The question was never whether Nathaniel Hawthorne could write. It was whether he’d ever be able to make a living doing it.

"He was using what we call the 'buckshot approach' to publishing," said Rosemary Fisk, an English professor at Samford University and former president of the Hawthorne Society. "He was just sending out everything anywhere he thought someone would take it. And he was often left waiting for his royalty check."

Writing is a solitary endeavor, but even for the most gifted of authors, creating a truly lasting work is a pretty tough thing to accomplish on your own. Hawthorne's stories were well regarded among circles of serious writers and readers. The problem was those circles were relatively small.

"His 'Twice-Told-Tales' had just sold a few hundred copies," Fisk said.

To stay afloat as he wrote, Hawthorne had worked as an editor, he'd worked in local government — he’d even tried his hand at transcendental, communal living. But by 1849, the hand-to-mouth existence was wearing thin.

"Hawthorne had just lost his job at the Salem Custom House, he was now married and had two children, they’d had multiple housing moves, his mother had just died and he’d passed his 45th birthday, so he’s at the average age for ‘going postal,’" Fisk said.

Enter James Thomas Fields, a whip-smart, self-made man who had worked his way up from bookstore employee to junior partner of the Boston publishing house Ticknor and Fields. He was well connected and had a singular knack for knowing exactly what the public wanted.

"He had all of that business sense and networking that Hawthorne lacked," Fisk said. "He was the extrovert to Hawthorne’s introverted side and I think when they finally linked together it was a real moment in American literary history."

That moment came sometime in 1849.

"Fields tells the story of finding Hawthorne in this rental house there in Salem, hovering near a stove and Hawthorne saying, 'Who would wish publishing a book from me, the most popular writer in America?'"

Given its dramatic flourishes, Fisk suspects the story is a bit of myth-building on Field’s part. But …

"It still has a truth to it that Fields did intervene sometime late in 1849 and say, 'I'll publish your book but here’s what needs to happen first,'" Fisk said.

The book was a collection of literary sketches, with a romance set in Puritan Boston as its centerpiece: The tale of an affair, and the toll it took on the close-knit community and the story’s protagonist, Hester Prynne. On Jan. 15, 1850, Fisk said Hawthorne wrote to Fields: "I shall call that book, 'Old Time Legends Together with Sketches Experimental and Ideal.'"

"Fields had to know, no, that’s not going to work," she said.

Fields convinced Hawthorne to drop the other stories, and focus exclusively on what we know today as "The Scarlet Letter." Fisk is among the scholars who also believe Fields also played a central role in guiding Hawthorne as he expanded the work to novel length.

"Fields suggested the final three chapters of the book to say go ahead and elaborate on it," she said.

While some dispute Fields’ influence over the text' no one disputes that upon publication, "The Scarlet Letter" was a smash hit — Hawthorne was finally a professional writer.

"From now on, Hawthorne would be able to stay at home and write and have some hope of supporting his family out of chronic poverty," Fisk said.

As for "The Scarlet Letter," it would stand the test of time, considered today not just Hawthorne’s magnum opus, but also an indispensible part of the American literary canon — to the dismay of generations of high school students.

"We wish every high school student that complains about having to read the book now could be committed to read it again at age 30 or age 50, and I think that they would get the real haunting emotional power of it," Fisk said.

"The Scarlet Letter," was first published to great success — thanks to Hawthorne’s pen, and Field’s business acumen — right here in Massachusetts, 165 years ago this week.

If you have a tale of forgotten Massachusetts history to share, or there's something you're plain curious about, email Edgar Herwick at curiositydesk@wgbh.org.