The Blithedale Romance, Nathaniel Hawthorne (1852)

My Edition:Blithedale
Title: The Blithedale Romance
Author: Nathaniel Hawthorne
Publisher: W.W. Norton and Company
Device: paper book
Year: 1852
Pages: 251
For a plot summary

 

It was our purpose…to give up whatever we had heretofore attained, for the sake of showing mankind the example of a life governed by other than the false and cruel principles on which human society has all along been based.[i]

 

The Blithedale Romance is Nathaniel Hawthorne’s not so thinly based autobiographical account of his 8 months at Brook Farm, a socialist utopian community outside of Boston. The narrator is Miles Coverdale, a writer, who approaches this experiment with the expectation that the natural country air and physical labor of farm work will aid the writing projects he expects to do at night. And while we certainly get an idea of the workings of a utopian community, Hawthorne chooses to tell this story with that on the periphery.

Instead, The Blithedale Romance turns out to be more of a mystery novel centering on three characters Coverdale meets at the farm. The philanthropy-obsessed Hollingsworth who envisions building an institution for the reform of criminals on the Blithedale property; strong maternal Zenobia, whose early groundedness belies a future of intrigue and tragedy; and the wraith-like Priscilla who might not be of this world. Her entrance one night, unannounced, with the only goal that she is to serve Zenobia stymies everyone. Zenobia, is startled, but accepts this action as another sign underscoring the mystery of the romance of Blithedale.

Three quarters of the novel is about these three and their cryptic connections to each other that manifest as they busily pursue their utopian dreams. Their secret pasts and surprising familial connections are uncovered, one sinks further into insanity and sadly another commits suicide; strangers slink around the woods to ask questions first about Zenobia, then about Priscilla only to disappear; Zenobia tells the spell-binding story of the mysterious Veiled Lady, Coverdale almost dies of the flu and the city-slicker-turned-farmers almost ruin the community’s first seed-planting. So much for the peaceful pastoral life of a utopian society.

In fact, I was disappointed that Hawthorne told of his adventures in this way. I was hoping for more daily life, success and failures, the philosophical dream versus the reality of life, in utopia. I am with Henry James who although praised the novel also commented, “[I would] have liked to see the story concern itself more with the little community.”[ii]

While the stories of Zenobia, Hollingsworth and Priscilla are gripping at times and filled with pathos at others, they could have existed in myriad other settings removed from Blithedale farm. If Coverdale is a thinly disguised Hawthorne, am I to believe these characters and their trials and tribulations were HIS main focus? Ah well, I don’t like reviews that bemoan a book for not being about something else, so I will look for other sources about Brook Farm and its community.

On the positive side, Hawthorne IS a master at drawing fully formed characters, so in that regard, this novel does not disappoint. With all the shady folks moving in and out, the tale of the Veiled Lady, suspicious motivations and coincidental happenings, The Blithedale Romance would be a perfect read during the scary month of October!

_________

[i] p. 46
[ii] p. 14.

 

This book qualifies for Reading New England Challenge and my Classics Club book list.

 

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8 thoughts on “The Blithedale Romance, Nathaniel Hawthorne (1852)

  1. Pingback: Reading New England Round-Up: September 2016 – The Emerald City Book Review

  2. Pingback: Looking Backward 2000-1887, Edward Bellamy (1888) | Relevant Obscurity

  3. This does sound like an odd grafting of a gothic story onto a setting that would seem to support a different narrative … it would be interesting so know if Hawthorne gave any indication of why he wrote about it this way, or if he did any nonfiction writing (e.g. letters) about the farm. I hope your further utopian investigations are more satisfying!

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  4. I think there are a few occasions where saying the book isn’t something else is appropriate, and this sounds like one of them, especially if Henry James agreed! I hadn’t heard of this and the setting appeals (I liked Thomas More’s Utopia too much) so I’ll be putting it on the TBR for some time in the future.

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    1. “I think there are a few occasions where saying the book isn’t something else is appropriate, ”

      I appreciate this. I try to accept the creativity of the author and how he or she wants to tell the story, but in this case I was flummoxed. And yes, imagine my surprise when reading some notes in my edition, James was quoted with my exact criticism!

      Oddly, it has worked out that in my reading cycle, I am starting Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward today and then will start on a nonfiction book of 19th c. utopian communities in California I found in a used bookstore. I guess there is a theme emerging and I should find a copy of More’s Utopia, which I have never read!

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  5. I’ve been reading Matteson’s bio about Louisa May Alcott and her father, Bronson. They set up a companion/rival utopian farm, Fruitlands to Brook Farm. The bio talks mostly about this (for a few chapters only as it didn’t last that long really) and mentions Brook Farm briefly and some of the folk who visited both farms.

    They may have had utopian ideals, but nothing about Fruitlands sounded ideal at all! Perhaps Hawthorne’s disturbing mystery reflected life on the farm more than we realise?

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    1. I think from the little I know about both Fruitlands and Brook farm is the former was the more austere. I have only read accounts of Fruitlands from Louisa May Alcott’s experience and it didn’t seem to be a good one. Nathaniel Hawthorne was much more positive about his experience at Brook farm at first, but the life didn’t really suit him once he spent time there.

      As for how he chose to tell the story through Coverdale and friends, it is a mystery to me, but if any of it is true, I’d be outta there, too!

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