Academic journal article Nathaniel Hawthorne Review

"I Seem to Myself like a Spy or Traitor": Transatlantic Dislocation in Hawthorne's English Travel Writing

Academic journal article Nathaniel Hawthorne Review

"I Seem to Myself like a Spy or Traitor": Transatlantic Dislocation in Hawthorne's English Travel Writing

Article excerpt

In a letter to Horatio Bridge written during his sojourn as U.S. Consul to Liverpool (1853-1857), Nathaniel Hawthorne remarked that "[a]t present, we have no country--at least, none in the sense in which an Englishman has a country. I never conceived, in reality, what a true and warm love of country is, till I witnessed it in the breasts of Englishmen" (18:8). It is the Englishman, he later explains in "Chiefly about War-Matters," who possesses "that sentiment of physical love for the soil which renders [him] ... so intensely sensitive to the dignity and well-being of his little island, that one hostile foot, treading anywhere upon it, would make a bruise on each individual breast" (23:416). Such statements allude to the significant role that England played in Hawthorne's political thought. From his notebooks and letters to his essay "Chiefly about War-Matters," Hawthorne uses his experiences in Britain as a means of exploring what he sees as a lack of cohesion in the nascent American identity. That nation's seeming superabundance of qualities such as stability, tradition and cultural continuity emphasized for Hawthorne the failure of America to provide its citizens with a fixed sense of place and identity.

The Great Britain that Hawthorne deploys in his critique of America is, however, very much a place of his own creation. During his tenure as American consul to Liverpool, Hawthorne had the opportunity to observe life in the nation on a number of levels, meeting with people from different strata of society, visiting diverse regions, viewing the latest industrial and technological developments and witnessing the reactions of the populace to a number of significant political events. At that time, Britain was the dynamic center of a globe-spanning empire, undergoing a number of profound social, cultural and economic realignments. These aspects of British society, however, are largely absent from Hawthorne's published accounts. (1) In Our Old Home, the American claimant manuscripts, and the English notebooks and letters from this period, Hawthorne largely depicts England as a static society in decline that lacks the innovative and progressive energy of America. Although his comparisons of these cultures are at least initially motivated by national rivalry and his consciousness that he was serving the United States in a diplomatic capacity, the representation he formulates emphasizes many aspects of American culture that Hawthorne finds objectionable in other contexts. When developed in response to the events leading to the Civil War and the devastating consequences of American factionalism, Hawthorne's image of England subsequently becomes an ideal of cultural coherence and homogeneity. In Hawthorne's political thought, then, the idea of England is the means by which he articulates his opposition to the political initiatives leading to the war and, in some measure, to the idea of America itself. His literary engagement with England illustrates the ways in which geographical dislocation may engender cultural confusion and misreading but, more importantly, how the resulting representations assume real political dimensions and consequences.

The England of Our Old Home

The very title of Our Old Home, Hawthorne's most developed representation of Great Britain, underlines the relationship that the text substantiates: England is parent to America and of special importance for this reason--but just as the child is destined to grow to maturity and the parent to lose vitality, England now is largely constituted within the past and the future belongs to the young America. (2) Throughout Our Old Home, Hawthorne consistently emphasizes the antiquity of England and its failure to make its institutions accord with contemporary needs. In one paradigmatic passage, for example, Hawthorne uses architecture metaphorically to illustrate what he sees as the English tendency to remain imprisoned within the confines of its history:

   The new things are based and supported on sturdy old things, and
   derive a massive strength from their deep and immemorial
   foundations, though with such limitations and impediments as only
   an Englishman could endure. … 
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