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  • Hawthorne’s Empire: Sculpture and the Indigenous in The Marble Faun
  • Clayton Zuba (bio)

Throughout The Marble Faun, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s depiction of Donatello’s racial and ethnic identity remains cryptic. Donatello, the novel’s titular character, is described as a member of an ancient race that is indigenous to the Italian peninsula colonized by the Roman Empire. But Hawthorne also characterizes him through a combination of racialized tropes frequently applied to Native Americans, to Africans, or to both groups, in antebellum American culture. Hawthorne’s pairing of indigeneity with this vexed racial categorization has seldom been explored by critics of The Marble Faun, yet both are integral to the novel’s commentary on race. Donatello’s racially ambiguous indigeneity is particularly evident at the beginning of The Marble Faun’s second volume, when an old butler informs the expatriate American sculptor Kenyon that Donatello’s family descends from a member of a faun-like race “not altogether human” (232). This race originated in pre-historical Italy, long before the novel’s antebellum present. Donatello’s family line, according to this legend, began with the union of one of these fauns and a “mortal maiden” “while Italy was yet guiltless of Rome.”1 Hawthorne thereby positions Donatello as a descendant of an indigenous people colonized by settler-invaders who conquered Italy, and would become the Roman Empire. As critics have noted, Hawthorne set his last-completed novel in mid-century Rome in order to spatially displace racial and cultural issues confronting the United States.2 In this context, Donatello’s history might suggest for readers an analogy to the position of Native Americans. But Hawthorne confounds definitive classification by then comparing Kenyon’s investigation of Donatello’s ancestry to a search for the origin of the Nile, thereby linking Donatello to African origins.3 The dominant strain of criticism of the novel pursues this second point [End Page 161] of reference, and interprets Donatello, along with the character Miriam, to represent the enslaved Africans who endured forced transatlantic migrations to North America. That body of work largely neglects the novel’s use of indigeneity. In what follows, I pursue the implications of both Donatello’s clear association with indigeneity and his racial ambiguity, which in turn leads to a reassessment of the novel’s inquiry into the foundations of American Empire.

The current consensus surrounding The Marble Faun’s treatment of race has played a major part in Hawthorne’s reputation as an apologist for slavery and tacit endorser of American imperialism.4 As one of the first critics to illuminate the discourses of race embedded in the novel, Nancy Bentley argued in her 1990 article “Slaves and Fauns” that while Donatello encapsulates many qualities representative of Africans in antebellum America, he also embodies characteristics ascribed to Native Americans as noble savages. Thus, writes Bentley, the novel “captures a complex constellation of beliefs about race, culture, and American progress.”5 In The Ethnography of Manners (1995), Bentley would expand the scope of her argument to contend that Hawthorne attempts to maintain the purity of advanced moral, political, cultural, and aesthetic values in the face of primitive “transgressive energies” represented by Donatello and Miriam.6 In both cases, Bentley’s thesis relies on Donatello and Miriam’s racial indeterminacy. But subsequent literary critics such as Evan Carton and Blythe-Anne Tellefsen, as well as art historians such as Charmaine Nelson, have focused on the aspects of Bentley’s argument that understand Miriam and Donatello as representative of enslaved blacks.7 According to this interpretation, Hilda and Kenyon represent a pure white American nation divided by growing sectionalism between Northern and Southern states, threatened by the looming challenge of integrating racially different, emancipated slaves whom Donatello and Miriam represent. Following this line of inquiry, scholars such as Tellefson, Eric Cheyfitz and Mark Kemp have concluded that the novel rejects the idea that emancipated blacks might safely become American citizens and thus represents a call for the perpetual segregation of whites and blacks to sustain the American nation.8 Each of these studies has illuminated important facets of The Marble Faun’s racial logic. However, in focusing on only one strand of the...


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pp. 161-182
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