Musings on Current Events & Reading Nathaniel Hawthorne

It is dismaying to pick up the newspaper and read more every day about lockdowns, toilet paper shortages, library closings, canceled sports events, social distancing, and death. Everyone is freaked-out, or plain terrified.  And the more you read, the more you realize all you can do is wash your hands, which, honestly, you do a lot of anyway. 

Perhaps the hardest thing about living in the time of the virus is not being able to take a break to go to a movie or some other form of entertainment.  Although it might not (would not!) be wise to go to a movie now, you are willing to take a bottle of Clorox and disinfect the whole theater if necessary–when you learn the theater is closed. 

Some people online are unhappy because their libraries are closed. And that is horrible, almost unbelievable. You do want your library books. They’re recommending e-books.  

THESE DAYS I’M TRYING TO READ MORE BOOKS THAN NEWSPAPERS. IT’S GOOD FOR THE SOUL.  And so I have turned to Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose novels are laced with a Puritanical dark humor that fits very well with our own stressful times. (Somebody somewhere is writing a satiric novel about our times that will one day make us laugh.) And, in case you didn’t care to read Hawthorne  after studying The Scarlet Letter with an English teacher who used Cliff Notes, let me  recommend  Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance and The House of the Seven Gables. Both are actually better than The Scarlet Letter.

The House of Seven Gables is not as charming as The Blithedale Romance (I posted about it here), but it is a brilliant, graceful novel, a romance of loss and renewal.  His style is almost unbearably elegant–you find yourself reading and rereading sentences–and there are  also thrilling Gothic elements, among them witchcraft, mesmerism, and a doomed upper-class family. Hawthorne begins with a detailed history of the Pyncheons, owners of the House of Seven Gables, and their ancestor’s feud over the property with one Matthew Maule, reputed to be a wizard.  Witchcraft, mesmerism, lost deeds and greed are interwoven with the history of the House of Seven Gables.  

One of the highlights of the book is our first meeting with poor, lonely Miss Hepzibah Pyncheon.  Hawthorne is sympathetic but also humorous in his description of the spinster, whose face always seems to be frowning.  This isolated old woman wakes up one morning knowing it is the day she must abandon the dignity of her class to open a small shop in the house.  It is a fall from the upper class, but she has been getting poorer every year, and must earn money.

Hawthorne describes Miss Hepzibah’s isolation, the locks and keys between her and her young, cheeful lodger.

[We presume] to note some of the heavy sighs that labored from her bosom, with little restraint to their lugubrious depth and volume of sound, inasmuch as they could be audible to nobody, save a disembodied listener like ourself.  The Old Maid was alone in the old house.  Alone, except for a certain respectable and orderly young man, an artist in the daguerrotype line, who, for about three months back, had been a lodger in a remote gable–quite a house by itself, indeed–with locks, bolts, and oaken bars, on all the intervening doors.  Inaudible, consequently, were poor Miss Hepzibah’s gusty sighs…. Evidently, this is to be a day of more than ordinary trial to Miss Hepzibah, who, for over a quarter of a century gone by, has dwelt in strict seclusion, taking no part in the business of life, and just as little in its intercourse and pleasures.

Opening the shop is an agonizing event in Miss Hepzibah’s life, but is not quite the crux of the book. There are two arrivals–the first that of Miss Hepzibah’s young cousin, Phoebe, from the country.  And Phoebe is Miss Hepziabah’s savior:  this cheerful young woman likes serving in the shop, and she soon builds a thriving business.  (People were afraid of Miss Hepzibah, but love pretty Phoebe.)

And then Miss Hepzibah’s mentally ill brother, Clifford, returns from Europe.  He is so frail that he hardly responds to anyone but Phoebe. Hepzibah is grateful, because he has always been the central person in Hepzibath’s life, and she would sacrifice anything to make him happy. They become a family of three.   But there are two possible threats from the outside:  the attractive, interesting lodger, who seems very genial, but has an odd intereste in the family history.  Hetells Phoebe a strange story about mesmerism by a descendant of Matthew Maule and  his hypnotism of her ancestor, Alice Pyncheon.  I was so terrified I put the book aside for a while, and Phoebe tuned out the story.  The second, and real threat is the prosperous Judge Pyncheon, a respected man in the community who destroyed Clifford’s life long ago.  He insists he wants the other Pyncheons to live with him at his country house.

In the  melodramatic introduction to my 1935 Heritage Press copy, Van Wyck Brook explains that this dark novel is based on Hawthorne’s impressions and observations of his hated hometown, Salem, Massachusettss.  He returned there as a an adult and socialized with innkeepers and sailors who told him dark stories about the town.  Van Wyck Brook writes of Hawthonrne;  “HIs mind was a twilight mind. Sometimes he even doubted his own existence.  He had lived as a ghost lives, for twelve years, under the eaves of the house in Herbert Street, only appearing for a walk at nightfall.”

Great reading in the time of… I almost said cholera.

Hawthorne’s Commune:  “The Blithedale Romance”

Brook Farm, the commune where Nathaniel Hawthorne lived.

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.

Treat yourself!

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).