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AESTHETIC HEADACHES AND EUROPEAN WOMEN IN THE MARBLE FAUN AND THE AMERICAN Leland Person, Jr.* Although the lure of the West (literal and metaphorical) worked a nearly irresistible magic on the heroes of nineteenth-century American novels, their creators also manifested a profound attraction for Europe and the Old World. At the same time that American literature was dominated by a westering, Adamic impulse (what Daniel Hoffman has termed a "radical search for identity by attempting to free ourselves from old forms, old orders, old hierarchies of rank and belief, to discover the emergent man") the American protagonist was drawn inexorably eastward into the American city and toward the forbidding, often bewildering, complexities of European culture.1 The eastering movement, widely demonstrable in the nineteenth-century novel, became in effect the dark, experiential side of the escape to the freedom of the frontier. In contrast to the vast open space, freedom in nature, and essentially male asexuality of the American West, Europe came to represent to the American imagination enclosed, often labyrinthine spaces, the manifold dangers of the city, and the irresistible attractions of the female. While entry into the American city was viewed somewhat anxiously as a "crucial step to maturity"2 and manhood, Europe was viewed with far more anxiety as a deadly, emasculating, thoroughly transforming and magical realm. The Chesterfieldian villain of Royall Tyler's The Contrast (1790), for example, is Billy Dimple, victim of a Europeanvisit in which he has renounced his American nature, even his name (Van Dumpling), and by which he has been "metamorphosed into a flippant, palid, polite beau."3 Similarly, in Nathaniel Hawthorne's Our OldHome (1863), an American Doctor of Divinity, once a "perfect model of clerical propriety," appears to Hawthorne within a week of his arrival in England completely transformed and suffering from delirium tremens; "he had lost his personal identity."4 Additionally, Herman Melville depicts England's debilitating power in the image of Israel Potter, "Leland Person teaches in the English Department at Indiana University. 66Lehnd Person, Jr. reduced by the presence of an English wife and child to decades of scavenging in the London sewers,5 and in Wellingborough Redburn's night of delirium, nightmare, and surrealistic visions of the earth's evil in a London "Aladdin's Palace." "The whole place seemed infected," Redburn writes, as if "some eastern plague had been imported." And though the room begins to crawl with lizards, he notes that this series of "fearful reveries only enchanted me fast to my chair; so that, though I wished to rush forth from the house, my limbs seemed manacled."6 For these American characters, the experience of Europe is dangerous and at least potentially transforming. In most of these works, however, the particular metamorphic force is left rather vague; Europe is abstractly conceived as a realm of primal terror and deadly influence. But for Hawthorne and the early Henry James, especially in The Marble Faun (1860) and The American (1877), the terrifying aspects of Europe crystaUize in the figure of a European woman, who comes to embody all that was viewed as alien to the westering mainstream of American experience. Moreover, both Hawthorne and James make the European woman a symbolic nexus for exploring the American's relationship to European culture and to the problems inherent in the creation of art. As artist or symbolic art object, she comes to represent the very wellsprings, the dark visionary promptings, of the creation and experience of art—what Nina Baym has termed the "archaic, erotic, creative core of energy in the psyche."7 Men who abandon themselves to this visionary impulse and enter the magic circle of the European woman's incantational charms frequently risk insanity or death. They perceive themselves as implicated in a vortex of formlessness, as having plunged into a sea, as having surrendered to a world of nightmare and madness, or as having passed between the jaws of some devouring machine. An early example of the transforming power of the European woman occurs in Hawthorne's "Rappaccini's Daughter" (1844). Although the tale does not contain an American character, Beatrice Rappaccini's presence becomes for the young Giovanni a "region of unspeakable...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2158-5806
Print ISSN
0091-8083
Pages
pp. 65-79
Launched on MUSE
2014-10-01
Open Access
No
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