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195 THE SENSATIONAL FICTION OF HAWTHORNE AND MELVILLE Anne French Dalke* "Great geniuses," Herman Melville explained in his well-known review of "Hawthorne and his Mosses," "are parts of the times . . . and possess a corresponding coloring."1 He might have added "whether they like it or not." The popular fiction of the 1850s earned only scorn from Melville and from the friend whose work he called "too deserving of popularity to be popular."2 Both Nathaniel Hawthorne and Melville maintained that the undramatic showing of their own books in the marketplace was a signal of their aesthetic excellence.3 Hawthorne declared that the "public taste" was occupied with trash";4 Melville argued likewise that the "plaudits of the public" were "strong presumptive evidence of mediocrity."5 Full of disdain for the artistic qualities of popular fiction, Hawthorne and Melville nonetheless shared with the best-selling writers of their day the codes in which certain social concerns were expressed. Scholars have long argued, for instance, that Hawthorne's second novel and much of Melville's late short fiction follow the formula established by the domestic sentimentalists and celebrate the redemptive power of the home.6 The motifs available to Hawthorne and Melville from popular fiction were not limited, however, to those of a sentimental nature. Both authors made extensive use as well of the sensational fiction that was being produced during the same period, fiction which utilized lurid motifs forbidden to domestic novels. By putting such motifs to work in their own fiction, Hawthorne and Melville executed an attack on the female sentimental mode and clearly identified themselves with the practitioners of a genre of a different gender. The sensational subgenre, written by authors such as Emerson Bennett , Osgood Bradbury, A. J. H. Duganne, F. A. Durivage, Henri Foster, Joseph Holt Ingraham, E. Z. C. Judson ("Ned Buntline"), George Lippard , and George Thompson, was published in cheap reprints, first by Frederick Gleason and Robert Bonner, later by Stratton and Bernard in Cincinnati, Peterson and Graham in Philadelphia, and Dewitt and Davenport in New York. The sensationalists consciously overturned the standard images of the sentimentalists, whose work had an explicit female focus. The domestic writers exorcised all sex from their fiction, often substituting sibling for sexual relations, and placed their stories of female growth and *Anne French Dalke is a Lecturer in the Department of English at Bryn Mawr College. She has previously published articles on Dickinson, Whitman, Louisa May Alcott, Henry James, George Eliot, Harriet Prescott Spofford, and T. S. Stribling. She is currently working on the journals of Rebecca Jackson. 196Anne French Dalke development in largely rural settings. In direct contrast, sensational fiction was written primarily by male authors for a readership that was in great measure male. Centered in the city, it was composed largely of melodramatic accounts of crime and poverty and reveled in descriptions of female anatomy. It was distinguished in particular by the enormous sexual power it granted to women. A common motif in this fiction, the fall of an innocent male to a female seducer who is man-like in her expression of energy, independence, and passion, reverses all sentimental clichés regarding sexual roles and their economic implications. The female seducer is both sexually and economically powerful , her male victim subject to a violation of virginity that leads inevitably to the destruction of his career. In George Lippard 's New York, for example, Frank van Huyden has a masculine name and occasionally wears masculine costume. She seduces four young male professionals—a lawyer, a preacher, an artist, and a doctor—and in doing so initiates for each an inexorable process of decline. In The Monks of Monk Hall, Lippard's Dora Livingstone is also man-like in dress and resolution ; her seductive power has force enough to destroy preachers, statesmen, and justices.7 The central fable handled so coarsely by sensational writers was more subtly developed by Hawthorne, more probingly examined by Melville. The multiple levels of meaning of The Scarlet Letter and the strange permutations of Pierre, for example, go far beyond the sensational subgenre, yet both find a point of departure there. The story told in The Scarlet Letter would have sounded...


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pp. 195-207
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