Academic journal article Nathaniel Hawthorne Review

Afterword: Is Rome's Moonlight Different from Salem's?: Hawthorne's Reconceptualization of the Gothic

Academic journal article Nathaniel Hawthorne Review

Afterword: Is Rome's Moonlight Different from Salem's?: Hawthorne's Reconceptualization of the Gothic

Article excerpt

[Hawthorne] is outside of everything, and an alien everywhere. He is an aesthetic solitary.

--Henry James, 1879 ("Nathaniel Hawthorne" 23)

In the prefaces to his three American romances, Hawthorne explains how various episodes in American history inspired his writing--from his Puritan past to the contemporary experiment in utopianism. (1) By the time he pens the preface to The Marble Faun (1860), Hawthorne insists, in the now oft-quoted passage, that "Romance and poetry, like ivy, lichens, and wall-flowers, need ruin to make them grow" and laments the fact that in America, "there is no shadow, no antiquity, no mystery, no picturesque and gloomy wrong, nor anything but a common-place posterity, in broad and simple daylight." He almost repudiates his position on America's dark past, as he had imagined it in the binary shadow/ daylight world of The Scarlet Letter (1850) and of the neutral territory in the "Custom-House" preface. Hawthorne's lament that America lacked a past is disingenuous: certainly, if America had no lichens or ivy, it nevertheless had mosses, as Hawthorne well knew. And even in Rome, he is not able to exorcise the New England past. Moncure D. Conway, an early biographer of Hawthorne, speaking at the Hawthorne Centenary in Concord, described how Hawthorne, during his Italian experience, put a new spin on Italian mosses: "... where Hawthorne has passed, things budded; new species of mosses or moss-roses were found on old ruins, and the stones of Rome revealed new inscriptions" ("The World" 130). (2) What an interesting image of a wizard-like author making ancient American mosses look even older.

An exploration of the Gothic features in The Scarlet Letter and The Marble Faun reveals how far Hawthorne has progressed or regressed in his construing of the Gothic mode and the extent to which specifically Gothic features lie inherent in his notion of the romance. At the outset, in an odd, roundabout fashion, Hawthorne appropriates characteristics of the Gothic novel from Horace Walpole, whose The Castle of Otranto (1764), set within a medieval Italian context, influenced his writing of The Scarlet Letter. Later he would transform the Gothic setting and dilemma of The Scarlet Letter and make them ostensibly Italian in The Marble Faun, though the dilemma remains Gothically American. As a young man, Hawthorne had read Walpole's fiction, (3) and there are many striking parallels between the novels, especially in their prefaces that comment on the writing of "romance." From the manner in which the authors say they discovered the material for their novels (Walpole's fabricated medieval tome and Hawthorne's fabricated manuscript about Hester, as authenticated by the ghostly Surveyor Pue; Walpole's "black letter" and Hawthorne's "scarlet letter") to the way in which both quite literally speak about the "sins of the fathers" and the legacy of the past, their motivations and authorial postures are remarkably similar. In addition, Walpole's discussion of blending "the two kinds of romance, the ancient and the modern" in the preface to the second edition (7) sounds very much like Hawthorne's description of the haunted state of mind which leads up to his famous moonlight and romance passage where he articulates his ideas about the blending of "the Actual and the Imaginary" to create a "neutral territory," a space open to Gothic influences (e.g., "Ghosts might enter here, without affrighting us" [1:36]). Hawthorne clearly accepts the historical components of Walpole's Gothic paradigm, as well as the narrative framework surrounding its creation. However, though he accepts the existence of a supernatural realm (through the various interpretations of the extraordinary), he is never quite as smitten with the "miraculous" in the way that Walpole is. The manner in which Hawthorne secularizes the religious dimension of the Gothic, taking the characters' actions outside a domestic space (unlike the castle/home or church in Walpole) and locating them in nature (the forest) or in a public space (the marketplace), and rewrites the struggle between the classes reveals Hawthorne's attempt in The Scarlet Letter to rewrite the Gothic as an American genre. …

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