Critics tend to read Hawthorne’s “The Birth-mark” as his concern about his contemporaries’ overbelief in science, and Aylmer, the protagonist, is repeatedly regarded as a “mad scientist.” In my paper I argue that the story is not just about Hawthorne’s reaction against beliefs in humans’ power to control nature or ability in “spiritualizing the material.” More importantly, alchemy should be read as a trope to signify a writer’s imaginative power to transmute “lead or baser metals” into “gold.”
This paper also aims to re-contextualize Hawthorne’s story and situate it in its intellectual and cultural moment when literary professionalism was only beginning to emerge and when literature as imaginative work had yet to attain its sanctified status. It was in this context that Hawthorne’s idea of the “truth of the human heart” took shape. I argue that in “The Birth-mark” Hawthorne puts forth great effort to elevate the status of a writer’s imagination and that he regards it as a genuine transformative power. Furthermore, by placing Hawthorne’s alchemistic/artistic figure within a transatlantic context, I argue that Hawthorne was deeply engaged in transatlantic or transcultural encounters through which to fertilize his romance outside of his native soil. He constantly inscribes his tales in transnational events in order to imagine the U.S. present.