boston.com your connection to The Boston Globe

'Scarlet Letter' up for auction

Rare page proofs found in Natick

NATICK -- The town's historical society hopes to make more than $250,000 when it auctions a rare copy of Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter" this week, not bad for a manuscript that spent more than a century in a file drawer before someone recognized its significance.

Natick resident Lucy Bigelow Mann, who was related to Hawthorne by marriage, donated the corrected page proofs in 1886 to the organization that became the Natick Historical Society. The pages are covered with more than 700 proofreading corrections and comments, many believed to be in Hawthorne's own hand.

The gift wound up in a drawer, where it spent the next 118 years before trustee Roger Casavant came across the pages earlier this year while cataloguing the society's collections. He identified it as the oldest existing copy of "The Scarlet Letter."

"This is unique. No other proof pages of any of Hawthorne's novels or stories survive," said Christopher R. Coover, senior specialist in rare books and manuscripts at Christie's in New York, which plans to auction it Thursday with 17 other rare documents owned by the Natick Historical Society.

He called the manuscript "one of the most important items of 19th-century literature to appear in the market this year."

"Its rarity is absolute," Coover told the MetroWest Daily News of Framingham. "People are quite astonished this exists at all. It was unknown to scholars."

The other documents include letters from presidents Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams, and James Madison. The society is hoping to make as much as $1 million from the sale.

The Natick society's directors voted unanimously to auction the Hawthorne proof "strictly because it's outside our field of collection" as an institution devoted to Natick's history, said Anne K. Schaller, who directs the society's museum.

"The proceeds [of the auction] will be used to augment and care for our own collection," she said.

Because Hawthorne's original manuscript is thought to have been destroyed after the book's publication in 1850, the page proofs are the oldest remaining copy of "The Scarlet Letter," Coover said.

"It belongs to the nation," said Casavant, 78, an authority on rare books and manuscripts. "I'm glad to have played a small part in finding it."

Matthew J. Bruccoli, a Hawthorne scholar and curator of American literature and rare books at the University of South Carolina, was so impressed by the manuscript that he tried unsuccessfully to persuade officials at his school to buy it.

"To my knowledge, they are the only set of proof pages of any of the classic 19th-century novels," said Bruccoli, who hopes an institution acquires them rather than a private collector who may not make them available to scholars.

"Apart from what they tell us about Hawthorne, it's a key document about publishing at that time," he said. "I know of nothing else like it."

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES
 
Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months
 Advanced search / Historic Archives