Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The Blithedale Romance by Nathaniel Hawthorne

In truth, it was dizzy work, amid such fermentation of opinions as was going on in the general brain of the Community.  It was a kind of Bedlam, for the time being; although, out of the very thoughts that were wildest and most destructive, might grow a wisdom, holy, calm, and pure, and that should incarnate itself with the substance of a noble and happy life.  But, as matters now were, I felt myself (and having a decided tendency toward the actual, I never liked to feel it) getting quite out of my reckoning, with regard to the existing state of the world.  I was beginning to lose the sense of what kind of world it was, along innumerable schemes of what it might or out to be.

How do you balance the world as it is with what it might or ought to be?  How can you, when the latter is imagined a million ways, when it is constructed from "innumerable schemes?" As Miles Coverdale, the protagonist of Hawthorne's Blithedale Romance, tells the ingenue Priscilla, "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."

The Blithedale Romance is all about competing visions of "the good."  It's based on Hawthorne's abortive experience at the Utopian community of Brook Farm, with which Blithedale shares a lot of similarities: A place of communal farming, cooking, and living, like an American kibbutz or something.  These Utopian communities were, apparently, an important part of 19th century ideas of reform: They promoted both social and individual improvement, and emphasized a closeness to the land.  Coverdale, a famous poet who goes to live at Blithedale, is Hawthorne's stand-in, and he grows to believe very strongly in the Community's mission, perhaps more strongly than Hawthorne himself ever did.

The problem, as presented through Coverdale's eyes, is the surfeit of good intentions: His friend and fellow Community member Hollingsworth is a philanthropist committed to prison reform, and surreptitiously plans to purchase Blithedale's land and build a prison on it.  The scene where Hollingsworth begs Coverdale for his allegiance is a really fantastic chapter, full of pathos:

"Coverdale," he murmured, "there is not the man in this wide world, whom I can love as I could you.  Do not forsake me!"

As I look back upon this scene, through the coldness and dimness of so many years, there is still a sensation as if Hollingsworth had caught hold of my heart, and were pulling it towards him with an almost irresistible force.  It is a mystery to me, how I withstood it.  But, in truth, I saw in his scheme of philanthropy nothing but what was odious.  A loathsomeness that was to be forever in my daily work!  A great, black ugliness of sin, which he proposed to collect out of a thousand human hearts, and that we should spend our lives in an experiment of transmuting it into virtue!"

It is not at all clear to me who is being selfish here.  Is it Hollingsworth, steamrolling Coverdale's (and everyone else's) ideas about the common good to establish his own?  Is it Coverdale, whose idea of reform stops conspicuously short of doing anything for other people?  At the heart of The Blithedale Romance is, I think, this idea that even the best intentions can destroy each other.

Complicating this relationship is the love triangle between Hollingsworth, the wealthy beauty Zenobia, and the waifish, innocent Priscilla.  Though Blithedale is supposedly about an entire community, only these four seem to exist in it, and even Coverdale admits that some of his tension with Hollingsworth comes from a feeling of being left out:

Generosity is a very fine thing, at a proper time, and within due limits.  But it is an insufferable bore, to see one man engrossing every thought of all the women, and leaving his friend to shiver in outer seclusion, without even the alternative of solacing himself with what the more fortunate individual has rejected.  Yes; it was out of a foolish bitterness of heart that I had spoken.

Coverdale styles himself as an outsider, and observer, selectively ignoring the way that he, Heisenberg-like, participates in the very events he imagines himself to be separate from.  He observes and wonders: Which does Hollingsworth love?  Is he after Zenobia's money for his ludicrous prison?  What is his interest in Priscilla?  And yet for all his watching, he never penetrates much into the reality of what he sees, which involves (in some typically Hawthornian twists) a suspicious stranger, a fortune teller who never removes her veil, and long-lost siblings.

Ultimately, Blithedale is a very small and human drama which seems more tragic against the backdrop of the Community, with its all-encompassing social project and Utopian aims.  It it is about the bittersweet triumph of people and relationships over ideas:

The bands, that were silken once, are apt to become iron fetters, when we desire to shake them off.  Our souls, after all, are not our own.  We convey a property in them to those with whom we associate, but to what extent can never be known, until we feel the tug, the agony, of our abortive effort to resume an exclusive sway over ourselves.

1 comment:

Brent Waggoner said...

This sounds great! And it's about time we got some Hawthorne on here.