Up for auction: Rare copy of Hawthorne's 'Scarlet Letter'

NATICK, Mass. -- The town's historical society hopes to make more than $250,000 this week by auctioning the oldest known copy of Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter" -- not bad for a manuscript that spent more than a century in a drawer before someone recognized its significance.

A relative of Hawthorne 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 spent the next 118 years in a drawer, until trustee Roger Casavant came across the manuscript earlier this year while cataloguing the society's collections and 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 Chris Coover, senior specialist in rare books and manuscripts at Christie's in New York, which will auction it Thursday along with 17 other rare documents belonging to the historical society.

"People are quite astonished this exists at all. It was unknown to scholars," Coover told The MetroWest Daily News of Framingham. Hawthorne's original manuscript is thought to have been destroyed after the book's publication in 1850.

The society's board 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.

Hawthorne scholar Matthew J. Bruccoli, curator of American literature and rare books at the University of South Carolina, says that to his knowledge it is the "only set of proof pages of any of the classic 19th century novels."

"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."