The Marble Faun
by Nathaniel Hawthorne
A review by James Russell Lowell
[Ed. Note. This review first ran in the Atlantic Monthly, April 1860.]
It is, we believe, more than thirty years since Mr. Hawthorne's first
appearance as an author; it is twenty-three since he gave his first collection
of Twice-told Tales to the world. His works have received that surest warranty of genius and originality in the widening of their appreciation
downward from a small circle of refined admirers and critics, till it embraced
the whole community of readers. With just enough encouragement to confirm his
faith in his own powers, those powers had time to ripen and toughen themselves
before the gales of popularity could twist them from the balance of a healthy
and normal development. Happy the author whose earliest works are read and
understood by the lustre thrown back upon them from his latest! for then we
receive the impression of continuity and cumulation of power, of peculiarity
deepening to individuality, of promise more than justified in the keeping:
unhappy, whose autumn shows only the aftermath and rowen of an earlier harvest,
whose would-be replenishments are but thin dilutions of his fame!
The nineteenth century has produced no more purely original writer than Mr.
Hawthorne. A shallow criticism has sometimes fancied a resemblance between him
and Poe. But it seems to us that the difference between them is the immeasurable one between talent carried to its ultimate, and genius, -- between a
masterly adaptation of the world of sense and appearance to the purposes of
Art, and a so thorough conception of the world of moral realities that Art
becomes the interpreter of something profounder than herself. In this respect
it is not extravagant to say that Hawthorne has something of kindred with
Shakspeare. But that breadth of nature which made Shakspeare incapable of alienation from common human nature and actual life is wanting to Hawthorne. He
is rather a denizen than a citizen of what men call the world. We are conscious
of a certain remoteness in his writings, as in those of Donne, but with such a difference that we should call the one super- and the other subter-sensual.
Hawthorne is psychological and metaphysical. Had he been born without the
poetic imagination, he would have written treatises on the Origin of Evil. He
does not draw characters, but rather conceives them and then shows them acted
upon by crime, passion, or circumstance, as if the element of Fate were as
present to his imagination as to that of a Greek dramatist. Helen we know, and
Antigone, and Benedick, and Falstaff, and Miranda, and Parson Adams, and Major
Pendennis, -- these people have walked on pavements or looked out of club-room
windows; but what are these idiosyncrasies into which Mr. Hawthorne has
breathed a necromantic life, and which he has endowed with the forms and
attributes of men? And yet, grant him his premises, that is, let him once get
his morbid tendency, whether inherited or the result of special experience,
either incarnated as a new man or usurping all the faculties of one already in
the flesh, and it is marvelous how subtilely and with what truth to as much of
human nature as is included in a diseased consciousness he traces all the
finest nerves of impulse and motive, how he compels every trivial circumstance
into an accomplice of his art, and makes the sky flame with foreboding or the
landscape chill and darken with remorse. It is impossible to think of Hawthorne
without at the same time thinking of the few great masters of imaginative
composition; his works, only not abstract because he has the genius to make
them ideal, belong not specially to our clime or generation; it is their moral
purpose alone, and perhaps their sadness, that mark him as the son of New
England and the Puritans.
It is commonly true of Hawthorne's romances that the interest centres in one
strongly defined protaganist, to whom the other characters are accessory and
subordinate, -- perhaps we should rather say a ruling Idea, of which all the
characters are fragmentary embodiments. They remind us of a symphony of
Beethoven's, in which, though there be variety of parts, yet all are infused
with the dominant motive, and heighten its impression by hints and far-away
suggestions at the most unexpected moment. As in Rome the obelisks are placed
at points toward which several streets converge, so in Mr. Hawthorne's stories
the actors and incidents seem but vistas through which we see the moral from
different points of view, -- a moral pointing skywards always, but inscribed with
hieroglyphs mysteriously suggestive, whose incitement to conjecture, while they
baffle it, we prefer to any prosaic solution.
Nothing could be more original or imaginative than the conception of the
character of Donatello in Mr. Hawthorne's new romance. His likeness to the
lovely statue of Praxiteles, his happy animal temperament, and the dim legend
of his pedigree are combined with wonderful art to reconcile us to the notion
of a Greek myth embodied in an Italian of the nineteenth century; and when at
length a soul is created in this primeval pagan, this child of earth, this
creature of mere instinct, awakened through sin to a conception of the
necessity of atonement, we feel, that, while we looked to be entertained with
the airiest of fictions, we were dealing with the most august truths of
psychology, with the most pregnant facts of modern history, and studying a
profound parable of the development of the Christian Idea.
Everything suffers a sea-change in the depths of Mr. Hawthorne's mind, gets
rimmed with an impalpable fringe of melancholy moss, and there is a tone of
sadness in this book as in the rest, but it does not leave us sad. In a series
of remarkable and characteristic works, it is perhaps the most remarkable and
characteristic. If you had picked up and read a stray leaf of it anywhere, you
would have exclaimed, "Hawthorne!"
The book is steeped in Italian atmosphere. There are many landscapes in it full
of breadth and power, and criticisms of of pictures and statues always
delicate, often profound. In the Preface, Mr. Hawthorne pays a well-deserved
tribute of admiration to several of our sculptors, especially to Story and
Akers. The hearty enthusiasm with which he elsewhere speaks of the former
artist's Cleopatra is no surprise to Mr. Story's friends at home, though
hardly less gratifying to them than it must be to the sculptor himself.
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