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  • The Marble Faun and American Postcolonial Ambivalence
  • Mark A. R. Kemp (bio)

In January 1858, when the Hawthorne family began a sixteen-month residence in Italy, an Italian nationalist named Felice Orsini attempted to assassinate Napoleon III in Paris. One result was the negotiations between France and Piedmont to expel the Austrian Empire from Italy and to divide the territorial spoils (France would get Nice and Savoy, Piedmont would receive Lombardy and Venetia). The “Risorgimento,” or national resurgence, was gaining ground in the cause of unifying the Italian peninsula as a state for the first time since the fall of the Roman Empire. In an earlier culmination of events, during the year 1849, Garibaldi’s forces had taken Rome and the political leader Mazzini had declared a republic centered there, Pope Pius IX having fled. French troops intervened to restore the Pope and remained in Rome for the next decade to protect the papacy from nationalists. 1 Although the decisive battles would not begin until May 1859, the same month the Hawthornes left Italy, the tense political climate of the country could not have completely escaped the notice of long-term tourists.

Hawthorne’s notebooks and letters from this period discuss ruins, art, bad weather, dirty streets, and other vacationing Americans, [End Page 209] but avoid touchier subjects. The Marble Faun, the romance produced by his sojourn and Hawthorne’s final published long fiction, is only a little less successful in banishing politics from its pages. It borrows the pagan and Catholic landscape (or mythscape) of Rome and the campagna to explore, once again, the dialectic of innocence and guilt, pointedly employing conventional romantic notions of Italy as the ideal setting for an allegory of the Fall of Man. Casting as the actors in this morality play a trio of foreign artists intent on discovering Rome and seizing its artistic essence also enabled Hawthorne to insert into the novel his lengthy critical judgments of art and artistry. Thus, not only can the novel thematize the creative process and make use of art criticism as a vehicle for moral commentary, but it can double as tourist guidebook for the multitude of wealthy Americans who sought to cultivate a (selective) knowledge and (proper) taste for paintings, ruins, and statuary. While the literary reception of the romance was gratifying enough, the vogue for carrying through Rome a copy of the romancer laureate’s artistic opinions assured a continued readership. 2

Yet the emphasis on museum tourism and the Puritan moral drama that gives it shape obscures the place and time The Marble Faun purports to describe. Rome is the “home of art” (214) and the Eternal City steeped, as Hawthorne endlessly reminds us, in history: “Side by side with the massiveness of the Roman Past, all matters, that we handle or dream of, now-a-days, look evanescent and visionary alike” (6). But at the same time, no art in the sense of original work seems to be created there; and the overdetermined “history” disappears into the sublime experience of ancient Rome and its venerable artifactual culture. In other words, history as something vital and present—the actual politics and culture of the Italian peninsula—is supplanted in the text by monumental and canonical history—“Rome.” Hawthorne’s Rome contains no events or people, only a chiaroscuro space for the expansive and, I will argue, expansionist, imagination. For while the allegorical romance conveys a fantasy of stateless and apolitical subjectivity, its (post)colonial unconscious suggests a radically unstable national narrative that both worries over the demise of the nation-state—the United States—and endorses the imperial vision that will sustain it.

These contradictions reveal an ambivalence which is unresolvable in Hawthorne’s text. That ambivalence consists of a nostalgia for colonial [End Page 210] origins and the dependency complex this nostalgia generates because it recollects a colonial security disrupted by revolutionary violence and threatened by contestations of the nation-state. Nostalgia and dependence are in tension with an underlying faith in the ideological rightness of American exceptionalism and ascendancy in the world. At this particular moment of the 1850s, wedged between the territorial acquisitions of Louisiana, New Mexico, and California and the...