It would proabably be quite easy to find out Henry James’ exact estimate of Blithedale and his intentions as he came to write The Bostonians. I thought that I had covered The Bostonians fairly well, peeking around where I could to take away some insights after my initial posts, and Blithedale never came up. And what I didn’t know, even though I tried to check the biographical record on James with some care, is that James wrote a biography of Hawthorne for John Morley and the English Men of Letters series just before he wrote The Bostonians–but why would I have cared about that? It’s funny how things can be so meaningless from one perspective, and then they get a little bump from somewhere and suddenly they’re keenly interesting. Now that I’ve read Blithedale and I find myself considering Hawthorne, Henry James’ little biography seems especially important. But all in good time, I hope.
Blithedale and The Bostonians, compare and contrast. It should be fun, right?
I’ll start with setting, both real and… imagined, might be the right word–what do you call Blithedale, Hawthorne’s fictional version of Brook Farm? I read The Bostonians because I was interested in Annie Fields and literary Boston, and because I was surprised that I knew so little about the novel. And the question is, if James was inspired by Blithedale when he conceived The Bostonians, did he choose to do anything interesting with his setting and background? My own response would start with the symbolic aspects of Hawthorne’s setting. The last thing Hawthorne is trying to do is to record a realistic version of the commune. The fact and idea of Brook Farm are what’s interesting to Hawthorne. He’s trying to create an Eden, a garden and green world, a pastoral setting where his characters can reveal and discover their true selves. Whether they discover their own corruption and sinful nature isn’t especially important to this side of the argument, as the key lies in the desire to try something new, the contemporary aspiration for a better, simpler, more holistic and fulfilling life, along the drive for reform that dominates Blithedale. That’s the place where we can make the connection to The Bostonians. James is using the new historical context created by the Civil War to make a major revision of Hawthorne’s setting, but we can note the similarities. The Eden and lost Paradise in The Bostonians might be the old South with its gentlemanly ways, though that doesn’t quite add up with making Basil Ransom’s trip north resemble Coverdale and Hollingsworth’s journey to Blithedale. Ransom’s trip to Boston is a conscious journey to the heart of reform, and the home of the abolitionism that won out in the war. New York is The Bostonians’ version of Blithedale’s Boston, and Boston itself becomes Blithedale. In very much the same manner as Coverdale and Hollingsworth, Ransom has a strong curiousity about change, reform, and the future, and his ambivalence and cynicism runs just as deep as theirs.
It’s worth stopping for a moment to consider the relationship of Basil Ransom to Hawthorne’s characters, Coverdale and Hollingsworth. James eschews Hawthorne’s use of the 1st person narrator, although he apparently takes a lot from Coverdale in his narrator character in The Sacred Fount, and first person narrators and Coverdale-influenced characters show up elsewhere in his work, criticism tells me. Ransom is a writer and has a writer’s consciousness, and there’s a lot to discuss in a comparison of Ransom to Coverdale. Ransom seems to be a conscious effort, however, and a fairly successful one, to combine Hollingsworth and Coverdale into a single character. This integration is interesting, and intriguing with regards to the general identification of Hawthorne himself with Coverdale, while projecting Hollingsworth outside of Hawthorne’s autobiographical impulses. It doesn’t seem common, as I’ve noted, to see Hollingsworth and Coverdale as a splitting of the self, as dual elements of Hawthorne’s personality and experience and reflections. But James apparently saw the efficacy of fusing the two characters into one. The journalist-promoter Matthias Pardon is a weak candidate to challenge this idea–Ransom resembles Coverdale much more than Pardon does, and Pardon is a minor, not particularly memorable character, months later. And it’s just as easy to note the similarities between Ransom and Hollingsworth, the authority and determination, the conservatism, the strained financial circumstances. James presumably wants to make Ransom both more of a real character from the living world, and to maintain the virility and attractiveness of Hollingsworth, but it’s a tall order. Ransom has just enough of Coverdale’s anti-hero, writerly tendencies, and Hollingsworth’s reactionary masculinity and Ahab-like anti-hero qualities, to be rather unattractive and unlikeable–he’s skating on thin ice through the entire novel. James probably didn’t intend for him to fall through, but I’ve noted that the book got away from him and it was rejected by the public early on in its publishing progress. The source for both of these things just might lie in the effort to fuse Hollingsworth and Coverdale into a single character, along with the challenge of bringing a Southerner north to New England in the wake of the Civil War, although that’s probably just one of many candidates. It characterization of Ransom required a lot of thought and explanation, which James was only too eager to pursue, but he quickly lost the focus of a “romance” that Hawthorne had employed.
In my last post I talked about the way that Hawthorne may have served a furtive autobiographical purpose by identifying with Coverdale and obscuring his affinities with Hollingsworth. The fusion of the two characters in Ransom allows us to see Hawthorne’s practice even more clearly as a splitting of the self, with all that entails. With my oft-noted penchant for studying self-deception, this is an enticing development. I plan to come back to it in yet another Hawthorne post–not sure when I’ll get to that one, having enough trouble getting through this one–but I can pause for a couple of quick observations. The first is that even Fred Crews, as far as I can tell, in the famous, classic hard core Freudian reading of Hawthorne that he later rejected, fails to see Hollingsworth and Coverdale as separate components of Hawthorne’s personality, though I have to go over his comments more closely. The second note is that the I have at hand an entire book about Hawthorne’s treatment of this theme, “Hypocrisy and Self-Deception in Hawthorne’s Fiction,” published by Kenneth Marc Harris in 1988 (Movie Business Year Two for me). I’ll be looking at Harris’ book in this projected later post, and Harris has lots of interesting things to say about Blithedale. The only point I’ll make here is that he doesn’t in any way see Hollingsworth and Coverdale as different elements of a single self. And I’ll add a third note on Hollingsworth and Coverdale, since the Pandora’s Box of criticism has been opened. I mentioned how there’s a strong strain of Ahab and dark romanticism in Hollingsworth, which was written not long after Mellville and Hawthorne became friends and Melville dedicated Moby Dick to Hawthorne. So it has been easy enough to read the relationship and attraction of Hollingsworth and Coverdale into the friendship of Melville and Hawthone. So just think about that, won’t you–how Basil Ransom is an attempt to fuse the two leading male characters in Blithedale, who are really Melville and Hawthorne. Or not.
Moving on. Hello, ladies! And if James took an ambitious step in creating his hero, what do we think he’ll come up with with the women? Hold onto your bonnets. And amazingly enough, as hard as it is to imagine an ending less satisfying and viable than the drowning of Zenobia, James pulls it ouff with Ransom’s feverish and calculated, last second virtual abduction of Varena Tennant. Next post!