When first published in 1879 Hawthorne was attacked for its stress upon the provinciality of American culture and taste, which James represented as constraining Nathaniel Hawthorne. But if biography takes the form of a complex negotiation between the biographer’s self and the historical subject, then James’s treatment of Hawthorne serves as a fascinating delineation of his own literary and cultural self.Hawthorne not only stands as an intriguing commentary by one important writer on another but also speaks tellingly about the self-conscious development of both American and modern culture. Hawthorne is famously depicted as an exquisite ‘romancer’ of ‘light and capricious’ intellect, whilst the Jamesian aesthetic self, in the form of the generous, amused, and tolerant narrative voice of Hawthorne, seeks to distance itself from his legacy, presuming its own cultural maturity. Yet, perversely, this attempt at differentiation illuminates the anxious relationship between Hawthorne and James, and beyond, to T.S.Eliot, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and the mainstream of late American modernism. Deep ironies reside in James’s words. ‘Whatever may have been Hawthorne’s private lot, he has the importance of being them most beautiful and most eminent representative of a literature. The importance of the literature may be questioned, but at any rate, in the field of letters, Hawthorne is the most valuable example of the American genius’. Kate Fullbrook, who died in 2003, was Professor of English at the University of West England.
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