While doing some research for a Dark Tales Sleuth post, I ended up reading a curious piece from Nathaniel Hawthorne, called “A Virtuoso’s Collection” (1842). This is an allegorical metafiction where the (rather straight-laced) narrator happens upon an unusual museum, curated by a mysterious man known only at first as “the virtuoso.” The museum is full of exotic artifacts, culled from mythology, folklore, fiction, and history. But who is the virtuoso?
According to George Lathrop Parsons, who wrote an introduction to The Complete Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne (Volume II) around 1882 or so, this style of metafiction was a literary trend in the middle of the nineteenth century. Authors would compete to cram the most references into one story, sometimes at the expense of plot. Elizabeth Gaskell’s meta-fairytale “Curious, If True” is a fairly successful example of the genre, in terms of having an actual plot, of sorts.
“A Virtuoso’s Collection,” on the other hand, is fairly low-plot, albeit crammed with references; but it does work as a religious allegory, or maybe a parable. It’s also a peek into what might have been considered “common cultural knowledge” for a classically-educated white American in the mid-nineteenth century. I’m assuming, of course, that the reader is supposed to understand the majority of the references; though Hawthorne did slip in an allusion to one of his own stories, and there’s at least one item that seems just made up.
What defines “common culture” changes, especially after 150 years. I understood maybe half the references, and I thought it would be fun and educational to suss out all the rest. Educational and interesting it certainly was. I’ve learned (or sometimes, re-learned) a lot of things, and discovered a lot of really fascinating websites, too.
- You can read and explore an annotated version of “A Virtuoso’s Collection” over at Ephemera.
Some of the “annotations” are direct links; I chose where to link to based on some combination of stability of links, longevity, authoritativeness, conciseness when appropriate, and “neutrality” of viewpoint. That means there are a lot of links to Wikipedia (stable, not likely to go away), even when Wikipedia might not be the most expert source on a topic. I also tried not to link to sites with too many ads or other irrelevant visual clutter.
Other annotations are actually notes that I wrote up, because one link seemed insufficient, or I couldn’t find a consise information source. I think the notes are longer than that story itself….
So if you want to test your familiarity with what Hawthorne considered relatively common cultural knowledge, please do explore. I found it to be an intellectually stimulating romp through classical mythology, folklore, literature and history; maybe you will too.
Featured Image: Corner of a Museum, Konstantin Gorbatov (1916). Source: WikiArt
The Artist in His Museum, Charles Wilson Peale (1822). Source: WikiArt