Nathaniel Hawthorne lived in the socialistic community of Brook Farm, in West Roxbury, eight or nine miles to the southwest of Boston, from April to November of 1841, with some weeks away in September. That so reclusive and skeptical a spirit might make his home in an idealistic farming commune seems in retrospect an unlikely hope; but he was thirty-seven, stalled in his writing career, newly quit of his job as a measurer of salt and coal at the Boston Custom House, engaged to Sophia Peabody, and casting about for a way to set up housekeeping and revive his literary efforts. His engagement was still a secret from his mother and two sisters in Salem; in the previous year, 1840, he had sat for the smolderingly handsome, faintly agitated portrait by Charles Osgood that still hangs in Salem’s Peabody Essex Museum.
He was a prize among the eccentrics who settled on Brook Farm’s two hundred acres by the meandering Charles, with its isolated farmhouse on the Dedham–Watertown Road. “He is our prince,” wrote the wife of George Ripley, the disaffected Unitarian clergyman who founded the community, “—our prince in everything—yet despising no labour and very athletic and able-bodied in the barnyard and field.” Hawthorne was initially enthusiastic, writing to Sophia, “I feel the original Adam reviving within me.” He had invested the considerable sum of $1,500 in the joint stock company, and even while his doubts about Brook Farm grew he was elected, in September, a trustee and chairman of the Committee of Finance. He assured Sophia, “Beloved, my accession to these august offices does not at all decide the question of my remaining here permanently.” Yet he was reluctant to make the break, not resigning until October of 1842, nearly a year after his stay there ended, and only in 1845 suing (unsuccessfully) for the return of his investment. Brook Farm had but a few years to go, taking a fatal blow in March of 1846, when its new central building, called the Phalanstery in honor of the French social theorist Charles Fourier, burned to the ground the very night its completion was being celebrated.
In the summer of 1851, two years after the property had been auctioned off and George Ripley had found gainful employment as literary critic for Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune, Hawthorne began to contemplate the novel that became The Blithedale Romance.1 On July 24 he wrote a friend, “When I write another romance, I shall take the Community for a subject, and shall give some of my experiences and observations at Brook Farm.” By this time the author had published The Scarlet Letter, The House of the Seven Gables, and Mosses from an Old Manse; his fame if not his fortune was secure. After sojourns in Concord, Salem, and Lenox, in western Massachusetts, he and Sophia, now the parents of three children, resettled in a rented house in West Newton; once settled, in November, Hawthorne warned a magazine editor that he was about to “engage in a longer work.” Early in May of the following year he sent the completed “huge bundle of scribble” to the critic Edwin Percy Whipple, saying that “nobody has yet read it, except my wife; and her sympathy, though very gratifying, is a little too unreserved to afford me the advantages of criticism.” With the startling speed of nineteenth-century publishing, the book was on its way to print by the middle of the month and in the bookstores by the middle of July. There was a second impression in August but sales rapidly fell off; among the critics, Whipple (already enlisted in the text’s service) called it “the most perfect in execution of any of Hawthorne’s works, and as a work of art, hardly equalled by anything else which the country has produced.”
The romance tells of, as the third chapter is titled, “A Knot of Dreamers”—a square knot, consisting of four principals. Miles Coverdale, a New England poet of lesser reputation than Hawthorne, arrives at Blithedale on a wintry April night to be greeted by Zenobia, a wealthy Boston woman who is a benefactress as well as a dominant resident of the dreamers’ community. That same snowy night Hollingsworth, a virile blacksmith turned to philanthropy and reform of the penal system, arrives with Priscilla, a pale little seamstress entrusted to his care by a cringing drifter, Moodie.
In a swirl of attachments worthy of Iris Murdoch, Zenobia loves Hollingsworth, but he favors Priscilla, who turns out to be Zenobia’s poor half-sister. Between Coverdale and Hollingsworth, too, lives a tormented affection, born when the blacksmith nurses the poet through a severe fever contracted early in his stay, and given a fatal blow when Coverdale, recovered, declines to be his “brother” in his “great scheme of good,” even though Hollingsworth pleads, “There is not a man in this wide world, whom I can love as I could you. Do not forsake me!”
At the same time, additional entanglements are introduced by the sinister figure of Westervelt, a mesmerist who has used Priscilla as a stage foil, the Veiled Lady, and claims an intimate prior acquaintance with Zenobia, perhaps (this is never made quite clear) as her husband. The knot flies apart when Zenobia, rejected by Hollingsworth in favor of Priscilla, drowns herself in the Charles, leaving Hollingsworth a man broken by his guilt and Coverdale a man rather aimlessly restored to the outer world.
Critics less friendly than Whipple complained that Zenobia’s suicide was implausible, that the author had been too hard on philanthropists, that he had been too easy on socialist experiments and their “dreams of world reform.” James Field, of Hawthorne’s publisher, Ticknor, Reed & Fields, wrote in a letter to London, “I hope Hawthorne will give us no more Blithedales.” Nor was the book pleasing to former tenants of Brook Farm; one of them, Georgiana Kirby, later remembered of Hawthorne:
No one could have been more out of place than he…. He was morbidly shy and reserved, needing to be sheltered from his fellows, and obtaining the fruits of observation at second-hand. He was therefore not amenable to the democratic influences of the Community which enriched the others, and made them declare, in after years, that the years or months spent there had been the most valuable ones in their lives.2
Hawthorne’s description of Miles Coverdale does not contradict this impression. Coverdale is Hawthorne’s most extended self-portrait, an alter ego to whom he denies his own fruitful marriage and energetic authorship, leaving a detached introvert, a languid dandy cripplingly aloof from illusions both erotic and idealistic. Such a man is apt to miss out: in the “unsatisfied retrospect” of his final chapter, “Miles Coverdale’s Confession,” the narrator, in the same terrain of ripe middle age as Hawthorne himself, looks back upon a “colorless life,” and confesses it has come to “an idle pass with me.” Idly he yearns for a cause to which he might sacrifice his life, with the wry quibble that “the effort did not involve an unreasonable amount of trouble.” Even ten years earlier, conversing with the Blithedale community’s adopted waif, Priscilla, Coverdale pronounced his past life a “tiresome one enough,” and told her, in this colony dedicated to a better future for mankind, that
we may be very sure, for one thing, that the good we aim at will not be attained. People never do get just the good they seek. If it come at all, it is something else, which they never dreamed of, and did not particularly want.
This holds the true accent of the author, who sampled but in the end disdained the enthusiasms of his enthusiastic age—the Kantian yea-saying of Emerson and Margaret Fuller, the religious fervor of Shakers and evangelical revivalists, the reforming zeal of philanthropy, the political passion of the Abolitionists, and even the militant righteousness of the Union cause in the Civil War, which he thought should not be fought, the Southern secession left unresisted.
Zenobia accuses Coverdale of a lack of seriousness, of commitment, of involvement: “I have long recognized you as a sort of transcendental Yankee, with all the native propensity of your countrymen to investigate matters that come within their range, but rendered almost poetical, in your case, by the refined methods which you adopt for its gratification.” From their first encounter, by the roaring fire that greets his arrival at Blithedale in the snowstorm, to their last, when he discovers her desolated by Hollingsworth’s rejection and she rallies by accusing him of “turning this whole affair into a ballad,” Zenobia has taunted him with his poems as idle toying on the edge of the human adventure, a nonparticipant’s cool sport. This was Hawthorne’s fear for himself, his distrust of his own temperament. For ten years he had led a shadow-existence in Salem, living with a mother frozen in mourning and two spinster sisters, concocting for magazines his graceful trifles of antiquarian curiosity and moral allegory, his wispy version of the once vigorous and tyrannical Puritan faith. In 1837 he confessed to Longfellow, “I have seen so little of the world, that I have nothing but thin air to concoct my stories of, and it is not easy to give a lifelike semblance to such shadowy stuff.”
Hawthorne presents himself, in the ghostly, penetrating world of his fanciful sketches and stories, as “Monsieur du Miroir”—“a wanderer from the spiritual world, with nothing human, except his illusive garment of visibility”—or as “M. de l’Aubépine,” the fictional author of “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” to whom Hawthorne devotes a mischievous, mordant paragraph:
As a writer, he seems to occupy an unfortunate position between the Transcendentalists…and the great body of pen-and-ink men who address the intellect and sympathies of the multitude. If not too refined, at all events too remote, too shadowy and unsubstantial in his modes of development, to suit the taste of the latter class, and yet too popular to satisfy the spiritual or metaphysical requisitions of the former, he must necessarily find himself without an audience…. His writings, to do them justice, are not altogether destitute of fancy and originality; they might have won him great reputation but for an inveterate love of allegory, which is apt to invest his plots and characters with the aspect of scenery and people in the clouds, and to steal away the human warmth out of his conceptions.
It is in a burst of warmth, by a fresh-laid log fire, that Zenobia first confronts Miles Coverdale with so primal a physical vitality that he seems to behold “her fine, perfectly developed figure” naked, “in Eve’s earliest garment.” Naked in his imagination, she comes at him with her conversational sword flashing—welcoming, flirting, challenging him in ornate and charged thrusts of eloquence. It is the voice of Hester Prynne in the forest, transposed into a nineteenth-century United States where social and feminist issues are as common as fresh-baked pies.
There is nothing quite like this flashing tongue of Zenobia in the rest of Hawthorne’s fiction, and those who are quick to identify her with Margaret Fuller should take pause from Hawthorne’s shyness of Transcendentalism’s loquacious queen: in one of his first letters to Sophia from Brook Farm, he warns her away from Fuller’s Boston circle, which he termed a “Babel of talkers,” expressing the wish that “Miss Margaret Fuller might lose her tongue!—or my Dove her ears and so be left wholly to her husband’s golden silence.” As Henry James puts it in his unsurpassable little book on Hawthorne, “It is safe to assume that Hawthorne could not, on the whole, have had a high relish for the very positive personality of this accomplished and argumentative woman, in whose intellect high noon seemed ever to reign, as twilight did in his own.” And Zenobia is above all a beauty, whereas Fuller was marked by, in the phrase of the sympathetic Emerson, an “exceeding plainness.” Further, Fuller, though a moral supporter of the experiment, was rarely on Brook Farm’s premises, while other considerable and possibly memorable women were—the cultured and favorably impressed Mrs. Ripley, for one, and, in the suggestive phrase of one biographer, “Almira Barlow, a vivacious young matron recently separated from her husband.”3
What Margaret Fuller did lend her fictional sister was force, a force of personal presentation and intellect that Miles Coverdale construes as the displayed vivacity of an actress:
Her poor little stories and tracts never half did justice to her intellect; it was only the lack of a fitter avenue that drove her to seek development in literature…. I recognized no severe culture in Zenobia; her mind was full of weeds…. The stage would have been her proper sphere.
He resents, in fact, the intrusion of her intellect upon her “instinctive sense of where life lies…the relation between the sexes.”
Yet, from his side of this particular relation, Coverdale quite fails to rise to so magnificent a bait, as she more than once chastises him:
Mr. Coverdale, I have been exposed to a great deal of eye-shot in the few years of my mixing in the world, but never, I think, to precisely such glances as you are in the habit of favoring me with. I seem to interest you very much; and yet—or else a woman’s instinct is for once deceived—I cannot reckon you as an admirer.
She is a Gorgon before whom Coverdale stands transfixed and fascinated. In her persona Hawthorne has conjured, through an unknowable blend of Fuller’s dynamism mingled with softer memories and impressions, the Actual, to borrow a term from his favorite dualism—as expressed in the foreword to The Scarlet Letter and elsewhere—of the Actual and the Imaginary. She is uniquely vivid. Henry James calls Zenobia “his only very definite attempt at the representation of character.”
She lives in her bantering wit (not an attribute of Fuller’s recorded outpourings) and half-angry animation, and the novel lives from one confrontation between her and Coverdale to the next; they are really the only two characters in it. Hollingsworth is a thick-set and blackened embodiment of Hawthorne’s deep distrust of any philanthropy or any proclaimed altruism, and Priscilla is one of his cherished spectres hovering, like a transparent dragonfly, on the boundary between the Actual and the Imaginary. She was based on a “little sempstress from Boston, about seventeen years old,” small, active, “chirping merrily all the time,” who visited Brook Farm for a week, long enough for Hawthorne to perceive that “she is not a little girl, but really a little woman, with all the prerogatives and liabilities of a woman.” To these unspecified gender liabilities is added a touch of lower-class vulgarity; worse, “her intellect is very ordinary, and she never says anything worth hearing, or even laughing at, in itself.” Priscilla is faithful to her original; she is virtually mute, though credited with a stage presence as the Veiled Lady. Coverdale’s concluding profession of love is scarcely to be believed, even in the volatile, shape-shifting netherworld of a Hawthorne romance.
If a vital character is one that draws upon an author’s energy at a source beyond or below his conscious intentions, then the Satanic figure of Westervelt, with his coal-black hair and eyes, his dandyish garb, and his brilliant false teeth, can claim a more than schematic existence; he has drawn forth something involuntary and unpremeditated from the author—“the naked exposure of something that ought not to be left prominent.” Westervelt manages a successful theatrical enterprise and always talks to the point, albeit with “cold skepticism.” Coverdale admits, “A part of my own nature showed itself responsive to him.” The “calm observer” in Coverdale is cousin to the Devil: something of Puritan self-accusation scorches this recognition.
Though not his greatest, The Blithedale Romance is the most “actual” of Hawthorne’s novels, the one most pregnant with what James called “the palpable present intimate that throbs responsive.” We enjoy, in the direct way of lively reportage, the details of the farm with its presiding agriculturalist, the lumpish and practical Silas Foster, and Coverdale’s shrewd observations of the commune, many of which ring true for the social experiments of the 1960s:
While inclining us to the soft affections of the Golden Age, it seemed to authorize any individual, of either sex, to fall in love with any other, regardless of what would elsewhere be judged suitable and prudent. Accordingly, the tender passion was very rife among us….
We enjoy the romance’s images of homely country life undertaken by excessively refined sensibilities: the lively doomed pigs; the oxen who, though given a Sunday freedom from the yoke, keep close in tandem while browsing; the quintessentially Hawthornian image of “Good Mrs. Foster” falling asleep while knitting and “still keeping her needles in brisk movement, and, to the best of my observation, absolutely footing a stocking out of the texture of a dream.”
A different environment is bracingly entered when Coverdale leaves for Boston and partakes of city life, with its coal fires and ringing bells, its flights of stairs and rows of lit windows, images that draw upon the author’s several pre–Brook Farm years of Boston employment and residence in rented rooms at Somerset Place and Pinckney Street. Zenobia takes on another aspect, transferred to the equivalent of Beacon Hill, where her wealth and status give her embodiment of the Actual an intimidating glitter. The reader has been told of her wealth, but the sight of her “costly robes” and “exceedingly rich” furniture lifts it to a palpable plane. The hothouse flower she so implausibly wears in her hair in their rural retreat has become a piece of jewelry, and she in alliance with Westervelt shows a brisk ruthlessness, imperiously bundling Priscilla back into theatrical captivity. This drawing-room scene makes one aware of how few such rooms exist in Hawthorne’s fiction, and how relatively sparse is his evocation of the antebellum American civilization in which he did, after all, participate as editor, magazine writer, and wharf official before the political career of his Bowdoin classmate Franklin Pierce, newly elected president, granted him, in 1853, a political post that carried him to England and the European scenes of The Marble Faun.
Hawthorne’s sense of art required always the fanciful, half-real touch—Zenobia’s far-fetched flower, Hester’s “A” written in the sky, Donatello’s elusive faun’s ears in The Marble Faun. He had to begin with images; in that, though not (unlike Emerson, Thoreau, and Melville) a versifier, he was, like Coverdale, a poet. Those who wish to see the novelist’s acute if diffident sensibility operating in relative freedom from his compulsive symbolism, having taken its start from a recollected experience still fresh in his mind and having as its theme revolutionary engagement with current concerns, should consult, after the journals, this novel. Hawthorne’s haunted, twilit imagination never admitted more local American daylight than in The Blithedale Romance.
August 9, 2001
To be reprinted by the Modern Library in August. This essay will appear as the introduction. ↩
Quoted in Edwin Haviland Miller, Salem Is My Dwelling Place: A Life of Nathaniel Hawthorne (University of Iowa Press, 1991), p. 192. ↩
James R. Mellow, Nathaniel Hawthorne in His Times (Houghton Mifflin, 1980), p. 182. ↩