Hawthorne Down on the Farm

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…

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