Today in Literary History – March 16, 1850 – Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter” is published

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter was first published on March 16, 1850. It was an immediate success and its original print run of 2,500 copies sold out in ten days. A second edition of 2,500 books was released on March 30.

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Part of the book’s large print run and quick reprinting had to do with changes in the American publishing trade that were just beginning to take place. Previously, books in the U.S. were had bound, a laborious and time-consuming business, but mass printed and bound books were just being introduced and The Scarlet Letter was one of the first.

The story is set in Massachusetts in the 1640s during the reign of the Puritans. Hester Prynne, a young woman who has given birth to an illegitimate child is forced to stand in the public stocks and to wear “a scarlet letter A” on her clothing, to symbolize her adultery.

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Hawthorne prefaces the novel itself with a fictional memoir about finding the manuscript and a piece of old cloth in a customs warehouse when he worked there.

The novel treats Hester with dignity as she tries to live down her shame and raise her daughter, Pearl, who is ostracised by the Puritan society. Themes of guilt, concealment and religious intolerance permeate the book.

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