Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The Blithedale Romance,” (1852)

“Thus the summer was passing away; a summer of toil, of interest, of something that was not pleasure, but which went deep into my heart, and there became a rich experienced. I found myself looking forward to years, if not to a lifetime, to be spent on the same system.” (745)

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Nathaniel Hawthorne tells us in the introduction The Blithedale Romance, the third in a series of later career works that solidified his place in American letters, that the utopian community that he lived in, Brook Farm, was indeed the model for Blithedale, the fictional Utopian socialist agrarian community where the novel is set. He says that he chose it because it is the setting that is “removed from the highway of normal travel” and would allow certain literary freedoms without “exposing them too close a comparison with the actual events of real lives.” In short, he claimed not to be making a position on Utopianism, Brook Farm, or any creative efforts at radical reform of society. However, this work comes between his two works of retelling the Greek myths for American children (A Wonder Book and Tanglewood Tales). Given that context, it seems that creative alternatives were very much on his mind in these years. Having viciously deconstructed the legacy of history in The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables, this novel at least gave Hawthorne a setting to consider alternatives to the past and the crazy democratic capitalist environment of the 1840s and 1850s. We also know that Hawthorne was very influenced by his time at Brook Farm. He associated closely with Transcendentalists (some of whom are mentioned in The Blithedale Romance) and valued his time there, even if he believed that in the end he was better placed in the world as it is, not the world that might be. For that reason and because I have not touched intentional communities in quite a while, want to discuss the Blithedale as a vision of an alternative and its perils.

brook farm

Images of Brook Farm

Images of Brook Farm

The major criticisms of intentional communities come forth in various ways in this novel. One such criticism is that small communities will tend not toward consensus but toward petty factionalism. That this is true of non-intentional communities as well (see university departments) is beside the point. This is revealed through the continuous tension between the narrator Coverdale and the social reformer Hollingsworth. Hollingsworth sees Blithesdale as an experiment for the reform of prisoners. He symbolizes the typical exuberant reformism of the era but also the tendency of founders of intentional communities to project their values on the society they create. Coverdale is more neutral in terms of purpose and seems to enjoy the community for the pleasure and meaning it gives his own life. He lashes out at one point saying: “In Heaven’s name, Hollingsworth, cannot you conceive that a man may wish well to the world, and struggle for its good, on some other plan than precisely that which you have laid down? And will you cast off a friend, for no unworthiness, but merely because he stands upon his right, as an individual being, and looks at matters through his own optics, instead of yours?” (750–751)

A second criticism of intentional communities is related. Since they are so small, they will create petty tyrants who have dictatorial power over the members of the community. Again, we need only look at many a workplace where a pathetic middle manager dominates colleagues to know that this is not simply a fault of Utopian experiments, but inherent in our institutions. At one point the founders sit together and think about a time, years in the future, when they will be looked at as mythical founders of the community, the stuff of legends. Zenobia, one of the leaders and another reformer, is a clear leader as is Hollingsworth. At various times they seem at risk of centralizing power and directing its development. In fact, we see quite little of the democratic institutions of consensus that we might expect in intentional communities. The discussions they do have tend to be theoretical and devoted to the works of Fourier. When May-Day becomes a festival day, Coverdale does not even know that was due to “Zenobia’s sole decree, or by the unanimous vote of our Community.” (682) This suggests that direct democracy and dictatorship coexisted in Blithedale.

Yet another criticism is that intentional communities, due to their isolation from their neighbors, tends to cultivate strange ideas and religious practices. Again, this explains the Puritans as much as it does the some new religious movement living in a community. Perhaps the clearest picture of this is the Veiled Lady occurrence, which emerges into a myth re-told by Zenobia. But it is also seen in the cultivation of distinctive Sabbath-day practices.

Hawthorne does interrogate the presumption of many Utopian socialists that hard labor could facilitate or at least co-exist alongside intellectual activity. Given the right social context, there is no reason why a hard working farmer could not write brilliant poetry. Hawthorne questions this idea. “The yeomen and the scholar—the yeoman and the man of finest moral culture, though not the man of sturdiest sense and integrity—are two distinct individuals, and can never be melted or welded into one substance.” (689) I am not sure I would put it quite this way. For me, it is simpler. A body bound by labor is simply not a good receptacle for an active and creative mind. Better to liberate us from work and allow all people to explore their innate creativity than to force it in at the end of the day. (We also notice that cramming one hour of band practice into a day of preparation for standardized tests will not, in a million years, produce musicians.)

But of these, the strongest criticism of intentional communities in the novel is that personalities seem to interfere with the stability and success of the community. Within this short novel, there is a surprising amount of fighting, often with quite bitter words, between community members.

There is much that is impressive about Blithedale, despite these difficulties. I think most important is that the characters actual come to know and understand each other quite well. Yes, it causes conflicts, but they are, as often as not, based on shared solidarity and not animus. Even if people came to Blithedale for different reasons, they shared a commitment to its success, if not all of its socialist presumptions.

Margaret Fuller, one of the residents of Brook Farm, and someone lacking a Library of America volume

Margaret Fuller, one of the residents of Brook Farm, and someone lacking a Library of America volume

Blithedale does have a strong woman leader in the character of Zenobia at a time when women could not vote and married women could not own their own property. Historians have long known that social reform was a way that women established a place of power in patriarchal antebellum America. If Zenobia is akin to Margaret Fuller, it seems that the community itself was not capable of breaking down any of the gender barriers in itself, it just attracted brilliant and autonomous women. The narrator often takes pains to point out how Zenobia is atypical. Whether these communities were liberating for women is a question we can only begin to investigate here.

Finally, Hawthorne makes clear that Blithesdale was an economic success. Despite hardship, jealousy of neighboring farmers, and broad disbelief that they could be successful, Blithedale thrived.

So, intentional communities are a mixed bag, as are any other community. In any case, too much planning tends to lead us to think like states.

“I rather imagine that your appreciation falls short of Mr. Hollingswoth’s just claims. Blind enthusiasm, absorption in one idea, I grant, is generally ridiculous, and must be fatal to the respectability of an ordinary man.; it requires a very high and powerful character, to make it otherwise. But a great man—as, perhaps, you do not know—attains his normal condition only through the inspiration of oneo great idea. . . . There can be no truer test of the noble and heroic, in any individual, than the degree in which he possesses the faculty of distinguishing heroism from absurdity.” (777)

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