Dedicated to classics and hits.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Marble Faun (1860) by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Emma Stone, doing her take on Nathaniel Hawthorne's hit, The Scarlet Letter.

The Marble Faun Or, The Romance of Monte Beni
by Nathaniel Hawthorne
p. 1860

 It is with real regret that I move beyond the 1850s.  Probably the most crucial period for literature up to this point.  I haven't even looked at some of the biggest hits: Walden by Henry David Thoreau and Bleak House by Charles Dickens to just name two missing titles, and here we are at 1860 with Nathaniel Hawthorne's travel memoir/Sir Walter Scott style gothic influenced Romance, Marble Faun.

  Hawthorne's description of The Marble Faun as a "Romance" is telling in a way that requires some explaining.  The issue here is the creation of the novel as an institution, and whether there might be an alternative understanding of the so-called "Rise of The Novel" and the genesis of that rise.

Demi Moore plays Hester Prynne from The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne

  The alternative beginning for the Novel is the Romance: The Romance preceded the Novel by several centuries, and it described a literary genre that ranged from written songs, poems, short stories to longer stories. (1) Romance literature existed in several "native" languages centuries before the Novel, including all of the languages that played a role in the development of the Novel as an art-form.

  Sir Walter Scott- the author most often written out of the narrative of the Rise of the Novel, is also the Author most responsible for exploiting Romantic literature (by placing his Novels in the past) but also for recognizing a distinction between Romantic and "Victorian" Novels.

  So it is telling that here, in 1860- half a century after Sir Walter Scott and contemporary with Alexandre Dumas- another revivalist Romance writer from a country other than England-  Hawthorne is penning a self described "Romance."  If you look at the popularity of Hawthorne's major worksScarlet Letter, The Marble Faun and The Blithedale Romance, it runs one-two-three in that order with Scarlet Letter way out in front. Two of the three works contain the description of the work as a "Romance," which suggests that Hawthorne did not see himself as a Novelist in  any sort of modern sense.

  The Marble Faun is also notable because of the level of market related "sales pressure" the publisher exerted on the Author- The Marble Faun runs two volumes and contains reams of what we would today consider "travel journalism."  Interesting from our current post-modern perspective, but certainly jarring for a period when Authors were just beginning to discover the "Serious" Novel.

 The characters in The Marble Faun are recognizable as the backpacking student culture of today- outcast and alienated would-be Artists being supported from home- hanging out in Rome and getting wrapped up in quasi-supernatural mysteries. The mish-mash nature of a fairly straight forward Gothic Romance being combined with excellent factual description of the major tourist sites of Rome- The Trevi Fountain, The Forum, etc. is bound to lead to awkwardness.


(1) Homer Obed Brown, Institutions of the English Novel: From Defoe to Scott, University of Pennsylvania Press, published 1997.

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