have been measuring coal all day on board of a black little British schooner, in a dismal dock at the north-end of the city"  

BOSTON, July 3, 1839.—I do not mean to imply that I am unhappy or discontented; for this is not the case. My life only is a burden in the same way that it is to every toilsome man, and mine is a healthy weariness, such as needs only a night's sleep to remove it. But henceforth forever I shall be entitled to call the sons of toil my brethren, and shall know how to sympathize with them; seeing that I likewise have risen at the dawn, and borne the fervor of the midday sun, nor turned my heavy footsteps homeward till eventide. Years hence, perhaps, the experience that, my heart is acquiring now will flow out in truth and wisdom.

August 27.—I have been stationed all day at the end of Long Wharf, and I rather think that I had the most eligible situation of anybody in Boston. I was aware that it must be intensely hot in the midst of the city; but there was only a short space of uncomfortable heat in my region, half-way towards the centre of the harbor; and almost all the time there was a pure and delightful breeze, fluttering and palpitating, sometimes shyly kissing my brow, then dying away, and then rushing upon me in livelier sport, so that I was fain to settle my straw hat more tightly upon my head. 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. Then there was a rainbow, or a large segment of one, so exceedingly brilliant, and of such long endurance, that I almost fancied it was stained into the sky, and would continue there permanently. And there were clouds floating all about, great clouds and small, of all glorious and lovely hues (save that imperial crimson which was revealed to our united gaze),—so glorious, indeed, and so lovely, that I had a fantasy of heaven's being broken into fleecy fragments and dispersed through space, with its blest inhabitants dwelling blissfully upon those scattered islands.

February 7, 1840.—What beautiful weather this is!—beautiful, at least, so far as sun, sky, and atmosphere are concerned, though a poor, wingless biped is sometimes constrained to wish that he could raise himself a little above the earth. How much mud and mire, how many pools of unclean water, how many slippery footsteps, and perchance heavy tumbles, might be avoided, if we could but tread six inches above the crust of this world! Physically, we cannot do this; our bodies cannot; but it seems to me that our hearts and minds may keep themselves above moral mud-puddles and other disconmforts of the soul's pathway.

February 11.—I have been measuring coal all day on board of a black little British schooner, in a dismal dock at the north-end of the city. Most of the time, I paced the deck to keep myself warm, for the wind (northeast, I believe) blew up through the dock as if it had been the pipe of a pair of bellows. The vessel lying deep between two wharves there was no more delightful prospect on the right hand and on the left than the posts and timbers, half immersed in the water, and covered with ice which the rising and falling of successive tides had left upon them, so that they looked like immense icicles. Across the water, however, not more than half a mile off, appeared the Bunker Hill Monument; and, what interested me considerably more, a church-steeple, with the dial of a clock upon it, whereby I was enabled to measure the march of the weary hours. Sometimes I descended into the dirty little cabin of the schooner, and warmed myself by a red-hot stove, among biscuit barrels, pots, and kettles, seachests, and innumerable lumber of all sorts,—my olfactories, meanwhile, being greatly refreshed by the odor of a pipe which the captain or some one of his crew was smoking. But at last came the sunset, with delicate clouds, and a purple light upon the islands; and I blessed it, because it was the signal of my release.

February 12.—All day long again have I been engaged in a very black business,—as black as a coal,—and though my face and hands have undergone a thorough purification, I feel not altogether fit to hold communion with doves. Methinks my profession is somewhat akin to that of a chimney-sweeper; but the latter has the advantage over me, because, after climbing up through the darksome flue of the chimney, he emerges into the midst of the golden air, and sings out his melodies far over the heads of the whole tribe of weary earth-plodders. My toil today has been cold and dull enough; nevertheless, I was neither cold nor dull.

March 15.—I pray that in one year more I may find some way of escaping from this unblest Custom-House; for it is a very grievous thraldom. I do detest all offices,—all, at least, that are held on a political tenure, and I want nothing to do with politicians. Their hearts wither away, and die out of their bodies. Their consciences are turned to India-rubber, or to some substance as black as that, and which will stretch as much. One thing, if no more, I have gained by my Custom-House experience,—to know a politician. It is a knowledge which no previous thought or power of sympathy could have taught me, because the animal, or the machine rather, is not in nature.

March 28.—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; for here I am again trying to write worthily, yet with a sense as if all the noblest part of man had been left out of my composition, or had decayed out of it, since my nature was given to my own keeping. . . . . Never comes any bird of Paradise into that dismal region. A salt, or even a coal ship, is ten million times preferable; for there the sky is above me, and the fresh breeze around me, and my thoughts, having hardly anything to do with my occupation, are as free as air. Nevertheless, you are, not to fancy that the above paragraph gives a correct idea of my mental and spiritual state..... It is only once in a while that the image and desire of a better and happier life makes me feel the iron of my chain; for, after all, a human spirit may find no insufficiency of food fit for it, even in the Custom-House. And with such materials as these, I do think and feel and learn things that are worth knowing, and which I should not know unless I had learned them there, so that the present portion of my life shall not be quite left out of the sum of my real existence...It is good for me, on many accounts, that my life has had this passage in it. I know much more than I did a year ago. I have a stronger sense of power to act as a man among men. I have gained worldly wisdom, and wisdom also that is not altogether of this world. And when I quit this earthly cavern where I am now buried, nothing will cling to me that ought to be left behind. Men will not perceive, I trust, by my look, or the tenor of my thoughts and feelings, that I have been a custom-house officer.

April 7.—It appears to me to have been the most uncomfortable day that ever was inflicted on poor mortals...Besides the bleak, unkindly air, I have been plagued by two sets of coal-shovellers at the same time, and have been obliged to keep two separate tallies simultaneously. But I was conscious that all this was merely a vision and a fantasy, and that, in reality, I was not half frozen by the bitter blast, nor tormented by those grimy coal-heavers, but that I was basking quietly in the sunshine of eternity....Any sort of bodily and earthly torment may serve to make us sensible that we have a soul that is not within the jurisdiction of such shadowy demons,—it separates the immortal within us from the mortal. But the wind has blown my brains into such confusion that I cannot philosophize now.

April 19.—What a beautiful day was yesterday. My spirit rebelled against being confined in my darksome dungeon at the Custom-House. It seemed a sin,—a murder of the joyful young day,—a quenching of the sunshine. Nevertheless, there I was kept a prisoner till it was too late to fling myself on a gentle wind, and be blown away into the country....When I shall be again free, I will enjoy all things with the fresh simplicity of a child of five-years-old. I shall grow young again, made all over anew. I will go forth and stand in a summer shower, and all the worldly dust that has collected on me shall be washed away at once, and my heart will be like a bank of fresh flowers for the weary to rest upon....

6 P. M.—I went out to walk about an hour ago, and found it very pleasant, though there was a somewhat cool wind. I went round and across the Common, and stood on the highest point of it, where I could see miles and miles into the country. Blessed be God for this green tract, and the view which it affords, whereby we poor citizens may be put in mind, sometimes, that all His earth is not composed of blocks of brick houses, and of stone or wooden pavements! Blessed be God for the sky, too, though the smoke of the city may somewhat change its aspect; but still it is better than if each street were covered over with a roof. There were a good many people walking on the Mall,—mechanics apparently, and shopkeepers' clerks, with their wives; and boys were rolling on the grass, and I would have liked to lie down and roll too.

April 30.—I arose this morning, feeling more elastic than I have throughout the winter; for the breathing of the ocean air has wrought a very beneficial effect. What a beautiful, most beautiful afternoon this has been! It was a real happiness to live. If I had been merely a vegetable,—a hawthorn-bush, for instance,—I must have been happy in such an air and sunshine; but having a mind and a soul,...I enjoyed somewhat more than mere vegetable happiness....The footsteps of May can be traced upon the islands in the harbor, and I have been watching the tints of green upon them, gradually deepening, till now they are almost as beautiful as they ever can be.

May 19.—.....Lights and shadows are continually flitting across my inward sky, and I know neither whence they come nor whither they go; nor do I inquire too closely into them. It is dangerous to look too minutely into such phenomena. It is apt to create a substance where at first there was a mere shadow....If at any time there should seem to be an expression unintelligible from one soul to another, it is best not to strive to interpret it in earthly language, but to wait for the soul to make itself understood; and were we to wait a thousand years, we need deem it no more time than we can spare....It is not that I have any love of mystery, but because I abhor it, and because I have often felt that words may be a thick and darksome veil of mystery between the soul and the truth which it seeks. Wretched were we, indeed, if we had no better means of communicating ourselves, no fairer garb in which to array our essential being, than these poor rags and tatters of Babel. Yet words are not without their use, even for purposes of explanation; but merely for explaining outward acts and all sorts of external things, leaving the soul's life and action to explain itself in its own way.

What a musty disquisition I have scribbled! I would not read it over for sixpence.

May 29.—Rejoice with me, for I am free from a load of coal, which has been pressing upon my shoulders throughout all the hot weather. I am convinced that Christian's burden consisted of coal; and no wonder he felt so much relieved when it fell off, and rolled into the sepulchre. His load however, at the utmost, could not have been more than a few bushels; whereas mine was exactly one hundred and thirty-five chaldrons and seven tubs.

May 30.—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. For these three or four days I have been observing a little Mediterranean boy, from Malaga, not more than ten or eleven years old, but who is already a citizen of the world, and seems to be just as gay and contented on the deck of a Yankee coal-vessel as he could be while playing beside his mother's door. It is really touching to see how free and happy he is,—how the little fellow takes the whole wide world for his home, and all mankind for his family. He talks Spanish,—at least, that is his native tongue; but he is also very intelligible in English, and perhaps he likewise has smatterings of the speech of other countries, whither the winds may have wafted this little sea-bird. He is a Catholic and, yesterday being Friday, he caught some fish and fried them for his dinner, in sweet oil; and really they looked so delicate, that I almost wished he would invite me to partake. Every once in a while he undresses himself and leaps overboard, plunging down beneath the waves, as if the sea were as native to him as the earth. Then he runs up the rigging of the vessel, as if he meant to fly away through the air. I must remember this little boy, and perhaps I may make something more beautiful of him than these rough and imperfect touches would promise.

June 11.—I could wish that the east wind would blow every day from ten o'clock till five; for there is great retreshment in it to us poor mortals that toil beneath the sun. We must not think too unkindly even of the east wind. It is not, perhaps, a wind to be loved, even in its benignant moods; but there are seasons when I delight to feel its breath upon my cheek, though it be never advisable to tbrow open my bosom and take it into my heart, as I would its gentle sisters of the South and West. Today, if I had been on the wharves, the slight chill of an east wind would have been a blessing, like the chill of death to a world-weary man....But this has been one of the idlest days that I ever spent in Boston. . . . . In the morning, soon after breakfast, I went to the Athenæum gallery; and during the hour or two that I stayed, not a single visitor came in. Some people were putting up paintings in one division of the room; but I had the other all to myself: There are two pictures there by our friend Sarah Clarke,—scenes in Kentucky.

From the picture gallery I went to the reading-room of the Athenæum, and there read the magazines till nearly twelve, thence to the Custom-House, and soon afterwards to dinner with Colonel Hall, then back to the Custom-House, but only for a little while. There was nothing in the world to do, and so, at two o'clock, I came home and lay down, with the "Faery Queene" in my hand.

August 21.—Last night I slept like a child of five years old, and had no dreams at all,—unless just before it was time to rise, and I have forgotten what those dreams were. After I was fairly awake this morning I felt very bright and airy, and was glad that I had been compelled to snatch two additional hours of existence from annihilation. The sun's disc was but half above the ocean's verge when I ascended the ship's side. These early morning hours are very lightsome and quiet. Almost the whole day I have been in the shade, reclining on a pile of sails, so that the life and spirit are not entirely worn out of me. The wind has been east this afternoon,—perhaps in the forenoon too,—and I could not help feeling refreshed when the gentle chill of its breath stole over my cheek. I would fain abominate the east wind but it persists in doing me kindly offices now and then.. What a perverse wind it is! Its refreshment is but another mode of torment.

Salam, October 4.—Union Street [Family Mansion]. . . . Here I sit, in my old, accustomed chamber, where I used to sit in days gone by. . Here I have written many tales,—many that have been burned to ashes, many that doubtless deserved the same fate. This claims to be called a haunted chamber, for thousands upon thousands of visions have appeared to me in it; and some few of them have become visible to the world. If ever I should have a biographer, he ought to make great mention of this chamber in my memoirs, because so much of my lonely youth was wasted here, and here my mind and character were formed, and here I have been glad and hopeful, and here I have been despondent. And here I sat a long, long time, waiting patiently for the world to know me, and sometimes wondering why it did not know me sooner, or whether it would ever know me at all,—at least, till I were in my grave. And sometimes it seemed as if I were already in the grave, with only life enough to be chilled and benumbed. But oftener I was happy,—at least, as happy as I then knew how to be, or was aware of the possibility of being. By and by the world found me out in my lonely chamber, and called me forth,—not indeed with a loud roar of acclamation, but rather with a still, small voice; and forth I went, but found nothing in the world that I thought preferable to my old solitude till now.... And now I begin to understand why I was imprisoned so many years in this lonely chamber, and why I could never break through the viewless bolts and bars; for if I had sooner made my escape into the world, I should have grown hard and rough, and been covered with earthly dust, and my heart might have become callous by rude encounters with the multi-tude.. ... But living in solitude till the fulness of time was come, I still kept the dew of my youth and the freshness of my heart..... I used to think that I could imagine all passions, all feelings and states of the heart and mind; but how little did I know!...Indeed, we are but shadows—we are not endowed with real life, and all that seems most real about us is but the thinnest substance of a dream—till the heart be touched. That touch creates us,—then we begin to be,—thereby we are beings of reality and inheritors of eternity.