Nathaniel Hawthorne and "Our Old Home"

  • Theme:  American literature in Europe

Europe has long exerted a fascination for American writers and artists. All the way back to Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper (the writers behind the tales of Rip Van Winkle and The Last of the Mohicans), and on through Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville and Mark Twain, the transatlantic pilgrimage—often described as a voyage back to “our old home” (the title of a work by Hawthorne)—was a long-established feature of American literature. For many major American writers, Europe represented a complex model of aesthetic refinement, beauty, and historical depth, decadence and moral doubt.

The classic American myth of Europe as the site of “Romance” is elaborated in the uncanny writings of Nathaniel Hawthorne. In early works like The Scarlet Letter (1850), with its evocation of Puritan society, along with The House of Seven Gables (1851), and The Blithedale Romance (1852), Hawthorne masterfully recreated both the hopes and ideals, and the mystery and dread of the new American nation. Hawthorne was one of America’s first great fabulists, a writer who depicted the country’s stark origins and the ambiguous legacy of Puritanism and Transcendentalism. Hawthorne also spent a prolonged period in Europe as a traveller and later as the US Consul General in Liverpool—the main port of American access to Europe, and “gateway between the Old World and the New”.

Hawthorne published his final novel, The Marble Faun, Or The Romance of Monte Beni in 1860. This late masterpiece, set in a picturesque but degenerate Italy of classical art, decadence and disease, contrasts the moral naivety of its American characters with the doomed, amoral aesthetes of Rome. The American title "The Marble Faun" was changed in the British edition to "Transformation: or the Romance of Monte Beni", much to Hawthorne's dissatisfaction. One of the British Library’s most impressive literary treasures by a foreign author is an original manuscript of The Marble Faun in the author’s hand, “rewritten and prepared for the press” during his stay in England in 1859 (BL MS. Add. 44889, 44890).

In his celebrated Preface to the manuscript, Hawthorne notes the importance of its European setting to his creation of the “Romance”—a literary form which he much preferred to the more prosaic novel:

Italy, as the site of this Romance, was chiefly available to the Author as a sort of poetic or faery precinct, where actualities would not be so terribly insisted upon as they are, and must needs be, in America. No author… can conceive of the difficulty of writing a romance about a country where there is no shadow, no mystery, no picturesque and gloomy wrong, nor anything but a commonplace prosperity, in broad and simple daylight, as is happily the case with my dear native land…. Romance and poetry, ivy, lichens, and wall-flowers need ruin to make them grow.

With these words, Hawthorne drew attention to what would become the abiding preoccupations of American “transatlantic fiction” in the decades to come.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Marble Faun

The Marbe Faun by Nigel Hawthorne

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The Marble Faun by Nathaniel Hawthorne title page

Nathaniel Hawthorne

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Copyright: © British Library