Academic journal article Nathaniel Hawthorne Review

Sophia Hawthorne, Henry James, and Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Curious Aversion" to Nudity in Art

Academic journal article Nathaniel Hawthorne Review

Sophia Hawthorne, Henry James, and Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Curious Aversion" to Nudity in Art

Article excerpt

Most critics judge that Henry James's 1879 book on Hawthorne reveals as much about James as about Hawthorne. James's portrait of his predecessor serves as a foil, representing a writer against whom he can define himself. James's Hawthorne is provincial and puritanical. James's James is cosmopolitan. I want to focus on just one of James's criticism--what he calls Hawthorne's "curious aversion to the representation of the nude in sculpture"--because it figures centrally in James's attempt to paint a portrait of his predecessor with which he can contrast himself. Hawthorne "apparently quite failed to see that nudity is not an incident, or accident, of sculpture," James claims, "but its very essence and principle; and his jealousy of undressed images strikes the reader as a strange, vague, long-dormant heritage of his straight-laced Puritan ancestry" (Hawthorne 161). James based this conclusion on his reading of Hawthorne's Italian notebooks, which he reviewed for the Nation in 1872. Hawthorne "remains unreconciled to the nudity of the marbles," James insisted there. He was not "without taste; but his taste was not robust" (Review 311). It has long struck me as odd that James paints with such a broad brush, failing or choosing not to see and appreciate passages in the Italian notebooks where Hawthorne seems fascinated by painted or sculptural nudity and in fact writes in relatively complex and self-consciously analytical fashion about his responses to naked sculptures.

Many critical assessments of Hawthorne's attitude toward nudity have followed James's lead. Randall Stewart, for example, repeats the idea that Hawthorne's approach to sculpture and painting was "less esthetic than moral" and, like James, considers him a Puritan (197). James R. Mellow follows suit, noting that Hawthorne's "puritan morals were engagingly shocked by the lasciviousness of Raphael's La Fornarina and then observing that nudity in painting and sculpture "was a continuing complaint in Hawthorne's Roman journal" (488). Rita Gollin and John Idol echo James in noting Hawthorne's "aversion to coarse or startling nudes" (105), although they acknowledge that the "beautiful brazen nudes he would see in Italy would present more complicated aesthetic problems" (80). Dolly Sherwood also follows James in representing Hawthorne as a Puritan when she asserts that, like "other Americans," Hawthorne was "offended by the unclothed body, the ghosts of his Puritan ancestors rising to haunt him in this as well as in other aspects of his psychic inheritance" (172). Brenda Wineapple considers Hawthorne a "prude" because he "blanched" and "cringed" before John Gibson's Tinted Venus (299). Even Deanna Fernie, who devotes an entire book to Hawthorne and sculpture, largely dismisses his responses to actual sculpture, which she considers "bathetic" (4) or "flat" (27), in favor of examining "sculptural allusions and metaphors" (26) in his fiction. Such summary judgments overlook the complexity of Hawthornes responses to nudity in painting and sculpture, as well as his efforts to understand and express his analytical and emotional reactions. A significant number of passages in his Italian notebooks show him in a hyper self-reflective state--alternately fascinated and ashamed as he comes to terms with his attraction to nudity and the desire his interest provokes.

These negative judgments of Hawthorne's response to nudity are all the more surprising because we now have much more information available than Henry James enjoyed when he wrote in the nineteenth century. Enter Sophia Hawthorne. The book on which James based his conclusions about Hawthorne and art is not the same Italian Notebooks we read today. James read and reviewed Passages from the French and Italian Note-Books (1871), a volume that Sophia published after Hawthorne's death. (1) Comparing that volume to the complete version (published more than 100 years later in the Ohio State Centenary Edition) reveals that Sophia redacted many significant passages and also changed wording in order, arguably, to make Hawthorne seem less interested and engaged in observing artistic nudity than he actually was. …

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