Monday, April 9, 2018
April 9, 2018: Great American Novel Studying: The Blithedale Romance
[On April 10th, 1925, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby was published. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Gatsby and other contenders for the elusive Great American Novel crown, leading up to a special weekend post on some recent contenders!]
On the novel that significantly shifted an author’s career—and yet its continuity with his two prior masterpieces.
Nearly a century before Richard Wright published his autobiographical essay “I Tried to Be a Communist” (1944), Nathaniel Hawthorne published a semi-autobiographical novel that could have been titled the exact same thing. Between April and November 1841, Hawthorne lived at George and Sophia Ripley’s West Roxbury, Massachusetts utopian experiment Brook Farm; the experiment brought together many other prominent Transcendentalists, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, and Bronson Alcott. Hawthorne’s experience with the Brook Farm community (which continued for another six years or so after his depature) was mixed, as reflected both in the letters he wrote while there to his future wife Sophia Peabody and in his subsequent description of the period as “essentially a daydream, and yet a fact.” And just over a decade later, he would portray a strikingly similar utopian community in The Blithedale Romance (1852).
Blithedale was Hawthorne’s third romance in three years—following The Scarlet Letter (1850) and The House of the Seven Gables (1851)—and marked a significant shift from the prior two. I would categorize both of them as historical romances: Scarlet quite overtly, as it is set more than two hundred years prior to its publication date; and Gables in its central use of the Salem Witch Trials, a history which Hawthorne calls in the novel’s famous Preface “a legend prolonging itself, from an epoch now gray in the distance, down into our own broad day-light, and bringing along with it some of its legendary mist.” Blithedale, on the other hand, is not only set in its own historical moment but centrally focused on engaging with, challenging, and at times satirizing that moment’s philosophies and ideals, most especially those of both Transcendentalism and communism. Perhaps to aid in that sense of present grounding, Hawthorne likewise shifts from the earlier novels’ third-person narrators to a semi-autobiographical (if also quite complex) first-person one, Miles Coverdale, who narrates for us his own experiences of the Blithedale utopian community.
But if Blithedale is interestingly distinct from the two novels that preceded it, I would nonetheless argue that reading it in relationship to those historical romances helps us analyze how Hawthorne chooses to depict his socially realistic topic. After all, both earlier novels likewise featured realistic historical subjects—community in Puritan New England and the causes and legacies of the Witch Trials—but portrayed them through what Hawthorne described, in that Gables Preface, as the Romance’s “right to present that truth under circumstances, to a great extent, of the writer’s own choosing or creation” (in contrast to the Novel, which he argues “is presumed to aim at a very minute fidelity … to the probable and ordinary course of man’s experience”). Literary historians have long sought to pin down which Blithedale character is which historical figure—Zenobia is Fuller! Hollingsworth is Ripley! and so on—but Hawthorne’s definition of the Romance would lead us in a different direction: to consider instead how he bends the historical realities of that place and time into a new, more Romantic shape, “manages his atmospherical medium” to present “the truth of the human heart.” Like both prior novels, that is, Blithedale ultimately presents the human heart of its histories—an important achievement indeed.
Next novel tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other nominees for the GAN?