Yet, at the height of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s powers, with a sounder preparation than any American contemporary for fictional tasks still uncompleted, he wrote no fiction to speak of. Like many American writers who followed him, he had come up to a plateau of eminence that was just too comfortable to dive from. What happy family man and respected public servant could voluntarily turn back from that sublit height into the haunted mire from which his art had successfully raided him?
In the years left to him however, he proved that he was not through as a writer. In Italy, where he took his family for a protracted stay after his consulship terminated, he started to shape the outlines for the most ambitious of his novels, The Marble Faun. It was to be nothing less than the re-created legend of man’s fall, a kind of novelistic Paradise Lost where pagan myths were mingled with Christian doctrine and dressed in the circumstances of nineteenth-century Roman life.
The “faun” Donatello was to represent the legendary Adam, perfect but unspiritualized in his relation with nature until the Woman, Miriam, a young woman painter in Rome, ensnares him as an accomplice in her crime. The heroine of this romance, another young lady artist named Hilda, was perhaps intended to personify that “angel and apostle of the coming revelation” prophesied with such hopeless longing at the end of The Scarlet Letter.
The intent is breathtaking. The accomplishment, however, is like some improvident, undermanned excursion into a wilderness that will later be overtaken by inferior pilgrims carrying better maps and compasses. If Hawthorne had only acquired the disciplines of fiction that are commonplace to literally dozens of his inferior successors, this last novel might have indeed been the heroic rounding out of his life’s work. Here was his great and chosen opportunity to fuse the diverse capacities shown in The Scarlet Letter and The Blithedale Romance.
Instead of being fused, the grand design crumbles into fragments we can ramble among without any compelling sense of direction. Where he should be writing a novel Hawthorne breaks off to write art appreciation, bound to start dating badly as soon as a new generation of tourists romped through the Roman galleries he was celebrating. He has put in extensive passages of travelogue, mere guidance to young ladies planning a trip abroad. Worst of all, again and again, the author keeps telling the reader what he is about to do without doing it, what he is doing without demonstrating that he is doing anything at all with his story, and what he has done without answering the reader’s impatiently suspended question: How did things really happen?
Though it was published with some success and has had admirers through the years- some valuing it as a tourist guide to Rome, some for the ghostly promise of what it should have been; The Marble Faun is really no more a fully resolved work of art than the manuscripts of three other romances Hawthorne left incomplete at his death in 1864. The best we can say is that ot was a big try. The big try is never a pure loss.
Hawthorne died on a journey. After his return to America in 1860, his physical and mental forces began, unevenly, with long periods of hesitation and the illusion of sustained health, to desert him. The nature of his illness is not known. He seems to have had a disease of the brain or spine.
In the end, the outrun glooms of Salem, Mass. , returned to haunt his mind. The resolute cheerfulness he had maintained for his family’s sake began to break up in periods of despondency. He agreed to the suggestion that an excursion into the country might put him right. He did not return alive. Dr. Holmes, who saw him eight days before his death, speculated that he “had died by fainting.”
In the end, it can
aid that The Scarlet Letter and half a dozen of his best short stories are essential to anyone’s grasp of American history and present conscience. Hawthorne tried to bring light and dark strands of American experience into a single pattern. The point at which he let go his effort is still the high water mark of our insight into early United States life.