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Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1804-1864

Introductory Note

to The Marble Faun

By George Parsons Lathrop

[From the Riverside Press edition of 1890, Houghton, Mifflin and Company, volume 1, pages 7-12.]

THE last of Hawthorne's completed romances was also thought by its author to be his best. "The Marble Faun" certainly was the outcome of copious observation and mature deliberation; and it was produced after he had rested from composition for the space of five years. He began the book in the winter of 1859, at Rome, while harassed by illness in his family, and to some extent distracted by the number of interests appealing to him on all sides--" interruptions," as he expressed it, "from things to see and things to suffer."

He wrote to Mr. Fields at this time: "I take great credit to myself for having sternly shut myself up for an hour or two almost every day, and come to close grips with a romance which I have been trying to tear out of my mind. As for my success, I can't say much. . . . I only know that I have produced what seems to be a larger amount of scribble than either of my former romances, and that portions of it interested me a good deal while I was writing them."

He had already begun to sketch the romance during the previous summer while at Florence, where he wrote, in his journal, with reference to this new scheme: "It leave" me little heart for journalizing and describing new things; and six months of uninterrupted monotony would be more valuahie to me just now, than the most brilliant succession of novelties." Soon after this he removed from his quarters in the city to the villa of Montauto on the hill called Bellosguardo, about a mile from Florence. This is a lovely spot, and the view from it over the valley of the Arno has since been described by a sympathetic traveller, himself a poet, as suggesting an outlook upon some "glade of heaven." The villa itself, which remains standing, and is occasionally occupied by American tenants, is a capacious, old-fashioned building, with a tower, and served as the model for Donatello's ancestral home, Monte Beni. At the time of Hawthorne' s residence there, it was invested with a sort of tradition not likely to lessen its desirability for him--that of being haunted. A murder was said to have been committed at some epoch conveniently remote, in a small oratory, in the tower; and from time to time semi-unaccountable sounds--the rustling of unseen robes, stealthy steps, and groans from the oratory,--were heard, which passed as evidence that the tragedy was reenacting by the murderer and the victim. Here Hawthorne continued, no doubt, to dream over his new story, perhaps putting an occasional touch to it. On the journey thence to Siena, in October, he left the manuscript in a bag, under one of the seats in the railway carriage; but, as he notes down, on going to search for his luggage, "At last the whole of our ten trunks and tin bandbox were produced, and finally my leather bag, in which was my journal and a manuscript book containing my sketch of a romance. It gladdened my very heart to see it."

While in Rome, hawthorne went on laboring and meditating upon "The Marble Faun," the general theme and scope of which he occasionally descanted upon to his friend John Lothrop Motley, during the rambles which they took together; though the romancer never gave the historian any clew to the whole problem of his still unfinished work. Partly because of the interruptions already mentioned, and partly for other reasons, the book did not progress beyond the stage of an elaborate sketch until Hawthorne quitted the Continent. "I find this Italian air," he had said in a letter from Florence, "not favorable to the close toil of composition, although it is a very good air to dream in. I must breathe the fogs of old England, or the east-winds of Massachusetts, in order to put me into working trim." Finally, on getting to England, he systematically set about concluding his task, as Mrs. Hawthorne has explained.

"More than four months were now taken up in writing 'The Marble Faun,' in great part at the seaside town of Redcar, Yorkshire, Mr. Hawthorne having concluded to remain another year in England, chiefly to accomplish that romance. In Redcar, where he remained till September or October, he wrote no journal, but only the book. He then went to Leamington, wbere he finished 'The Marble Faun,' in March [1860]." [1]

"The long, hairy ears of Midas," in the "Virtuoso's Collection," have already been spoken of as furnishing a slight intimation of Hawthorne's interest in such a phenomenon, [2] long before he went to Italy. But the first positive trace of the conception, which was to ripen into "The Marble Faun," appears in the "French and Italian Note-Books," under the date of April 22, 1858. Setting down a brief account of his visit to the Capitol, Hawthorne says:-- "We afterwards went into the sculpture gallery, where I looked at the Faun of Praxiteles, and was sensible of a peculiar charm in it; a sylvan beauty and homeliness, friendly and wild at once. The lengthened but not preposterous ears, and the little tail which we infer, have an exquisite effect, and make the spectator smile in his very heart. This race of fauns was the most delightful of all that antiquity imagined. It seems to me that a story, with all sorts of fun and pathos in it, might be contrived on the idea of their species having become intermingled with the human race . . . the pretty hairy ears should occasionally reappear in members of the family; and the moral instincts and intellectual characteristics of the faun might be most picturesquely brought out, without detriment to the human interest of the story. Fancy this combination in the person of a young lady!"

It is believed by a member of the author's family that one of the Counts of Montauto, whose personal appearance and grace were known to have made an impression on Hawthorne, furnished him with suggestions which established a connection between the Faun of Praxiteles and the Montauto villa as it afterward appeared, under the guise of Monte Beni. This living figure may also perhaps have assisted him in giving reality to his conception of Donatello. The young italian of the romance, whose resemblance to the statue is made an important point, receives appropriately the name of a famous Italian sculptor; a name of which the associations form a link between the marble and the man. The assertion has often been put forth in private, and it may be in print also, that Hawthorne made studies for other personages in the story from people of his acquaintance, and even from members of his own family or household. It is perhaps advisable to state here that there is no authority whatever for such an assertion, excepting the unaided fancy of those who, having known something of his connections, chose to trace purely imaginary resemblances. With the problem of Donatello's development into a being with a conscience was interwoven the mystery of Miriam's situation, concerning which no more need be said in this place than that it was evidently inspired by the author's reflections upon the story of Beatrice Cenci. [3] Of the original of Hilda's tower in the Via Portoghese, at Rome, a description is given in the "Note-Books" (May 15, 1858), together with the legend accounting for the perpetual light at the Virgin's shrine on the tower. (Among Italians, this story has imparted to the building the name of Torre del Simio.)

Several names were proposed for the romance, and among them "The Transformahon of the Faun." This the English publishers shortened to "Transformation," while in America the work was brought out with the better known title, preferred by Hawthorne himself, "The Marble Faun: a Romance of Monte Beni." Among the many tokens of success which its publication brought to Hawthorne was a letter from Motley, with an extract from which this note may close:--

"Everything that you have ever written, I believe, I have read many times. . . . But the 'Romance of Monte Beni,' has the additional charm for me that it is the first book of yours that I have read since I had the pleasnre of making your personal acquaintance. My memory goes back at once to those walks (alas, not too frequent) we used to take along the Tiber, or in the Campagna; . . . and it is delightful to get hold of the book now, and know that it is impossible for you any longer, after waving your wand as you occasionally did then, indicating where the treasure was hidden, to sink it again beyond plummet's sound. . . . . With regard to the story, which has been some what criticised, I can only say that to me it is quite satisfactory. I like these shadowy, weird, fantastic, Hawthornesque shapes flitting through the golden gloom which is the atmosphere of the book. I like the misty way in which the story is indicated rather than revealed; the outlines are quite definite enough from the beginning to the end, to those who have imagination enough to follow you in your airy flights; and to those who complain, I suppose that nothing less than an illustrated edition, with a large gallows on the last page, with Donatello in the most pensile of attitudes--his ears revealed through a white night-cap--would be satisfactory."

In replying to this, Hawthorne wrote: "You work out my imperfect efforts and half make the book with your warm imagination; and see what I myself saw, but could only hint at. Well, the romance is a success, even if it never finds another reader."

G. P. L.
[George Parsons Lathrop]


[Footnote 1:] French and Italian Note~Books, June 22, 1859.

[Footnote 2:] See the prefatory note to Mosses from an Old Manse, in this edition.

[Footnote 3:] Should the reader care to see a discussion of this matter, the ninth chapter of A Study of Hawthorne may be consulted.

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