Although many critics have read The Marble Faun (1850) as a dull European travelogue that conveniently and inappropriately ignores the issues facing pre-Civil War America, in fact, this novel does engage the questions about national identity posed by the antebellum era. The central argument of The Marble Faun is whether or not African Americans and Catholic immigrants can become full-fledged Americans. That most troublesome of characters, the either admirable or hypocritical Hilda, is so troublesome precisely because she is a nexus where American tensions over the formation of national identity during the antebellum period coalesce. She demonstrates the vulnerability of white, Protestant-American identity to the influence of other ethnic, religious, and racial identities, and her response to those various potential influences indicates how such threats or possibilities will be managed in the new nation. The novel decides that African Americans cannot be reconciled to society and included in the nation's future. American identity can resist the not entirely pernicious influence of Catholicism, but it cannot risk further contact with Africanist Others. However, The Marble Faun argues not that the shifting, complex, open American identity should be fixed, established, and rendered impenetrable to at least some outside forces; instead, it suggests that such a fixed identity, once achieved, will inevitably crumble under the weight of these excluded outside forces.
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