Miriam and the Conversion of the Jews in Nathaniel Hawthorne's the Marble Faun

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On June 23, 1858, while Hawthorne was arriving in Florence from Rome and preparing to complete his final romance, The Marble Faun, the Papal military stormed into the Bologna home of Momolo and Marianne Mortara, seizing one of their children, Edgardo, then six years old, and forcing the boy into confinement at the Casa Dei Catecumeni (The House of Catechumens) in Rome. The child's only "crime" was that he was a Jew who had been secretly baptized by the family's teenage Italian servant, Anne Morisis, when Edgardo was an infant, ill with a supposedly life-threatening disease. Believing that she was saving the child's innocent soul, and no doubt influenced by the Church's promise of millenarian rewards for her actions, Morisis had baptized Edgardo, performing a quick, simple ritual that all Jewish families knew to fear in theocratic Italy. Years later, when she revealed her action, Church authorities acted swiftly and decisively, as they had for nearly three centuries, to secure all Jewish converts. Baptism effected immediate conversion: Edgardo had to be removed from the Jewish community to live among the Catholic faithful. In spite of enormous international pressure on the Papacy and the subsequent decline of the Papal States in 1870, Edgardo was never returned to his parents; under the intense, personal supervision of Pope Pius IX himself, he eventually became a priest. (1)

Nevertheless, in 1858, Edgardo's much publicized abduction and forced conversion exploded into a cause celebre in England, France, and America, fueling public and political protests against the Pope, who seemed confident in his theocratic powers to act in ways that appeared regressively despotic to modern liberal Europe. Protestant England could boast of its enlightened tolerance of its Jews, while actively promoting their Protestant conversion through prominent, private organizations, such as the London Society for Promoting Christianity Amongst the Jews, where the enticements of economic and civil rights, rather than theocratic, police-enforced mandates, would work to solve "the Jewish question." (2) Protestant conversion of the English Jews reflected the interests of patriotic nationalism, while forced Catholic conversion reflected the grisly, anachronistic practices of the Inquisition, still a palpable threat to the civil and religious liberties of both Jew and Protestant, and, in the Mortara case, a danger to the familial foundation of society. If the Church could violate the principle of family integrity, in obvious contradiction to its own religious teachings, who or what was safe under the totalitarian grasp of the Papal States?

American Protestant reaction to the Mortara incident was predictably hostile to the Papacy. (3) However, the nature of the rhetoric surrounding accounts of the incident does not suggest pro-Jewish sentiments at all, but rather an inclination to use stories of Jewish persecution as texts for anti-Catholic attacks. Although there were nearly 150,000 Jews living in America in the 1850s, mostly in New York, Philadelphia, and Cincinnati, they were perceived as a closed, non-proselytizing religious sect and no real danger to American nativism. (4) On the other hand, Catholics, especially newly arriving Irish immigrants, were viewed with suspicion that their true allegiances resided in Rome and not America, and that Rome's main intention was to convert Americans to the true faith. While Jews might be viewed as harmless victims, Catholics were a palpable danger.

I believe that the Mortara kidnapping offers an important cultural context for Hawthorne's creation of Miriam in The Marble Faun, as well as for his portrayal of Hilda's abduction and his overall attitude toward both Catholics and Jews. Clearly, for Hawthorne, Protestants who were naive about the political power of the Church were not completely safe in Catholic Rome, evidenced by Hilda's capture and detainment for purposes of conversion at the Convent of the Sacre Coeur. …


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