Fictions of the Past

Hawthorne and Melville


This work explores the relationship between history and fiction in the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville. As Alide Cagidemetrio shows, both writers were preoccupied with a past - a preoccupation whose antecedents could be traced to the novels of Walter Scott. Yet they departed from established tradition in significant ways. Unlike their literary predecessors, who sought historical authenticity in the representation of past events, Hawthorne and Melville upheld a new idea of history, one based on the relevance of past to present, and, by extension, of present to future. Cagidemetrio grounds her analysis in the cultural context in which Hawthorne and Melville wrote, an era of unprecedented change when signs of the past were disappearing at an ever-quickening pace. Focusing on Hawthorne's "Legends of the Province-House", and his unfinished romances, and on Melville's much-neglected "Israel Potter", she demonstrates how both writers consciously experimented in writing the past "anew". Together, their historical fictions reflect the rise of a modern "historical consciousness", as Henry James calls it, as well as an effort to give form to the chaotic flux of change over time.