July 24, 2011

I shall take the Community for a subject

In a letter to a friend dated July 24, 1851, about a year after the publication of The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne speculated about a new novel — or, "romance," as he called them. He wrote, "When I write another romance, I shall take the Community for a subject, and shall give some of my experiences and observations at Brook Farm." The book he had in mind became The Blithedale Romance (1852).

Soon after writing this letter, he borrowed several books by Charles Fourier, whose theories re-shaped George Ripley's Utopian experiment in West Roxbury, Massachusetts. Hawthorne, a founding member of Brook Farm (despite not being part of the community of Transcendentalists) and its one-time treasurer, was not part of the project when it turned to Fourierism. In a sense, then, Hawthorne stepped away from his own "experiences and observations." As he went on with his idea, he went further and further away from Brook Farm anyway, instead constructing a highly-fictionalized version or, as he described it, the story became "a faint... shadowing of Brook Farm." By the time he wrote to his friend, the critic Edwin Percy Whipple, his suggestions of potential titles show an emphasis on his fictional characters rather than the actual community.

In reality, Hawthorne cared little for Brook Farm, having joined not because of its ideals but because of promises of financial gain and ample time for intellectual pursuits (like writing). In fact, it had the opposite effect: "Even my Custom House experience was not such a thraldom and weariness; my mind and heart were freer," he wrote. Among his many farm-related duties was shoveling manure. "Thank God, my soul is not utterly buried under a dung-heap." It didn't take long for Hawthorne to realize the physical labor involved with farm life wasn't for him, calling it "the curse of the world." He worried it was making him "proportionately brutified." As for time to write, he noted, "I have no quiet at all."

Like Hawthorne, the main character of the book which became The Blithedale Romance realized that farm life was not conducive to creativity. Despite the fictionalization, there was still some real-life inspiration in the book; the protagonist, Miles Coverdale, arrives at the farm in a snowstorm, just like Hawthorne arrived at Brook Farm. Coverdale also displays Hawthorne's typical self-deprecation: "I am a poet, and, so the critics tell me, no great affair at that!" Further, at one point Coverdale refers to Robert Burns and notes: "He was no poet while a farmer, and no farmer while a poet."

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