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Hawthorne and Home

February 3, 2008

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance is fictionalized account of the author’s stay at Brook Farm in 1841. It is an amazing source of information about utopian experiments, and fits nicely with my research on Home, Washington. It gives an insightful window into social attitudes and the culture of this living environment during the period. Overall the narrator in the novel is skeptical of these endeavors, but it is a great source for research on the utopian drive and a richly dramatic tale that illustrates an individual’s inability to escape the past.

The novel is ordered around four characters that come to Blithedale as part of the communal farm.  Each character had a life they left behind. Miles Coverdale was a poet and the story’s narrator, Zenobia was a feminist whose past and family origins are mysterious, Priscilla was a seamstress that is somehow linked to the Veiled Lady, and Hollingsworth was a single-minded philanthropist anxious to recruit members to his cause. The fates of these four individuals became tragically entwined as they strive to create a new life for themselves. The novel is structured as a mystery with Coverdale gradually uncovering details that illuminate each character’s past and motivation.

One of the main themes in this work is the individual’s inability to sublimate self-interest for the sake of the collective good. It illustrates the tension between ideals and daily life. The novel is a pull between individual ambition and the shared group.

On the surface everyone appeared invested in the utopian experiment, but as Coverdale noted early on,” Though we saw fit to drink our tea out of earthen cups to-night, and in earthen company, it was at our own option to use pictured porcelain and handle silver forks again, tomorrow” (55).  Most of those involved could deign to be a part of this experiment, because they had the luxury to opt out at a later point. Blithedale was a brief reprieve from their real lives.

On closer examination each character wasn’t fully invested in the experiment in many ways. Zenobia and Coverdale repeatedly alluded to a time when their connection to Blithedale might be over. Zenobia took it upon herself to lecture and educate Priscilla for the future. “Ever day, I shall give you a lecture, a quarter-of-an-hour in length, on the morals, manners, and proprieties of social life. When our pastoral shall be quite played out, Priscilla, my worldly wisdom may stand you in good stead” (95).  Eventually she foresaw their return to the real world. Coverdale predicted the later failing of their Arcadian ideals when he lamented, “…and if all went to rack with the crumbling embers, and have never since arisen out of the ashes — let us take to ourselves no shame. In my own behalf, I rejoice that I could once think better of the world’s improvability than it deserved” (51).

Hollingsworth saw Blithedale as a foundation for his own ruthless ambitions in creating a colony for the reformation of criminals.  “…Hollingsworth held it as his choice (and he did so choose) to obtain possession of the very ground on which we had planted our Community, and which had not been irrevocably ours, by purchase. It was the foundation that he desired. Our beginnings might readily be adapted to his great end” (134).

The only character of the four truly committed to her time at Blithedale was Priscilla who flowered under the care and attention she received there. When questioned about her happiness at Blithedale, Priscilla responded “But this I am sure of — that it is a world where everybody is kind to me, and where I love everybody” (93). She didn’t foresee a time when she would no longer be there, and didn’t have the option of going back to some higher station in life if the experiment fails. The other three characters all saw the experiment as a pleasant diversion from their real lives or as a means to furthering their personal ambitions. It was this inability to truly invest in the reality of this utopian experiment and the pursuit of self-interest that ultimately destroyed them.

Since reading The Blithedale Romance I have gone back to my early interviews and sources about Home and discovered a number of references to Brook Farm. In articles dating from the late 19th century, Home was referred to as the “Brook Farm of the West.” These remarks lend insight into the texture and aspirations of both locations. Brook Farm is commonly categorized as a transcendentalist project and an outgrowth of Unitarian ideals. Home on the other hand was obsessed with the notion of Individual Liberty and was more atheist or humanist in nature, classified as a collective anarchist individualist community. The reality was that although fifty years separated their founding, the patterns of daily life and the texture of their existence were remarkably similar. Each embraced progressive ideals as a unifying principal to organize their community and suffered between this pull between individual and collective good. Having access to this type of period material is already proving to be a great resource as I conceptualize certain elements of my research and brings the human element back to the foreground.

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3 comments

  1. I didn’t know that you were studying utopian communities. Interesting! Is it part of your novel, or an unconnected project? I read the Blithedale Romance a long time ago, but I don’t remember liking it much. I think I didn’t really care about any of the characters. Although Zenobia is a cool name…

    Hmm. There’s this restaurant here that seems to be run by some sort of communal group. All the people dress the same, there’s a cartoon about not being a cult in the bathroom, and their menu says something about serving “the food of the spirit” on request. I’m curious what it’s all about, but I haven’t wanted to ask them the two times I ate there because I really don’t want to be preached at. What do you think?


  2. There’s a whole utopian element to it. It was fairly small before, but seems to be getting more prominent. I’ve always had an interest in utopian experiments. Did you know I lived in a commune for a bit as a kid? I also shot a rough-cut documentary about a town called Home in WA, so that research fits into it. I was mostly interested in Blithedale as a historical artifact. It’s also pretty melodramatic… but I also have a soft spot for that kind of stuff. I’m not sure if I’d have liked it as much if it wasn’t for the historical angle. It’s the right period and feel for my research, dig? heh.

    Yeah, there was a restaurant in San Diego that was some sort of communal cult. Their food was REALLY good, but they had that glazed look in their eyes… so I was always afraid to ask.

    Oh wow… I just re-read that annotation and I have to fix a bunch of stuff before I send it in!

    How are you?


  3. No, I didn’t know that you’d lived in a commune when you were a kid. How old were you? What was it like?

    I’d love to see your “Home” documentary sometime.

    Hope your writing is going well today. It’s really rainy and sleepy here at the moment, and I’m having trouble concentrating…



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