The Marble Faun Background

The Marble Faun Background

Nathaniel Hawthorn owes the writing of his last novel, The Marble Faun, to the fact that Franklin Pierce was such an incompetent President that even today, more than 150 years and 30 contenders later, he still consistently ranks among the five worst Chief Executives in American history. (Some revenge could be enjoyed by Pierce if he knew that the man who replaced him, James Buchanan, routinely ranks below even him.) Hawthorne was not expecting this from Pierce. In 1852, the year Pierce won a contentious election, the author of The Scarlet Letter wrote a glowing biography of him. In return, Pierce appointed Hawthorne to be U.S. Consul to Liverpool. Four years later, Pierce could not even make it to becoming the Democratic candidate and became yet another in the long line of four and out Presidents of the 19th century. As for Hawthorne, he headed to Italy.

The Marble Faun drew on the experience of the Hawthorne family as they briefly called Rome and Florence their home. Hawthorne would go on experience tremendous guilt for continuing to write even as his teenage daughter Una contracted a case of malaria which brought her to the brink of death. At the time, malaria was also popularly known as “Roman fever” and it would come to play a large role in the narrative of the novel. The novel is not just remarkable in the career of Hawthorne for being his final published novel, but also because he concentrated especially on writing stories set in America as a challenge to produce an “American literature” and yet set The Marble Faun in Europe. The continental setting in which American characters play the central role has struck many scholars as being particularly influential on the fiction produced Henry James a few decades later.

Initial critical reaction was mixed and has remained so through the decades. The novel was published in 1860 and was not intended to be the author’s long form farewell. Over the next few years he attempted to write a follow-up, but could never complete any of what he started. Somewhat ironically since Hawthorne owed the genesis of his novel to Franklin Pierce, Hawthorne was on recuperative trip designed to improve his failing health with the former President by his side when he died May 19, 1864.

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