Posted by: zhiv | April 17, 2009

The Blithedale Romance, Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Blithedale Romance proved to have all of the similarities and connections to The Bostonians that my professor friend had mentioned, and I should begin by saying that I started out looking for the ways in which the first book reads into the next as a I was going through it. I think my previous post was a response to the strangeness and curio-quality of Hawthorne’s writing, and I was trying to remember my prior exposure to it. It was an odd experience, getting through this book, and it seemed somehow even more labored, precious, and self-conscious than Hawthorne’s other books, but I could be wrong about that and the first-person narration might have had an effect as well. The layering and complexity surrounding a simple story is probably why it appealed to Henry James, as working the same vein enabled him to generate an almost meditative type of storytelling in The Bostonians, and perhaps a bridge to his later work. Hawthorne never quite lets himself go in Blithedale, and he’s never especially discursive, but the book is certainly meditative and pregnant, and like The Bostonians it contains an attempt to glance at spiritualism in its genuine yearnings as well as its fraudulent manifestations, and moreover to connect these to writing and fiction. I suppose that one has to give Hawthorne credit for telling his “romance” in a somewhat disciplined and deliberate manner, and it’s easy to see how James wanted to update and emulate Hawthorne’s effort, and it’s just as easy to understand how James wasn’t able to pull it off. Whatever credit Hawthorne deserves for his control over his materials needs to be weighed, however, against his general success, and unfortunately The Blithedale Romance doesn’t seem especially successful or satisfying. It is definitely fascinating and rich, but it never gains a drive or interest that comes close to matching the truly compelling elements of The Scarlet Letter–at least not until you start digging in pretty deep. Still, it’s a very good try.

It’s worthwhile to consider, at first, the simple story and triangle at the heart of Blithedale. Hawthorne is using his brief experience at Brook Farm to create a setting for his romance. His narrator, Miles Coverdale, worthy of all sorts of analysis in his own right, goes through a rather straightforward progress. He meets and is impressed by the florid, sexual, and dynamic Zenobia when he first arrives at Blithedale, and he voyeuristically describes her in great detail. Zenobia is a significant revision and advance on Hester Prynne in some ways, incorporating the contemporary role of women like Margaret Fuller and Elizabeth Peabody into the romantic triangle. Coverdale’s attention turns next to Hollingsworth, a strong model of virility with a fixed idea, obsessed with criminal reform. And lastly, wispy young Priscilla is brought to Blithedale, coming to life and beauty in the sunshine and fresh air. We know that Priscilla’s background and parentage is going to come into play, and it turns out that she and Zenobia are half-sisters, daughters of the same forger father, one the product of affluence, education, and experience, the other the product of poverty and innocence (or maybe not so much). Hollingsworth and Zenobia seem to share a strong mutual attraction, although it’s never dramatized very clearly, while Priscilla blossoms under their mutual care. But Zenobia’s complexity of character, intellect, and her past, which takes the form of her vague prior relationship with the handsome charlatan Westerfelt, generates a disaffection in Hollingsworth. He makes a fatal choice to tie himself to Priscilla, which causes Zenobia to run off and drown herself. Hollingsworth lives on, imprisoned in his quiet private life with Priscilla, feeling as if he’s serving a self-imposed sentence for the “murder” of Zenobia. And Coverdale concludes the story with a last second admission, meant to explain his own strange stance and behavior, that he was in love with Priscilla.

Yeah, right. Priscilla seems to be the one character of the three that Coverdale clearly is never in love with, although perhaps she is the one he is actually capable of loving. We get a sense that, in his mind, which is alternately fevered, cloistered, haunted and so many other things, Zenobia and Hollingsworth were best left to each other, a prize-worthy pair of human beasts. Coverdale seems both obsessed and frightened by the sexuality and power of Zenobia, and the attraction is obvious. The same thing is true with Hollingsworth, and Coverdale seems relieved that the two share a mutual attraction and sympathy, allowing him to return to his own effete habits and comforts. Despite his sophistication, Coverdale retains an obsession with purity/(Puritan), and the appearance of Westerfelt at Blithedale raises every hair on his feline back. Coverdale’s distaste and disgust for Westerfelt is palpable, making him the phallic serpent wriggling into the Edenic Blithedale garden, and Coverdale spies him from his all-seeing, authorial hidden perch in his “tree of knowledge/consciousness.” The sin of Zenobia and Westerfelt was that they were young lovers, and we know that doesn’t sit well with Coverdale or Hawthorne. Or Hollingsworth, for that matter and more importantly, who, in his own purity and obsessiveness, turns away from Zenobia and chooses the virginal Priscilla.

Coverdale’s attraction to Hollingsworth is pretty interesting stuff. The language gets fairly explicit, without quite admitting to itself what’s going on. Hollingsworth demands submission from Coverdale, and Coverdale can’t quite give it up, choosing to hold onto his freedom and his ability to watch, rather than participate. And as all of this passes we wait to discover the dispensation of the innocent daughter/sister. Hollingswoth might accept the strong Zenobia as a full partner, and unlike Coverdale she is only too happy to submit to him, dispite their differences. Westerfelt poses a danger to Priscilla, but Coverdale, watching oh so carefully, seems like he might be preparing to make his own decisive step and “save” her. But he won’t have the opportunity, of course. Hollingsworth rejects Zenobia, and she chooses suicide.

Zenobia is traditionally associated, loosely, with Margaret Fuller, who hung out a bit a Brook Farm I guess and seems to have a similar intellectual energy and pedigree. Fuller drowned in a shipwreck between the time that Hawthorne was at Brook Farm with her and when he came to write the novel in 1852, so premature death by drowning strengthens the association. Apparently Hawthorne also participated in a search for the body of a woman who drowned herself and he wrote about it in his journal, an experience similar to the search for and discovery of Zenobia’s body that occurs at the end of Blithedale. These are just hints, however, and they don’t exactly provide reasons why Zenobia should have decided to kill herself. The fact is that the suicide makes the conclusion quite tidy, gives it genuine heft, and the latter section of the book has a much stronger, better energy to it, as if the story is finally coming into focus.

Along with Fuller as an antecedent for Zenobia, there are a number of obvious candidates for models for Hollingsworth, zealous reformers like Bronson Alcott, Emerson, George Ripley, and Hawthorne’s brother-in-law Horace Mann, and it’s easy to throw Melville’s Ahab, appearing the previous year, into the mix. Hollingsworth and Zenobia are Hawthorne’s “primary” characters, with Coverdale a complex, secondary narrator, and Priscilla and Westerfelt (and Moodie/Fauntleroy) at another remove–Priscilla is central to the plot turns, but she doesn’t have much of a character at all. The important thing with these primary characters is not any direct models, of course, but Hawthorne’s effort to make them universal, to meld elements from different members of his circle and experience into the representative male and female of his times. And in Zenobia he describes a new female and incipient feminism, which his transcendental male zealot Hollingsworth rejects and drives to suicide. Yikes!

Megan Marshall’s in-depth study of the Peabody sisters, however, does seem to change the game here. Her book is a careful and thorough bigography of Elizabeth, Sophia, and Mary Peabody, presenting us with their story and accomplishments, showing the intensity and achievement of Elizabeth and the “genius invalidism” of Sophia. But Marshall’s New Yorker article/excerpt shows us where she thinks the real action is, as she explores the vague rumors of an engagement of some sort between Hawthorne and Elizabeth Peabody. Marshall takes extremely deliberate steps through Hawthorne’s relationship with first Elizabeth, and then his romance with Sophia. And she ends her book with the same scene she sets in her prologue, where Sophia leaves home to marry Hawthorne. The prologue asks the question of how Elizabeth must have felt at this moment, having “discovered,” supported, published and promoted Hawthorne, and fallen in love with him as well, and by the end of the book we have ample materials to answer the question for ourselves.

But Marshall never says a word about Blithedale. She is very much writing a book about the neglected Peabody sisters and critiquing the first stages of the idealized marriage of Hawthorne and Sophia, and she’s almost going out of her way to avoid writing a book about Hawthorne. There are plenty of those, Marshall knows, but without this crucial information about the Peabody sisters they’re all insufficient, more or less. Her sense, it seems, is that we don’t know nearly enough about Elizabeth Peabody, and her relationship with her sister, to really understand what’s going on. And since she’s not writing about Hawthorne in any direct way, she’s definitely not writing about his work. She leaves all of that to us, although she does include this hint in her New Yorker article:

Biographers often cite Sophia as the inspiration for several of Hawthorne’s characters. Yet his relationship with Elizabeth may have been equally significant. All of his novels feature powerful women, and more often two. Both “The Blithedale Romance” and “The Marlbe Faun” involve pairs of women–one sunny and vulnerable, one troubled and manipulative–who view themselves as sisters and vie for the affections of the novel’s hero. The defiantly sensual Hester Prynne, Hawthorne’s most memorable heroine, combines the attractions of both Elizabeth and Sophia

This brief note doesn’t seem to do justice to the details of Blithedale, where, for starters, Zenobia and Priscilla are definitely sisters. In the final paragraph of her book Marshall mentions “the gently satirical portrait painted of (Elizabeth) as Miss Birdseye by Henry James in his novel The Bostonians.” What we don’t get, however, is any speculation about the way Elizabeth Peabody’s character and “type” might have contributed to Zenobia. Hollingsworth’s choice, between the feminist woman of the world, and the innocent Priscilla, certainly resembles Hawthorne’s choice to marry Sophia and his rejection of Elizabeth. And more than anything else it’s interesting to see how the most important of the many secrets in the novel is this fact that Zenobia and Priscilla are sisters.

If the marriage of Hawthorne and Sophia is in the foreground, as it has been for just short of 150 years, and Elizabeth Peabody is a minor, little-known figure, the sister plot doesn’t garner much attention. But as I said, Marshall’s approach seems to be a game-changer with regards to Blithedale. One more simple and standard association in Blithedale is viewing Coverdale as an approximation of Hawthorne and his detachment and diffidence, and this works well enough, as far as it goes. Coverdale is an amazing character, and he certainly presents a telling and even prescient portrait of modern consciousness, with its detachment and ambivalence, and it even goes further and explores the voyeuristic nature of authorship. But perhaps the creation of Coverdale and his belated confession (“I loved Priscilla”) and close proximity to Hawthorne himself is all a screen (or cover), in a story where the “lifted veil” is prominently featured, to prevent us from making any connection at all between Hawthorne and Hollingsworth’s choice between two sisters. Over the past week I’ve bounced around a fair amount in Blithedale criticism, only scratching the surface, but I can say with some confidence that I haven’t seen anything that comes remotely close to saying this: “The story at the core of The Blithedale Romance is the anti-hero Hollingsworth’s fatal choice between two very different women who turn out to be sisters. Hawthorne set the book at a commune modeled on Brook Farm, where he spent the summer in 1841 soon after becoming engaged to Sophia Hawthorne, after breaking off a rumored engagement to her sister Elizabeth, who had been one of his primary supporters and benefactors.” Haven’t found that anywhere yet, but I’ll keep looking.

It’s easy to spend time on making the connections between Hawthorne and Coverdale, while there has never been much incentive to tie Hawthorne to Hollingsworth. Coverdale has Hawthorne’s ambivalence and intrigued detachment from the Brook Farm project, and his slim literary output and attitude as a poet matches Hawthorne’s creative accomplishments at the time. But Hollingsworth is just as cynical about the Blithedale commune as Coverdale, if not more so, and when Hawthorne wrote out his “romance” ten years later, he was successful and firmly established, critically acclaimed, in the midst of a determined and sustained creative burst and much closer to Hollingsworth in his solid, married life. Does it not make any sense at all to associate the author of The Scarlet Letter with his own Ahab-like anti-hero, who is obsessed with criminal reform? Is it possible that one of the most impressive things about this book is the amazing way that the creation of Coverdale has managed to obscure Hawthorne’s examination and expiation of his guilt for his romantic and sexual rejection of the woman who became his sister-in-law?

The critical scene in the novel is the break between Hollingsworth and Zenobia. Interestingly, it’s one that we don’t get to see, as Coverdale, the voyeur who has already seen so much, arrives just after it occurs. But perhaps a reason we gon’t get to see it is because it never happend, as Hawthorne never let things get so far with Elizabeth that he directly rejected her. My vague impression is that he withdrew his affections from Elizabeth, turned them towards Sophia, and relied upon Elizabeth’s forebearance and discretion, which stood him in good stead. But perhaps guilt–and we know all too well how Hawthorne liked him his guilt–inspired him to create this romance, which works over the story of his involvement with the sisters and the background of his marriage like a festering wound. Coverdale’s last-second assertion, “I loved Priscilla,” has led many to make the obvious association between Priscilla and Sophia, but I don’t know that there’s much discussion of how Hollingsworth’s marriage to Priscilla, called “an imprisonment for murder,” ties to Hawthorne’s sense of his own fate.

So much for my blogger’s two cents worth. And don’t mind me, making all this up as I go along. As I always say, what do I know? And with that speculative aside out of the way, now I can move on to thinking about Blithedale and The Bostonians.



  1. I just reread The Blythdale Romance after many years on my new Kindle2, and realized I had not remembered the plot at all. Must have not impressed me first time around. Hawthorne’s description of Hollingsworth reads like a preview of Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer. I can’t help thinking the character is really based on one individual who made NH both afraid and jealous, though I haven’t figured out who yet. A good historical overview of the utopian movement that included Brooks Farm can be found in Martin Green’s Prophets of a New Age,…Zenobia’s suicide strikes me as totally unrealistic, I think NH just had to do it since there was a suicide at BFarm that made an impression on him…also I find it strange that out of the many people at the commune he only talks about the 3 principle characters and the Yankee farmer, as if the rest were faceless ghosts…I suppose this is a called a literary device…as far as your idea that this novel represents NH’s attempt to come to terms with his choice of Sophia vs. Elizabeth Peabody, is a good one and deserves further elaboration in the literature…

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