"What is this babbler trying to say?" Acts 17:18

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Hawthorne As History

The pre-Civil War period in America was rife with new theories and movements. Transcendentalism, feminism, and socialism were some of the ideas being developed and tested. As my history teacher briefly described these “isms” and their principle advocates, she mentioned Nathaniel Hawthorne and his connection to Brook Farm. His involvement in this socialist experiment was the seed for his novel called The Blithedale Romance. As I thought back to this book I realized that all of the movements my teacher mentioned are touched on directly or indirectly in Hawthorne’s book. The relation between history and literature was magnified as I considered that probably I was the only one in that class who had read a writer from that period dealing directly with the issues our teacher was discussing.

With an eye to this historical aspect of Hawthorne, I dug up an old (well, o.k. a year or two old) review I wrote on The Blithedale Romance. While it is embarrassingly unpublishable in its entirety, I present the undeleted portion of an often wandering, sometimes incoherent sketch (But really, my readers should be used to a generous dose of bibble-babble by now).

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Was Hawthorne's seeming praise of communes real? He seemed to like them at least in theory, yet while praising them he did reveal their flaws (at least some of them). The members and visitors envisioned an agrarian community in which the arts would flourish, instead they found themselves too tired at the end of the day to do ought but eat and sleep. A situation I can sympathize with. Also, some members were just not cut out for certain tasks. For instance, Zenobia cannot cook. The individual is made an individual for a purpose.

Zenobia is the most absorbing character, a passionate, strong-willed, feminist. In many ways we want to say with Miles Coverdale (the poetic and sensitive bachelor from whose observant viewpoint the story is told) that here indeed is a woman. Yet in reality she is unfulfilled, isolated, and angry. The real tragedy is not that she dies but why and how she dies. Suicide is a selfish, prideful way to die. Rather than do what good she could do with her talents, she quite literally buried them in the ground.

Hollingsworth is impressively sketched and blamed for a bit too much if a purely realistic novel was the aim. I’m not sure it was. It is said that Dickens’s characters are sketched larger than life with certain traits exaggerated. Whether this is true or not of Dickens’s characters it is certainly true of Zenobia and Hollingsworth. He does repent in the end and Coverdale’s mockingly Caustic question on his dreamed reform of criminals is answered in a touching scene:

'Not one,' said Hollingsworth, with his eyes still fixed on the ground.
'Ever since we parted, I have been busy with a single murderer!'
Then the tears gushed into my eyes, and I forgave him.

Despite its seeming gloom, The Blithedale Romance is a brighter book than the other Hawthorne novels I have read. Though the presentation of socialism and feminism in a 19th Century book may raise some eyebrows it was better than most books of a less controversial class. I have not brought myself to spoil this feeling by reading the introduction, written, I am informed on the cover, by a “distinguished” professor and recipient of the “Florence Howe Award for Feminist Literary Criticism.” I am old enough (not!) and wise enough (kidding again!) by this time (it took long enough) to not read everything that is written, or at the very least not to believe it

A good quote: “It is because the spirit is inestimable, that the lifeless body is so little valued.”

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For an equally short but more informative sketch of The Blithedale Romance try Wikipedia.

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