Nathaniel Hawthorne’s elegant, lively novel, The Blithedale Romance (1852), is, in some ways, very 1960s. Based on Hawthorne’s experiences in a commune, Brook Farm, where he lived from April to November 1841, this stunning novel will transport you with a shock of recognition to those bleak, chilly, barely-furnished farmhouses where groups of friends lived together in communes in the 1960s and ’70s. Many were idealists, gathered for political reasons; others turned their backs on traditional family. The idea was to free people to do what they wanted outside of capitalist society.
How odd to think that 19th-century idealists in New England were early American hippies. The Blithedale Romance isn’t the only commune literature of the 19th century: Louisa May Alcott wrote Transcendental Wild Oats, a satiric memoir of her father Bronson Alcott’s strict vegetarian “consociate community,” Fruitlands. Hawthorne turned his experiences into a novel: naturally, Brook Farm failed, but visitors included idealists like Margaret Fuller and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Fortunately, Hawthorne’s novel is an excellent record, as well as a page-turner. For many years The Blithedale Romance was my favorite novel. It was second only to Wuthering Heights in my estimation till my mid-thirties. (In some ways, these two books are alike, with narrators who prefer observation to action, and many Gothic elements.) Of course The Scarlet Letter is a masterpiece, and a boon to high school teachers because of its obvious symbolism, but The Blithedale Romance is much more fun.
The narrator, Miles Coverdale, is a poet and a skeptic, who makes jokes about moving to Blithedale in an April snowstorm. It pretty much anticipates what will happen in the months ahead. Coverdale enjoys the company of Hollingsworth, the leader, but there is more farm work than Miles had anticipated, and no time for poetry. Plus Hollingsworth is a fanatic, who wants to build a house where ex-cons can live and be reformed. By August Coverdale is ready for a break. Hollingsworth sternly lectures him for taking a vacation from the community, but Coverdale goes his own way.
Hollingsworth has a mesmerizing effect on the women, though he seems drab to me. (Ironically, there is also a real mesmerist in the novel.) Two women, Zenobia and Priscilla, are at the center, and and both are in love with Hollingsworth. And, I swear, they remind me of hip characters in a Marge Piercy novel. I’m thinking of Small Changes and Braided Lives.
Some critics disagree with me about the realism of the women characters and find them stereotypical. But I feel that I have met them in my life a thousand times. Zenobia is flamboyant, witty, and brilliant, a professional storyteller and writer whose tales on the page are inferior to her dramatic performances. Priscilla, whose father brings her to Blithedale to save her from a mysterious, horrifying situation, which we later find out about, is fey, pretty, and weak, but always skipping about the property after she recovers her health.
Coverdale does take cover: he sometimes observes the characters from a tree (the bower is so lovely he’d like to spend his honeymoon there, he tells us). One friend objected to this, thinking of him as an unmanly man,but it makes sense to me that he needs time alone. And, on one occasion, he spies from the tree to protect Zenobia from a stranger who has come deliberately to find her. Zenobia obviously wants nothing to do with this gypsy-ish man. But she also wants to take care of herself.
Hawthorne himself was painfully shy, and probably wanted to get away from the other commune dwellers. Did he climb trees? (Some of us prefer to sit in the bathtub at such times.)
When Coverdale leaves Blithedale on vacation, he is relieved to be back in a city.
My sensations were those of a traveller, long sojourning in remote regions, and at length sitting down again amid customs once familiar…. It made me acutely sensible how strange a piece of mosaic-work had lately been wrought into my life. True, if you look at it in one way, it had been only a summer in the country. But, considered in a profounder relation, it was part of another age, a different state of society, a segment of an existence peculiar in its aims and methods, a leaf of some mysterious volume interpolated into the current history which time was writing off.
And yet he is still tied to the commune. He meets the women again, under dramatic circumstances.
Hawthorne’s style is marvelous, the plot is mesmerizing, and I’m surprised The Blithedale Romance isn’t read more.
As for 20th-century communes, they invite satire. Try T. C. Boyle’s novel Drop City and Lisa Alther’s Kinflicks (the chapter about the commune will make you laugh).