Building the American Dream

An engraving of New Harmony, Indiana, the utopian community founded by Robert Owen in 1825 and dissolved in 1827


On a sunny August afternoon in 1851, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville, after a picnic in the Berkshires and a leisurely smoke under the trees, decided, seemingly on impulse, to visit the Hancock Shaker Village, on the outskirts of Pittsfield, Massachusetts. For Melville, who lived nearby, it was a chance to share the company of the older American writer he most admired, and to whom he would dedicate Moby-Dick, published later that fall.

For Hawthorne, however, it was something of a research trip. Model, or “utopian,” communities like those established by the Shakers were to be the subject of his next novel, The Blithedale Romance. During the summer, as preparation, he had immersed himself in the “horribly tedious volumes” of the French visionary Charles Fourier, whose odd fusion of pragmatic and surreal ideas for harnessing human desires to create social harmony had had a surprising vogue in the United States. The day before the picnic, Hawthorne had written in his notebook, “Fourier states that, in the progress of the world, the ocean is to lose its saltness, and acquire the taste of a peculiarly flavored lemonade.”

During the 1830s, Hawthorne had published two stories inspired by the Shakers; in a letter to his sister in 1831, he had even broached (perhaps in jest) the possibility of joining the sect. His description of the community at Hancock begins on a positive note, as he admires the central brick dwelling house, with its “floors and walls of polished wood, and plaster as smooth as marble, and everything so neat that it was a pain and constraint to look at it.” But as their guide, an old man wearing a gray, broad-brimmed hat who was one of the elders of the village, leads them to the bedrooms, segregated by sex, Hawthorne’s mood abruptly darkens, as he notes the lack of privacy in the two-to-a-bed alcoves and the rudimentary sanitary arrangements. “The fact shows,” he notes disdainfully, “that all their miserable pretense of cleanliness and neatness is the thinnest superficiality; and that the Shakers are and must needs be a filthy set.”

Hawthorne’s intemperate outburst suggests how unfit for such a rigidly designed community he himself would be. And yet, in 1841, fastidious Hawthorne made the unlikely decision to join the utopian community at Brook Farm, outside of Boston, loosely modeled by its founder, a former minister named George Ripley, on precisely those Fourierist ideas that he had lambasted in his journals. Ripley’s cousin Ralph Waldo Emerson had politely demurred to join what he referred to, in private, as “a perpetual picnic, a French Revolution in small, an Age of Reason in a pattypan.” Henry David Thoreau wrote with kindred scorn, “I think I had rather keep bachelor’s hall in…

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