Academic journal article Nathaniel Hawthorne Review

A Damned Mob of Corinnes: Nathaniel Hawthorne and the Daughters of De Stael

Academic journal article Nathaniel Hawthorne Review

A Damned Mob of Corinnes: Nathaniel Hawthorne and the Daughters of De Stael

Article excerpt

Consider the biography of a typical mid-nineteenth-century American woman writer:

Born on the fourth of July, she grew up fatherless, living with her mother and sister in a large, cold household dominated by wealthy uncles. Early on she showed intelligence but not much practical ability, and so eventually her uncles sent her to one of New England's newly-established colleges. She made a few good friends, but seemed to live mostly in her own world.

When she returned home with her impractical degree, she retreated to a gloomy attic bedroom, where she settled into a routine of scribbling through the nights, occasionally burning her writings because of her increasingly intense shyness. She wrote a novel based on her college years. A few copies were published, but she was so embarrassed by its publication that she destroyed every copy she could find. After ten years of seclusion, she gradually emerged, anonymously publishing a few delicate stories that won her some encouragement from the literary world. She married late, and shortly after her marriage published a collection of short stories that earned some real critical acclaim. Despite the praise, she continued to belittle her own writing as "scribbling." But she was encouraged by her ventures into the public sphere and desperate for money to feed her growing family, and so she tried her hand at another novel. Eventually she would publish four major novels centered on the great issues facing women of the era: sexual freedom, family and domestic economy, social reform, and finally a Corinne-themed novel about American women artists in Rome.

This thumbnail biography uses feminine pronouns to describe the career of Nathaniel Hawthorne. It is a small pronoun switch, but the trick works. Hawthorne's writing career fulfills almost all of the critical commonplaces about nineteenth-century women writers, from the decade of lurking in an attic to the rewriting of Germaine de Stael. Does all this imply that Nathaniel Hawthorne considered himself a literary woman?

No, probably not. Despite the congruency between Hawthorne's literary career and many nineteenth-century American women writers' careers, I am not arguing that Nathaniel Hawthorne should be reclassified as a literary woman. It is not my business to adjudicate the gender identification of a long-dead stranger. Nor is it my intention to shame Hawthorne as a sissy. But I do suggest positioning Nathaniel Hawthorne as a member of the "d--d mob of scribbling women" who dominated American fiction in the 1850s. When we place Hawthorne's work into a female dominated--or at least female-identified--field of cultural production and read Nathaniel Hawthorne as a participant in a female tradition, many of the questions that are central to Hawthorne scholarship turn sideways. Is Hawthorne's writing Romantic or sentimental? Reactionary or revolutionary? Masculinist or feminist? For this essay, the central question is: Does Nathaniel Hawthorne belong within or outside of the female tradition? Or, to put it more sharply: Was Nathaniel Hawthorne one of the American Corinnes?

Although Corinne may be somewhat obscure today, according to Ellen Moers, "Corinne stands alone ... in its enormous influence upon literary women" (174). Since everyone read Corinne, none of the lists quite do justice to the novel's central importance. Nonetheless, Toril Moi offers a partial list: "Jane Austen, Mary Godwin Shelley, George Sand, George Eliot, Charlotte Bronte, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Margaret Fuller ("The Yankee Corinna"), Kate Chopin--all of them read Corinne, passionately" (145). Even readers today who may not be familiar with Corinne would recognize some elements of de Stael's plot, which was refracted through so many nineteenth-century novels. Corinne is a beautiful, dark-haired romantic genius who declaims her own improvised poetry on the steps of the Capitol in Rome. The crowds cheer and a visiting British aristocrat falls in love with her. …

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