1. The Idea of the Romance
After the sixteenth century, entries in the OED define romance as a story very remote from ordinary life, “an extravagant fiction.” Though the very title of Hawthorne’s Blithedale Romance implies a fanciful unrealistic story, the novel, more than most, is entangled with the author’s biography and with the history and ideas of his time. The setting in a commune similar to Brook Farm, only one of hundreds of similar nineteenth century American experiments, has inspired considerable comment on the author’s motives for joining the community and on the era’s utopianism.
This focus on Brook Farm by critics may slight other aspects of the novel. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the narration is the oblique construction of the character of the narrator, Miles Coverdale, surely to some extent a self-portrait. Though he is described as a mild, somewhat reticent poet of indifferent achievement, an observer more than anything else, it is within his soul that a psychomachia is staged. The book, like much of Hawthorne’s oeuvre, is deeply concerned with fundamental ethical questions and includes a diabolic figure in Westervelt without any counterbalancing savior. In addition Blithedale certainly fails as a Garden of Eden, for all that it has Adam, Eve, and Satan in attendance. In this fallen world, Coverdale imagines Zenobia “in Eve’s earliest garment” and notes her flower, said to signify pride. He observes Westervelt’s flaming pin and serpent-headed staff. In the grand attempt to reestablish Eden “…the presence of Zenobia caused our heroic enterprise to show like an illusion, a masquerade, a pastoral, a counterfeit Arcadia, in which we grown-up men and women were making a play-day of the years that were given us to live in.” (Chapter 3) A reenactment of the fall then occurs, again through the temptations of a distracting female, as the men’s high ideals collapse into selfishness, lust, and ennui.
D. H. Lawrence, in his brilliant Studies in Classic American Literature, accepts the polarity of good and evil, simply preferring to cheer for the other side. He considers this book as the work in which Hawthorne, the great writer of romances, “came nearest to actuality.” Of course for Lawrence what was real, what mattered, was not the history of his times, but rather a deep engagement with the gods within. To him Hawthorne was a “serpent,” a “demon,” in spite of his image as “a blue-eyed darling.” “You must look through the surface of American art and see what demons [its authors] were.” For Lawrence the book records the impossibility of salvation for those who have both lost the vision of the Heavenly Father and who fail to conform to their own nature, figured as the Holy Ghost.
Lawrence’s counter-cultural eroticism may seem miles apart from Hawthorne’s belated Puritanism which, with all of its Biblical imagery, sometimes makes the reader feel momentarily adrift in some new adventure of Bunyan’s Christian, but the fact is that Lawrence’s lower-case gods comport well with Hawthorne’s troubled nineteenth century sensibility. His critique of his own society’s hypocrisy had a good deal in common with Hawthorne’s. The descent of the well-meaning intellectuals and artists of Blithedale is the more catastrophic as they plummet from the lofty height of their own set of principles. The high-minded Transcendentalist philosophers are seen “all going slightly rotten” through infidelity to their own natures which Lawrence has good fun calling “the Holy Ghost.” Lawrence’s sarcasm is too good to pass up. He says that Brook Farm is where “the famous idealists and transcendentalists of America met to till the soil and hew the timber by the sweat of their own brows, thinking high thoughts the while, and breathing an atmosphere of communal love, and tingling in tune with the Oversoul, like so many strings of a super-celestial harp. . . . Of course they fell out like cats and dogs. . . .And all the music they made was the music of their quarreling.” As the spiritual and the psychological are for Lawrence as closely identified as they were for Hawthorne, his reading works admirably. (His essay ends with an anticlimactic finale ridiculing spiritualists which may yet retain some bite in this era of New Age charlatans.)
The use of the term “romance,” as Hawthorne explains in his preface, is meant to allow a “conventional privilege,” to stray from the mimetic path,” which would otherwise require putting the work, as he says “side by side with nature.” He seeks instead a “strange enchantment,” but this is not inconsistent with the representation of lived experience. Indeed, his time at Brook Farm, he says, was “essentially a day-dream,” and, in his reminiscence, it has an air of exotic mystery and of adventure comparable to George William Curtis’s accounts of Egypt and Syria.
But such a paradox is entirely consistent with Hawthorne’s quest for transcendence while working the manure pile. Lawrence mocks Hawthorne saying “I never felt more spectral” than while doing manual labor, but the fact is that Lawrence felt the same way about having sex. For him there is no contradiction between the spiritual and the carnal, only a need for balance. “Love is the hastening gravitation of spirit toward spirit, and body towards body in the joy of creation.” (“Love”)
When the psyche is too far out of balance, drastic relief may be attractive. Coverdale shocks the reader when he says, “If I choose a counsellor, in the present aspect of my affairs, it must be either an angel or a madman.” (157) The reader may be excused for blinking momentarily and wondering whether the words were written by Hawthorne or by Allen Ginsberg yet both sought experience out of the common way in pursuit of a deeper, a truer experience
2. The Fall of Communes
The most successful enterprise at Brook Farm was, not surprisingly, the school which attracted students from a considerable distance. Like many more modern communes and back-to-the-land projects, the farm’s residents were educated members of the bourgeoisie lacking agricultural experience. Hawthorne generates comedy in the comments of the “uncouth” Silas Foster, the genuine Yankee farmer who directs the group’s farming activities. The account in Blithedale Romance provides a range of miscellaneous motives among the communards: Hollingsworth sees it as a pool for recruits for his own plans for the reform of felons, Priscilla is passively brought there, Coverdale himself has only the foggiest idea why he has come. Hawthorne himself according to his biographers, saw Brook Farm as the likeliest and most practical way he might support himself and a wife. The book would have been an unconvincing romance indeed if the social experiment had been represented as succeeding.
Most activists for social change are motivated by self-interest. Workers campaigned for unions, women for suffrage, and African-Americans for civil rights. Others, however, join in the struggle for progress out of sympathy, caritas or karuna , if you will. Early settlement houses were supported by affluent patrons, and people in the developed world donate money for the suffering children of poor regions they will never visit. Yet a third category is discernible as well: those who may be themselves comfortable, yet feel their own freedom is dependent making gestures at least directed toward moving society forward. I used to say in the sixties, “Liberals are motivated by compassion; radicals seek their own liberation.”
A good part of the radicalism of intellectuals and artists arises from this last sort of motive. Apart from the obvious role of highly-educated revolutionary leaders such as Marx, Lenin, Castro, and Ho, the fact is that ever since the Romantic movement, a significant share of writers have been adversarial critics of the social order as they found it, mostly on the left but sometimes on the radical right. In my own era, and indeed in my own life, the American movement has been based in this group more than any other. While labor unions lost their broader social vision and became bureaucratized, and socialism has been forgotten by the proletariat, college-educated youth and veteran progressives have continued to campaign on feminist, environmental, and peace issues, and against imperialism in spite of their own often comfortable circumstances.
Marx himself recognized the contradiction when he declined the presidency of the Internationale in favor of the candidacy of the cobbler George Odger. Part of what marks the gap between the left organizations of the 1930s and those of the 60s is that, apart from the African-American element, the later movement was composed for the most part of people of bourgeois origins. The founding document of the Students for a Democratic Society, the Port Huron Statement (1960) declares at its outset, “ We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit.” To its authors the “contentment amidst prosperity” one would have expected from American wealth in fact might “better be called a glaze above deeply felt anxieties.”
George Ripley, at whose home the first meeting of the Transcendental Club was held, was a liberal Unitarian whose social ideals were shaped by his theological orientation, not his own exploitation. Even after Fourierism became the ideology of Brook farm, there was little attempt to shape the society at large. Members sought their own liberation in the supportive context if a group of the like-minded (as the Transcendentalists sometimes called themselves). If they could not alter the structure of society, they could at least feel convinced of their own righteousness. If they could not successfully challenge the growing capitalist power of their day, they could contend against factions of their own comrades.
The history of communes indicates that those that lasted were most often those with authoritarian, often religious structure : the Amana Colonies, the Bruderhof, the Shakers (and the Farm and Lama among groups originating in the 1960s). Freer aggregations such as Brook Farm and Drop City were more short-lived, arising as they did from the conjunction of the politically radical with the intellectual and artistic elite, a distinguishing mark of the post-Romantic era. In the United States the socialist sympathies of advanced thinkers were recorded in Blithedale Romance, but the narrative contains also sufficient explanation for their failure to advance that cause. The fact that the author’s interests were far more moral and psychological than social goes far to explain why the experiment which he joined could not survive.
References are to the 1958 Norton paperback with an introduction by Arlin Turner.