‘Romance and poetry … need Ruin to make them grow’: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun, or, The Romance of Monte Beni

marble-faun-or-romance-monte-beni-nathaniel-hawthorne-paperback-cover-artAt last, back at my desk from summer holidays – surfing on the Sunshine Coast – and turning my mind to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s extraordinary novel The Marble Faun.

The last of Hawthorne’s five novels, The Marble Faun is a haunting and tragic story about art and artists, set in Rome. Published in 1860, The Marble Faun is Hawthorne’s only novel set outside his native America. It opens with three expatriate artists in a Roman museum, examining the sculpture of a faun and noting its likeness to their Italian friend, Donatello. Like Donatello, the faun is ‘an amiable and sensual creature, easy, mirthful, apt for jollity, yet not incapable of being touched by pathos’.

From this meditation on a faun, that ancient fusion of man and beast, Hawthorne weaves a devastating story of innocence lost that becomes a complex examination of art and nature, and of Europe and its relationship to America. Seduced by the crumbling beauty of the Old World, European civilisation, the novel is at the same time haunted by a wistful longing for that age when ‘man’s affinity with Nature was more strict, and his fellowship with every living thing more intimate and dear’.

Nathaniel Hawthorne

Nathaniel Hawthorne

Nathaniel Hawthorne, a friend and contemporary of Herman Melville, came to prominence as a novelist at the age of 46 with the publication of The Scarlet Letter in 1850 – a date that marked the beginning of five dazzling years in American literature. The early 1850s saw the publication of America’s first international bestseller, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) by Harriet Beecher Stowe, as well as Thoreau’s Walden (1854), Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha (1855) and the first edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1855).

Hawthorne’s success was confirmed with the publication in quick succession of two more novels, The House of the Seven Gables in 1851 and The Blithedale Romance in 1852. That same year, Hawthorne also published the campaign biography of his old school friend Franklin Pierce, who was running for presidency. When Pierce became president in 1853, Hawthorne was rewarded with the prestigious appointment of United States consul in Liverpool, Britain.

Liverpool Harbour

Liverpool Harbour

At the time, Liverpool was England’s major Atlantic seaport and America’s prime foreign posting. In Liverpool, Hawthorne set out to write a novel about Britain – but instead he found himself so caught up in his public duties that he was unable to write, and suffered a profound crisis of imagination. His friend Herman Melville, himself close to a breakdown and having decided to write no more, visited Hawthorne in Liverpool. Together the two writers walked by the turbulent ocean and discussed their troubled literary fates.

Hawthorne had struggled all his life with this tension between his needs as an artist and his need to be part of the broader civic world. He’d accepted a series of prominent government postings and yet these inevitably conflicted with his requirement of ‘perfect seclusion’ to write. A private and deeply introspective man, his intense imaginative life sat uneasily with his public life.

Salem witch trial

Salem witch trial

Born on 4 July 1804 into an established New England family, Hawthorne’s ancestors had been prominent members of the early Puritan settlement. His great-great-grandfather John Hathorne (Hawthorne added the ‘w’) was one of the most severe, most zealous judges of the notorious 1692 Salem witch trials, and Hawthorne’s preoccupation with guilt and redemption can be seen as part of the burden of this ancestor’s dark legacy.

After college, Hawthorne spent 12 years writing and reading, publishing stories and the novel Fanshawe, before being appointed to the Boston Custom House. In 1841 he left his job to move to Brook Farm, a socialist cooperative, where he hoped to find a haven for writing. After seven months he left, his hopes unrealised. The following year he married his beloved fiancee, Sophia, and his new responsibilities as husband and father eventually forced him to accept a position at the Salem Custom House (during which time he wrote The Scarlet Letter).

When Pierce lost the presidency in 1857, Hawthorne lost his consulship in Liverpool. The following year he travelled to Florence with Sophia and their three children. In Florence Hawthorne began to work enthusiastically on a new romance, which he continued to sketch out the following winter in Rome. So struck was Hawthorne by the grandeur of Rome that everything else, including America and his New England Puritanism, seemed to him ephemeral: ‘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.’


The novel Hawthorne sketched out in Italy became The Marble Faun, which centres on the community of American artists he found in Rome. It opens in a sculpture gallery where the novel’s four central characters are looking at the ancient marbles. Three of the group – Hilda, Kenyon and Miriam – are artists and they’ve been simultaneously struck by the resemblance of an antique sculpture to their Italian friend Donatello: ‘Our friend Donatello is the very Faun of Praxiteles,’ remarks Miriam, prefiguring the tragedy that will unfold in the novel – for the Faun, and by extension Donatello, has ‘a capacity for strong and warm attachment, and might act devotedly through its impulse, and even die for it at need’.

The Faun of Praxiteles

The Faun of Praxiteles

Hilda and Kenyon are innocent Americans abroad, but Miriam is dark and sophisticated, with an air of haunting ambiguity which arises from the fact that her origins are unknown. She has been ‘plucked out of a mystery, and had its roots still clinging to her’. When Miriam’s exotic beauty attracts two Italian men, Donatello and a ‘spectre’ who appears from the depths of the catacombs, the seeds are sown of the tragic loss of innocence that lies at the heart of the novel.

In the Rome of The Marble Faun the past is more potent than the present. The city appears to strain under the weight of its massive history – its malaria-riddled streets are shadowed by the grandeur of ancient ruins; its rich classical heritage is alive in marble; the Catholic opulence of its Renaissance art is overwhelming. All this in apparent striking contrast to Hawthorne’s own New England Puritanism and the artlessness of the young American republic.

Rome 1860

Rome 1860

In his preface Hawthorne calls The Marble Faun a ‘Romance’ and explains that he chose Italy as its setting because it could act as ‘a sort of poetic or fairy precinct’ because ‘Romance and poetry, like ivy, lichens, and wall flowers, need Ruin to make them grow.’ Hawthorne wanted to be at liberty in his novel to invoke decadence and dark powers that might not have been acceptable to his readers if planted in American soil.

‘No author, without a trial, can conceive the difficulty of writing a Romance about a country where there is no shadow, no antiquity, no mystery, no picturesque and gloomy wrong, nor anything but a common-place prosperity in broad daylight, as is happily the case with my dear native land.’

And yet, ironically, while Hawthorne was in Europe grappling with art, nature and history, the ‘broad daylight’ of his ‘dear native land’ – the apparent innocence of America – was shortly to be lost forever. One year after The Marble Faun was published in 1860, the American Civil War erupted.

The Rome Hawthorne visited was almost untouched by the modern world – ‘the lights and shadows were still mediaeval’, wrote Harvard scholar, writer and compulsive global traveller Henry Adams of 1860s Rome. It was a Papal city garrisoned with French troops. Napoleon III was in the north of Italy, Count Camillo di Cavour was planning an independent Italy and Giuseppe Garibaldi was fighting with his thousand volunteers in the south.

But Hawthorne was so enchanted – ‘It is very singular, the sad embrace with which Rome takes possession of the soul’ – that he included in The Marble Faun numerous details of Rome, its architecture and art. So comprehensive was his portrait of Rome that following the Civil War, when America experienced the beginning of a new age of growth and Americans began to travel to Europe, one of the books they took with them as a guide to Rome was The Marble Faun.

One tourist who was struck deeply not only by Rome but by Hawthorne’s novel was the young Henry James, who first travelled to Rome in 1869. James discovered through Hawthorne ‘that an American could be an artist, one of the finest, without “going outside” about it, as I liked to say’.

The Marble Faun, with its exploration of the complex, troubled relationship between Europe and America, continued to influence American writers into the 20th century, and prefigures the work of novelists such as Fitzgerald and Hemingway.

Shortly after his return to America in 1860 aged 56, Hawthorne feel into a deep depression and his hair suddenly turned white. He began to write ’64’ compulsively on scraps of paper before dying in his sleep while on a walking tour of New Hampshire with Franklin Pierce in … 1864.


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3 Responses to ‘Romance and poetry … need Ruin to make them grow’: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun, or, The Romance of Monte Beni

  1. Fascinating post, Jane. There’s nothing like the Eternal City, eh? And oh, to be a seagull skimming the breeze while listening to Hawthorne and Melville!

  2. Thanks John. Yes, was thinking that as I wrote: how eternally rich Rome is. And totally, would love to know what Hawthorne and Melville spoke about. Or to have been there, even better. Their letters to each other are pretty extraordinary, needless to say.

    I’ll be blogging about Melville and Moby-Dick next, so more anon, but in one letter Melville writes to Hawthorne: ‘Knowing you persuades me more than the Bible of our immortality.’ Big.

  3. Pingback: ‘If you can imagine an angel with a thumping bank-account …’: The Wings of the Dove by Henry James | bookish girl

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