May 2, 2010

Behold a huge bundle of scribble

Nathaniel Hawthorne joined the community at Brook Farm mostly for economic reasons, rather than philosophical ones. George Ripley and the other founders of the cooperative community believed that sharing responsibility would allow ample time for intellectual pursuits, like writing. Hawthorne quickly learned this wasn't the case. He complained about his role as a farmer, shoveling manure, and dealing with stubborn cows. "Even my Custom House experience was not such a thraldom and weariness," he wrote later. "Thank God, my soul is not utterly buried under a dung-heap." Even his short-term role as treasurer for the venture left him annoyed. The experience, however, inspired a novel.

On May 2, 1852, Hawthorne wrote to his friend, the critic Edwin Percy Whipple with the opening line, "Behold a huge bundle of scribble, which you have thoughtlessly promised to look over!" (view the whole letter) He included a manuscript copy of the novel, Hollingsworth: A Romance. Hawthorne, however, was not certain of the title. "I wish, at least, you would help me to choose a name," he pleaded. The author offered several alternatives as well. Whipple's response no longer exists but when the book was finally published, it carried the title The Blithedale Romance.

Hawthorne admitted the work was inspired by Brook Farm (which had failed by then), but emphasized it was a work of fiction. Scholars, however, have dug deep into the work to find real-life connections. Most agreed upon is the basis of the character Zenobia, whose inspiration seems to have come from Margaret Fuller. Fuller never officially joined Brook Farm was a frequent enough visitor and lecturer there that she had her own teacup and a cottage was named in her honor. From chapter 6:

Zenobia was truly a magnificent woman. The homely simplicity of her dress could not conceal, nor scarcely diminish, the queenliness of her presence. The image of her form and face should have been multiplied all over the earth. It was wronging the rest of mankind to retain her as the spectacle of only a few. The stage would have been her proper sphere. She should have made it a point of duty, moreover, to sit endlessly to painters and sculptors...


  1. Rob,

    Is the image in your post of Hawthorne? It seems one of the more unusual or lesser-known (at least to me) ones. What is its provenance? Couldn't find any reference to it at the end of your entry. Thanks.

  2. It sure is, and it's actually a fairly well-known one. There's also a version of it that's poorly developed that's seen more often. That version was used on the cover of a book called Hawthorne's Shyness (which I have yet to read).

  3. I wonder what others have to say about that novel. I read it a few years ago, and while I could see familiar Hawthorne themes having to do with hypocrisy and misperception, the tone was hard to get a handle on. It seems to me to be utterly cynical, not unusual for Hawthorne of course, but without the emphasis on beauty that seems to be in other work.