The Blithedale Romance
THE BLITHEDALE ROMANCE
Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Blithedale Romance (1852) is complex in form and content, and a key reason for its complexity is the intriguing relationship between Hawthorne (1804–1864) and Miles Coverdale, the bachelor-poet narrator who describes his membership in the utopian community of Blithedale "twelve long years" (p. 837) after it occurred. This is the only novel that Hawthorne wrote with a first-person narrator, and because he spent seven months at Brook Farm, a cooperative community begun in 1841 in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, he thereby encourages readers to identify him with Coverdale.
Hawthorne's depiction of Coverdale is, however, intimate and detached, sympathetic and ironic. He exposes his narrator's faults—a paralyzing self-absorption, a tendency to inspect and probe the hearts and minds of other persons, an inability to sustain genuine commitments—as well as his appealing qualities of stumbling humor, earnest if sometimes awkward sincerity, and, for a time at least, hopefulness that the world can be made new through communities grounded in socialist values and principles. The novel's complicated point of view and its subtle, shifting tone make the question of Hawthorne's attitudes toward Brook Farm and social reform both fascinating and elusive, suggestive yet difficult to pin down—which is how Hawthorne wanted it.
HAWTHORNE, BROOK FARM, AND REFORM
Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales, a collection of eighteen stories that had appeared in periodicals, was published in March 1837. He sent a copy to the educator and writer Elizabeth Peabody, who was friendly with the Mannings (the family of Hawthorne's mother) in Salem, Massachusetts, and in November 1837 the thirty-three-year-old struggling short story writer made his first call on the Peabody family. He met Elizabeth's sister, Sophia, whom he courted and to whom he became secretly engaged.
Hawthorne became intent on finding work that would enable him to marry Sophia and enjoy extended periods of time to concentrate on his literary art. From 1839 to 1840 he held a position in the Boston Custom House, but he resigned (the work was tedious) in November 1840. In this same month he decided to join the Brook Farm community, which the Unitarian minister and scholar George Ripley and other reformers planned to establish in the West Roxbury countryside, a few miles outside Boston.
Ripley was also one of the founders of the Transcendental Club. Begun in 1836 as Hedge's Club—the name derived from F. H. Hedge, a scholar and Unitarian minister from Maine—its members included Ralph Waldo Emerson, the minister and reformer Theodore Parker, the writer Margaret Fuller, the teacher-philosopher Amos Bronson Alcott, and others whom Hawthorne knew.
Hawthorne's relation to transcendentalism was marginal. But he was familiar with transcendentalists and their activities in Boston, Concord, and Cambridge, and thus he was in a prime position to consider and reflect upon the reform movements and utopian experiments that many were discussing and debating in the area. Hawthorne introduces and explores a host of transcendentalist-inspired ideas and projects in the utopian setting he presents in The Blithedale Romance, most notably women's rights and prison reform.
The "woman question" had emerged as a byproduct of antislavery agitation. When the abolitionists Angelina and Sarah Grimké of South Carolina were ridiculed and mobbed in the 1830s for presuming to speak in public, they were obliged to proclaim and defend their rights as women. The attacks on the Grimkés' "unnatural" behavior have affinities with the harsh terms that Hollingsworth uses in The Blithedale Romance to indict women who stray from functioning as man's sympathizer and helpmate.
Prison reform engaged such stalwart figures as the writer and abolitionist Samuel Gridley Howe and Theodore Parker, both of whom made recommendations for improving prisons and transforming criminals into upright citizens. Hollingsworth shares their concerns, though Hawthorne does not specify the type of prison reform that his vehement but rigid character espouses. Exactly what Hollingsworth wants matters less to Hawthorne than the fact that this liberal reformer cannot tolerate opposition or disagreement.
The reformers of Hawthorne's era who launched utopian communities, fought against slavery, campaigned for women's rights, and advocated prison reform made American society better than it was. But for Hawthorne, reform all too frequently led to fanaticism and exploitation of others, as Hollingsworth's conduct reveals. It brought with it, he believed, disturbing consequences for persons and their relationships that reformers failed to anticipate and cared little about.
HAWTHORNE'S EXPERIENCES AT BROOK FARM
Soon after Hawthorne arrived at Brook Farm on 12 April 1841, he and the others were busy chopping and carrying wood, cutting hay, and plowing and planting the fields. In his first letter to Sophia, 13 April 1841, Hawthorne assured her, "Think that I am gone before, to prepare a home for my Dove, and will return for her, all in good time" (Letters, p. 527). He signed his first letter to his sisters Elizabeth and Louisa (who were unsympathetic to his Brook Farm foray), "Nath. Hawthorne, Ploughman" (Letters, p. 540). He said he enjoyed the countryside, the routine, and the fellowship. He marveled at the tasks he accomplished, exclaiming in a 16 April letter to Sophia, "Thy husband has milked a cow!!!" (Letters, p. 531).
Hawthorne's signs of discontent are evident early, however, as when he apologized to Sophia on 22 April for his "abominable" handwriting—the result of having chopped wood and turned a grindstone for long hours. "It is an endless surprise to me," he admitted, "how much work there is to be done in the world" (Letters, p. 533). On 1 June, Hawthorne confessed that he had been "too busy to write thee a long letter. . . . I think this present life of mine gives me an antipathy to pen and ink, even more than my Custom House experience did" (Letters, p. 545); and he went on to bemoan the amount of fatiguing labor.
"Thou and I must form other plans for ourselves," Hawthorne said to Sophia in a 22 August letter, "for I can see few or no signs that Providence purposes to give us a home here" (Letters, p. 563). In several letters to Sophia he referred to his bondage and enslavement at Brook Farm, and in one, 3 September, he went so far as to declare that "the real Me was never an associate of the community" (Letters, p. 567).
By August, Hawthorne had become a boarder, paying his own way (four dollars per week), and he thereby freed himself from manual labor. He spent the first three weeks of September at home in Salem but was back at Brook Farm for a few final weeks. Hawthorne left Brook Farm for good in November and returned to Salem. In July 1842 he married Sophia and settled in the Old Manse in Concord. After several years there, in October 1845, Hawthorne, Sophia, and their daughter Una (born in 1844) moved to Salem, and in April 1846 he accepted an appointment as surveyor in the Salem Custom House, where he served for three years. During the period 1850–1852—the peak of his career—Hawthorne completed The Scarlet Letter, The House of the Seven Gables, and The Blithedale Romance, as well as the story collection The Snow-Image, and Other Twice-Told Tales.
We think of these first three works as novels, but Hawthorne's own term, as he noted in the prefaces he wrote for each of them, was "romance." To an extent Hawthorne sought to invoke and develop the elements of the traditional romance associated with chivalry, magic, and legend, a story in verse or in prose that presents strange events in a remote or enchanted setting or landscape. But he found the term valuable for the freedom it allowed in contrast to the tradition of the novel. As he explains in his preface to The House of the Seven Gables, a novel "is presumed to aim at a very minute fidelity, not merely to the possible, but to the probable and ordinary course of man's experience." A romance, while it be faithful to "the truth of the human heart—has fairly a right to present that truth under circumstances . . . of the writer's own choosing or creation. . . . he may so manage his atmospherical medium as to bring out or mellow the lights and deepen and enrich the shadows of the picture" (Novels, p. 351).
Novel and romance are not really, for Hawthorne, opposed to or radically at odds with one another. "Romance" for him opened up possibilities for risk-taking and exploration, for strategic indulgence of the strange, supernatural, and seemingly impossible, if these would lend greater dramatic power to his narrative. Hawthorne took what the novel offered—the expansiveness of the form, the focus on character, the unfolding of a plot amid familiar kinds of locales and scenes—even as he dared to break free from its constraints, making forays into fanciful and allegorical dimensions of plot, character, and implication.
The English edition of The Blithedale Romance was published by Chapman and Hall on 7 July 1852; the American edition was published by the Boston firm of Ticknor, Reed, and Fields on July 14. Ticknor's first printing of 5,000 copies sold out, and the book went into a second printing of 2,350 copies in late July. But interest in it then declined. Hawthorne's meager record of achievement after The Blithedale Romance deeply disappointed him, and the slowing sales of his books exacerbated his lifelong worries about money, leading him to fear he would die in a poorhouse.
BROOK FARM IN THE BLITHEDALE ROMANCE
When Hawthorne wrote The Blithedale Romance he drew upon his own experiences in 1841 and his observations of Brook Farm's history in the years after he departed from it, especially the phase when its members aligned themselves with the utopian principles of Charles Fourier, a French socialist. The central figure in promoting Fourierism in the United States was the journalist Albert Brisbane. He outlined Fourier's ideas in Social Destiny of Man (1840), A Concise Exposition of the Doctrine of Association (1843), and in a regular column for Horace Greeley's paper, the New York Tribune, from 1842 to 1844.
Fourier emphasized not the city, town, or single farm or farms but rather the "phalanx," a well-organized community of sixteen hundred persons, and the "phalanstery," a large building where life would be centered. He favored a multiple division of labor with many tasks and occupations and with each person belonging to thirty to forty work groups. No person would spend much time in any one group, and no particular job therefore would become onerous. The precise planning of work, formation of work teams, timetables—these were features of community life that Brook Farm had not previously adopted.
The Brook Farm members shifted to Fourierism because the community was in financial trouble. There was no local market for its trade goods, and the cost of the interest payments on loans was a heavy burden. Something drastic had to be done, and by early 1843 the community was already diversifying work to make it more productive and profitable, requiring sixty hours of labor per week from each adult, planning a central building, and initiating efforts at fund-raising.
The final blow to Brook Farm came on the evening of 3 March 1846 when fire destroyed the phalanstery just as it neared completion. This project had begun in summer 1844; the building was 175 feet in length and three stories high, with a dining hall designed to seat 300–400 persons, and it was paid for by a loan of $7,000 at high interest. There was no insurance policy, and the financial loss was devastating. Ripley and his wife left in September 1847, and the Brook Farm Association was dissolved the next month.
In Hawthorne's preface, where he identifies his novel as a "romance," he states that his "present concern with the Socialist community is merely to establish a theatre, a little removed from the highway of ordinary travel," upon which his characters can act without "too close a comparison with the actual events of real lives." He states that Brook Farm was "certainly, the most romantic episode" of his life; it was "essentially a day-dream, and yet a fact" and hence offers "an available foothold between fiction and reality" (Novels, p. 633–634).
Prompted by the preface, Hawthorne's readers have often assumed that his fictional characters are modeled on real people. One scholar has remarked with dismay that readers have been unable to resist the temptation "to find prototypes in the Brook Farm community for the characters in The Blithedale Romance" (Crane, p. lxxv). But this temptation is built into the novel from the preface forward, as Hawthorne/Coverdale refers to Emerson, Fuller, transcendentalism, The Dial, Fourier, mesmerism, lyceum meetings, the North American Review, the California gold rush, the Mormon leader Joseph Smith, the literary critic Rufus Griswold, the Hungarian revolutionary Lajos Kossuth, and many other real persons and events. These references strongly imply that the novel's action should be interpreted in relation to the history of the 1840s and early 1850s—as though the imagined characters of The Blithedale Romance inhabit the world where Hawthorne and his readers reside.
Critics have worked diligently, for example, to locate the real-life model for Hollingsworth and have proposed a dozen or more possibilities, including George Ripley, Albert Brisbane, and Theodore Parker. The source for Hollingsworth may not have been a person whom Hawthorne knew at Brook Farm but rather someone whom many there admired—Charles Fourier. Hawthorne and his wife, Sophia, read Fourier's work in summer 1844, and a year later she complained that it was "abominable, immoral, religious, and void of all delicate sentiment." She added: "To make as much money and luxury and enjoyment out of man's lowest passions as possible,—this is the aim and end of his system. . . . My husband read the whole volume, and was entirely disgusted" (J. Hawthorne 1:268–269). In The Blithedale Romance, however, Hollingsworth himself—fiercely committed to his reform and no one else's—pronounces an angry judgment on Fourier, echoing the words that Sophia used in her letter.
Hawthorne believed that reformers like Hollingsworth crave to take possession of others and neutralize their individual agency. This skeptical view helps to account for the presence in The Blithedale Romance of mesmerism, a theory and practice of possession, influence, and domination that captivated as well as alarmed Hawthorne. The Austrian physician Franz Mesmer (1734–1815) described his theory of "animal magnetism" in the late eighteenth century, and the term "mesmerism" was associated with various forms of spiritualism, séances, and hypnotic experiments and cures. According to Hawthorne, mesmerists, while claiming they produced spiritual, physical, and emotional benefits, were in truth penetrating to the innermost sanctuary of the self, which no one should presume to violate.
As for Zenobia, some critics have confidently maintained that she is based on Margaret Fuller even as others have insisted she is not. Fuller did take part in early discussions about Brook Farm and visited it regularly. She conducted "conversations" there about the rights of women, and she possessed a self-dramatizing personality that Hawthorne may have drawn upon for his characterization of Zenobia. Some scholars have claimed that Hawthorne reveals his disdain for Fuller by engineering a dreadful fate for Zenobia. Those who have made this argument have cited Hawthorne's hostile portrait in his notebook, where he depicts Fuller as "a great humbug" (Notebooks 14:155–157). But this does not displace the fact that Zenobia is the most striking character in The Blithedale Romance. She has a radiant aura and acute intelligence yet lacks insight into the effects of her power on others and its meanings and implications for herself. Hawthorne represents Zenobia as a woman for whom independence is crucial yet who longs to defer to Hollingsworth and ally herself with his zealously prosecuted reform.
Hawthorne's use of the first-person form gives a degree of complication and depth to the characters of The Blithedale Romance that neither The Scarlet Letter nor The House of the Seven Gables possesses. The reader is drawn not only to explore the motives and moods of Zenobia, Hollingsworth, and Priscilla but must do so while also appraising the point of view (by turns insightful and blind, perceptive and self-deluded) of Coverdale, and beyond that, the point of view of the author himself. What Hawthorne composed is a novel that both tantalizes and at times frustrates the reader because the characters and meanings of the book do not stand still for study. Everything seems to be there for our inspection, yet then it all fades or blurs, like memories slipping away, and we have to struggle to regain the clarity of vision and understanding that for a few moments we thought we had. There is an extreme craft in the novel's operation that Hawthorne may have found both absorbing and disquieting. After The Blithedale Romance appeared, he set aside novel writing for nearly a decade, and critics have judged the book that broke his silence, The Marble Faun (1860), a mixed success at best.
Hawthorne's most acute reader in the nineteenth century was Henry James, and in his 1879 book on Hawthorne for the English Men of Letters series, James both extols and criticizes The BlithedaleRomance. He singles out Zenobia as "the nearest approach" that Hawthorne made in all of his fiction "to the complete creation of a person" (p. 106). Yet James contends that the Blithedale community is too sketchy to serve as a sufficient context for the novel's characters, who remain too little related to Brook Farm/Blithedale and its ideals and goals: "The brethren of Brook Farm should have held themselves slighted rather than misrepresented, and have regretted that the admirable genius who for a while was numbered among them should have treated their institution mainly as a perch for starting upon an imaginative flight" (p. 108).
Following James's lead, later critics also expressed reservations about The Blithedale Romance. The influential literary and cultural historian Vernon Louis Parrington, in Main Currents in American Thought (1927–1930), judged the novel "thin and unreal" and summed up Hawthorne as "the extreme and finest expression of the refined alienation from reality that in the end palsied the creative mind of New England" (1:448, 450). In their book-length studies, Newton Arvin (1929) and Mark Van Doren (1949) reached similarly negative conclusions.
In Politics and the Novel (1957), Irving Howe moved the discussion forward by demonstrating that Hawthorne is not taking a position for or against Brook Farm/Blithedale. Instead, through the first-person narrator Coverdale, he is exploring what it meant to him as a setting that dramatizes the allure and peril of reform. As Howe implies, Hawthorne discloses his doubts about projects for social change but also his understanding of the desires that produce them, desires that are intensely real yet in conflict with others that are equally real and more powerful.
As Nina Baym has argued, Hawthorne's characters yearn to be more or other than they are, but when given an opportunity they replicate themselves in the new environment. They simultaneously flee from and return to the framework of the society that formed them and the basic structures of their personalities. "Though the characters in The Blithedale Romance seek to fashion "a new system of shared values and a new mode of serious purpose," says Richard H. Brodhead, they "belong to the world they oppose, so that the society they create ends by repeating and intensifying the features of the one they resist" (p. 99).
The most provocative critical studies of The Blithedale Romance since 1980 have focused on sexuality and gender. John N. Miller, for instance, has examined the dynamics of eroticism in the text. Hawthorne, he concludes, demonstrates that "erotic aspirations and desires generate an intense, insatiable yearning—an emptiness or incompleteness when such yearning remains unfulfilled, yet also, paradoxically, a fear of fulfillment and a self-tormenting pleasure in denying oneself one's objects of desire" (pp. 8–9). Benjamin Scott Grossberg, in a related analysis, has inquired into the conjunction of the novel and "a society whose sexual definitions" at mid-century "were crystallizing" (p. 7). "Rather than succumb to the new identities 'homosexual' and 'heterosexual,' rather than see himself as one of these odd, new, discrete animals," Coverdale seeks "to make Blithedale a community apart from them. Coverdale's Blithedale is a place of queer desire and queer gender, a place where the discrete categories of man, woman, heterosexual and homosexual are set up to be undermined" (p. 7).
The Blithedale Romance is distinctive among Hawthorne's work for its intersecting personal and political themes, its complex ironies, and its cast of characters, whose situations compel us yet whose motivations and feelings we feel we never entirely understand. Through this profound novel, Hawthorne scrutinizes the meanings of vocation and purposeful work; the relationship between the sexes; the responsibility of intellectuals for social change; the desire that many persons share for a life better than the one they have experienced; the disenchantment that follows when reformers realize they have not achieved their goals; and, perhaps most disquietingly of all, the mystery of persons and their relationships.
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William E. Cain