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Hawthorne, Sculpture, and the Question of American Art


Deanna Fernie


Farnham, England & Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2011

Hardback. xii+281 p. ISBN: 9780754654797. £55.00 / $99.95


Reviewed by Samuel Chase Coale

Wheaton College, Massachusetts




This well-written, multi-layered book, which deals both with the history and development of American art in relation to European traditions and with Hawthorne’s appreciation of and quarrels with it, presents a clearly defined and careful argument as offered by Deanna Fernie, who has studied and taught on both sides of the Atlantic and held a post-doctoral Fellowship from the Henry Moore Foundation from 1999 to 2001. She traces the American art scene from artisans to artists, from wood to marble, explores the significance of the gaze and the fragment in Romanticism, follows Hawthorne’s fascination with sculpture and painting while he was in Europe in the 1850s, and meticulously examines his short story, “Drowne’s Wooden Image” and his final published novel, The Marble Faun (1860).

American art began with craftsmen, with figureheads for ships and weathervanes atop barns as opposed to the European academic classical model of sculpture carved from marble. Americans were caught in the dilemma of experimenting with art in an effort to separate from the post-colonial cultural domination of European art and at the same time turning out “the first internationally renowned American sculptor, William Rush,” who was known as “an American Michelangelo” [119]. This resistance and attraction to European sculpture Fernie describes as a kind of “neutral territory,” which becomes the twilight zone of Hawthorne’s romances.

Washington Irving’s “sauntering gaze”[171] reflected the leisurely stroll amid ruins that intrigued so many Romantic European writers and painters, generating so many self-hypnotic reveries and “spots of time” that Wordsworth more or less invented in England. Fernie makes the strong case that Hawthorne built upon this gaze by turning it into a series of psychological probings and wanderings within a mind that appeared haunted, mysterious, and dark. Hawthorne’s images in his tales and romances seem to emerge from an inscrutable surrounding darkness, suggesting “a constant state of transformation in which nothing is allowed to harden into finite form” [177]. It is as if in his work he moves from moment to moment, each with its attendant moral or speculative symbolic significance, creating a process of reading that allows readers to feel as if they are participating in the very shaping of meaning as they move from spotlighted object or character to the next. “The classical rhetorical art of description [becomes] psychologized” [26], as the mind moves from one unfolding perception to another.

 In The Marble Faun, as we will see below, Fernie suggests that these moments, these fragments do not add up but remain disconnected from one another, islanded and estranged from each other, thus disrupting any continuous plot that Hawthorne was trying to create. Ekphrasis, the description of works of art in verbal form, results in momentary stays against confusion in terms of narrative instead of leading the way toward a visible and carefully orchestrated vision or theme. Hawthorne appreciated medieval gothic art much more than he did “the plain, smooth outline of classical sculpture” because such gothic carvings gave “rise to multiplicity, [emphasizing] the expressiveness of the often grotesque and exaggerated figures” [226], which struck Hawthorne as “the very process of Nature” [231]. These exaggerated figures and details for him suggested the condition of the human psyche with its distorted motives, its unconscious compulsions, its often irrational drives and obsessions, and its haunted visions that he viewed as very different from the classical austerity of marble statues.

Hawthorne’s art and his use of paintings and sculptures in his fictions, Fernie makes clear, is partly the result of the Romantic fascination with fragments, with glimpses of an invisible whole, like Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” which “plays on the mystique of the unfinished work, the vision only partially gleaned, and so also the ruin of the vanished whole” [109]. The fragment emphasizes process over product, open-ended possibilities in place of resolution, and remains suggestive, mysterious, unstable, and indefinite, creating a “perpetual present” [180], a space where moments of insight and perception can flourish without hardening into allegory or realistic fictional forms. Thus these fragments that suggest both ruin (the past) and project (the future) exist in the liminal space of Hawthorne’s romances, provoking “the sort of open-ended musings that might become the basis of a fiction” [114].

Hawthorne, therefore, would have appreciated Ruskin’s third law, “that of mystery; the law, namely, that nothing is ever seen perfectly, but only by fragments… the basis for truthful representation of nature” [94]. Such a law obviously conjures up the artist “as a self-creating figure” [95] as, in Fernie’s analysis,

a fragment or sketch forces the beholder actively to engage his or her imagination, beginning the process by which the work becomes incorporated into the self, and resulting in the interpenetration of subject and object [the romantic ideal]… The fragment becomes an emblem for works of art because of what incomplete form was thought to induce in the beholder: puzzlement, thought, perplexity. It focuses attention on the difficulty that is involved in the process… And it embodies, through its revelation of process, the creative impulse itself [100].

As Schlegel concluded, “The fragment, both by positing an essential incompletion, opens up the possibility of ongoing process in both the creation and the reception of art” [106]. Perplexity thus engages the reader. Enigma becomes knowledge in Hawthorne’s fiction. His romances thus keep “in play several ideas” [223] at once without selecting any one explanation to tie everything together: “It is the work of art that successfully holds in tension its properties of process and product that Hawthorne admires” [245]. “His writing provokes an act of reading where meaning takes shape, or at least appears to take shape, before the reader’s eyes, and where the reader is led to unearth what is often only suggested” [109].

Fernie focuses on Donatello’s development from faun to man, from sensual animal to moral human being, complete with guilt and conscience as the result of his murdering the model who pursues Miriam out of the shadows of the Eternal City and her own mysterious past. Kenyon’s unfinished bust of Donatello, therefore, “represents the awakening of Donatello’s moral and intellectual faculties,” and the fact that it is left unfinished “indicates process and moral development” [207] that continue well after the novel has ended and are never clearly defined as either good, bad, or forever ambiguous. Perhaps “by giving form to process itself, the bust crystallizes what the novel only partly attempts to articulate. Hawthorne relies on his sculptural images to do quite a lot of the work of the novel in carrying meaning” [216]. Or so the theory goes.

Why then is The Marble Faun so leaden, so lumpen, so elusive and, despite its use of art objects and Hawthorne’s elegant style, so downright “clunky”? Fernie suggests its failure lies in the uneasy relationship between sculpture and the written word. Sculpture in this case offers the substance, density, and surfaces of a realized and recognized object in space, “where an unfinished piece of writing does not. Unfinished, a novel is a collection of ‘passages’” [216]. Hawthorne was learning about sculpture as he beheld it, transfixed as he was by European tradition, whether approving or rejecting the piece he was observing. In some ways it paralyzed him, and even if in The Marble Faun, sculpture is viewed from many different angles to keep the narrative flowing, its very position disrupts and interrupts the flow of narrative and produces a gaze or fragment that seems to freeze, halt the plot, overwhelm the characters, and slow down any elusive plot that has trouble getting started in the first place.

The question then becomes: did Hawthorne determinedly and strategically fragment his plot? Was fragmentation a conscious literary strategy? Was his novel about the failure of the artistic imagination in Kenyon, Hilda, and Miriam as opposed to being a failure in and of itself [217]? The novel becomes a series of encounters, confrontations, and conversations, which are played off against works of art in Rome. The Marble Faun is, after all, “a story about change and process… the novel’s fragmentary form is similarity part of its meaning.”  As Fernie suggests, “It proposes that by not aiming at the seamless illusion of a perfect work of art its narrative can be more truthful to the fragmentary nature of experience and of one’s individual perception of another” [250] .

But the problem persists. The Marble Faun, whether intentionally or unconsciously fragmented, remains both turgid and vague as if the art objects have trumped the narrative, often bringing it to a standstill. They are fully, often beautifully described, along with the characters’ responses to them and the speculations they breed in both the author’s and the characters’ minds, but they bump into scattered notions of the Fortunate Fall, of education through sin (morality as the effect of murder?), of puritanical ideas about the imprisoning past that can never lose its grip, and of possible personal redemption and the like. These notions appear thin and wan when juxtaposed to or generated by the various paintings and sculptures that Hawthorne, in his own provincial manner, lingers over and observes. Donatello’s unfinished bust “seems to validate the novel’s experimental form through its concrete embodiment of process” [212]. In fact Hawthorne’s “novel is also about the medium in which he works” [212], but it seems more shattered than shaped.

Fernie suggests that part of the novel’s failure rests with the vagueness of Miriam’s model, who remains too thin and elusive a character, a cipher more than a character. Perhaps the splintered narrative tries to tackle too many approaches and strategies that involve myth, the development of western humanity, the significance of art, and the religious aspects of all three. But Fernie also suggests that sculpture in particular reveals the limitations of the written word. Its very heft undermines the very fragility not only of language’s trying to describe it but of an author at the same time trying to load it down with all kinds of significant possibilities and symbolic positions. Rome for him also suggested a vast graveyard, a visceral reaction that may have added a muted nihilism to the mute mystery of sculpture itself, as he wrestled with trying to turn motionless marble into moving and shifting perspectives. The Marble Faun is both not suggestive enough in terms of where it’s going but also too suggestive in its use of art to create isolated moral standstills of speculation that too often lead nowhere.

In any case Deanna Fernie has written a provocative and evocative book, rich with possibilities, clear in her careful arguments, and lavishly illustrated to prove her many points about sculpture and its uses in Hawthorne’s fiction. She links all of this to the parallel development of American art, involved as it is with both experimentation in its own right to establish its own cultural identity in a post-colonial world and with the opposite desire to repeat and copy European techniques and themes. Hawthorne is the perfect author to be trapped between the two positions, which creates the “twilight zone,” the “no-man’s land” of his dark romances. His “neutral territory” may be not so neutral but that liminal space “in which nothing is allowed to harden into finite form” [177] while sculpture proposes to represent just the opposite.


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