A Virtuoso’s Collection, Annotated

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?

C W Peale: The Artist in his Museum (1822)

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.

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