Nathaniel Hawthorne, the transcendental movement and The Blithedale Romance as a novelistic critique

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2013

29 Pages, Grade: 1,7



1 Introduction

2 Transcendentalism and its historical background
2.1 Faith in human potential and main thinkers
2.2 Hawthorne’s relation to transcendentalism
2.3 The Brook Farm experiment

3 The Blithedale Romance - a subverted utopia
3.1 Coverdale’s pessimism and harbingers of failure
3.1.1 Egotists and the naiveté of dreamers
3.1.2 The leitmotif of masquerading
3.2 Nature as a catalyst to God
3.2.1 Divinity of nature in contrast to urban life
3.2.2 Farm work as a key to transcendental experience
3.2.3 Opportunities and risks of mesmerism
3.3 The doctrine of self-reliance
3.3.1 Communal autarky
3.3.2 Hollingsworth’s misguided principle self-reliance

4 Concluding thoughts

5 Bibliography

1 Introduction

The Blithedale Romance is Nathaniel Hawthorne’s third major romance. Henry James called it “the lightest, the brightest, the liveliest” of Hawthorne’s “unhumorous fic- tions.”1 Yet, as the following analysis shows, it is full with amusing skepticism. Not only in regard to its plot but also because of its depictions of transcendentalism, the novel is historically worthwhile: Even though the main plot is fictional, Coverdale’s time at Blithedale is undeniably modeled after Hawthorne’s stay at Brook Farm in 1841. One anonymous reviewer of 1852 states: “So vividly does [Hawthorne] present to us the scheme at Brook Farm, to which some of our acquaintance were parties, so sharply and accurately does he portray some incidents of life there, that we are irresistibly impelled to fix the real names of men and women to the characters of his book.”2 Further, Cover- dale is often regarded as a “highly distorted and mocking self-portrait of Hawthorne” in the literary world.3 Moreover, The Blithedale Romance is Hawthorne’s only novel told by a first person narrator. Critics have also noted striking similarities between passages of the novel and his letters as well as journal entries from his days at Brook Farm.4

This strong connection between Hawthorne’s own experiences and his novel cannot be ignored. Thus, the following paper is divided into two main sections. The first section informs about the historical background of the transcendental movement, its central ideas and its main followers. Further, basic information about Hawthorne’s atti- tude towards transcendentalism and his stay at Brook Farm is given. The second sec- tion, which covers three parts, focuses on Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance. The first part concentrates on Coverdale’s critical pessimism towards the social experiment. Here, the naiveté of the reform approach and the omnipresent theme of masquerading are in the center of consideration. The second part deals with the transcendental eleva- tion of nature. In this context, the juxtaposition between urban and natural environments within the novel as well as the depiction of mesmerism and the expected benefits of farm work are discussed. The third part centers on the transcendental tenet of self- reliance, which is differentiated between the utopia of communal and individual self- reliance.

2 Transcendentalism and its historical background

The term ‘transcendentalist’ was used in a pejorative way by the critics of the move- ment. For example, the newspaper Brooklyn Eagle joked in January of 1853: “When a speaker talked so that his audience didn’t understand him, and when he said what he didn’t understand himself - that was transcendentalism.”5 Also according to Loving, these philosophers were initially called ‘transcendentalists’ “as a pejorative to suggest their position as beyond reason and sanity. They seemed to be beyond rational argu- ment.”6 Therefore, the name was disliked by the transcendental thinkers and they pre- ferred more open-ended terms such as the ‘Disciples of Newness,’ the ‘New School,’ or ‘Eclecticism.’ Basically, the verb ‘to transcend’ connotes the optimistic faith in man- kind’s ability to transcend its lower natures and to move beyond the paralyzing condi- tion of the mind.7

2.1 Faith in human potential and main thinkers

Transcendentalism is a New England product, which is inspired by romanticism and the central thoughts of German idealism. Therefore, it blended Puritan humility and work ethic with studies of Kant’s and Goethe’s works as well as with French literature, for instance of the French novelist George Sand.8 Nevertheless, it is hard to define the tran- scendental movement since its advocates did not share a single philosophical idea but rather a liberal habit of thinking.9 General ideals were the fascination of how the mind works, the termination to throw off the constraints of society and tradition and a Ro- mantic emphasis on a strong intuitive feeling. Basically, transcendentalists optimistical- ly believe that people, nature and God are interconnected. Thus, the nature of mankind is inherently good and in natural state, human beings would seek the good. Society is to be blamed for corrupting humans and as a barrier between humans and, using Amos Bronson Alcott’s term, the ‘spirit.’10 In this way, as the Brook Farm experiment as well as The Blithedale Romance shows, a rural world was favored by the Transcendentalists.

Therefore, a stress on individualism and self-reliance is desirable since intuition leads to knowledge: “And if it meant anything, Transcendentalism meant confidence and hope.”11 However, all transcendentalists share the animosity towards the Calvinist divi- sion between a superior supernatural God and an innately corrupt human nature. Ac- cording to the transcendental belief, the divine coursed throughout the natural world and especially the human heart.12

The publication of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay Nature in 1836 is the first fair- ly complete statement of the transcendental philosophy. Therefore, Emerson is com- monly regarded as the founding father of the transcendental movement, even though he preferred to stay in the background. The closing lines of his seminal paper The Ameri- can Scholar of 1836 define the movement: “We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds. A nation of men will for the first time exist, because each believes himself inspired by the Divine Soul which also inspires all men.”13 Briefly summarized, Emerson confidently promotes individualism, creativity and a tireless work ethic to overcome the fact that “a man is a god in ruins.”14

The same year of this publication marked the beginning of the Transcendental Club which lasted until about 1850. It neither had any formal organization nor a list of members, but thinkers such as Emerson, Margaret Fuller and Elisabeth Peabody, the sister of Hawthorne’s future wife, were common attendees.15 Instead of Emerson, some researchers consider the member Alcott as the leader of the ‘New England Transcenden- talists,’ the core group of writers, since he regularly publicized attempts at reforms. Of course, also the founder of the Brook Farm experiment George Ripley frequently took part in the meetings.16

Another important representative of the transcendentalist movement is Henry David Thoreau, who did not only write, but rather lived the philosophy of transcenden- talism that Emerson espoused. He spent 26 months at Walden Pond, a lake in Concord in Massachusetts, to get back in tune with nature, to mediate and to write. He describes his experiences in his most famous work Walden, which was published in 1854: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”17

The end of transcendentalism is marked by the Civil War between 1861 and 1865 but also by the death of main thinkers. Fuller died in 1850, Parker ten years after- wards and Thoreau in 1862, while Emerson became increasingly less associated with this movement.18 In the long run though, transcendentalism proved to be an important moral and philosophical influence shaping major reforms and raising awareness for nat- ural beauty. Emerson is considered to be a central and widely influential figure in American culture in general. Fuller is one of the founding voices of American femi- nism. Thoreau is considered to be the “American originator of ecological awareness” and also had an enormous impact as a “prophet of social justice,” for instance support- ing the abolition of slavery.19

2.2 Hawthorne’s relation to transcendentalism

The publication of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story collection Twice-Told Tales in 1837 attracted the attention of the transcendentalist Elizabeth Peabody, who lived in his neighborhood in Salem, Massachusetts. His visit to the Peabody home resulted in Haw- thorne meeting her sister Sophia Peabody, who he fell in love with at the end of 1838. Not only did Hawthorne get to meet his future wife, but also became acquainted with the transcendental doctrines of the Peabody sisters and was introduced to leading tran- scendentalists.20 Sophia was an admirer of Emerson and insured Hawthorne his first two important publications, Nature in 1836 and the Essays: First series in 1841. Hawthorne was little enthusiastic about Emerson’s philosophy as his rejection of an invitation to one of his lectures shows: “Dearest, I have never had the good luck to profit much, or indeed any, by attending lectures, so that I think the ticket had be better bestowed on somebody who can listen to Mr. Emerson more worthily, My evenings are very pre- cious to me.”21 Even though Hawthorne was not a member of the Transcendental Club, he was occasionally in their company, especially after he had moved with his newly- married wife in 1842 to Concord, Emerson’s hometown.

2.3 The Brook Farm experiment

Hawthorne particularly became familiar with transcendental ideas during his stay at Brook Farm from April to November 1841. The community’s property included about 200 acres about nine miles from Boston, on which at first 15 and later up to 70 people lived. The founder and president Ripley hoped to achieve “Christ’s idea of society” by dividing the time between manual and mental labor and by leading a life close to na- ture.22 Besides a group of minor transcendentalists, Fuller and Emerson were among occasional visitors, whereas the latter was skeptical about the utopian experiment.23 For example, he compared it to the constricting character of a jailhouse: “I do not wish to remove from my present prison to a prison a little larger. I wish to break all prisons.”24

Not only the project, but also its participants were an object for derision. Emer- son mocks Hawthorne in his journal in 1843: “Hawthorne boasts that he lived at Brook Farm during his heroic age: then all were intimate and each knew the other’s work: priest and cook conversed at night of the day’s work.”25 Actually, Hawthorne did not join the social experiment for transcendental fervor, but rather due to financial issues and the option to concentrate in his literary career. Nevertheless, he surely was quite optimistic about the success of Brook Farm since he invested two shares of stock at $500 a share, a sum that was never returned. In the long run, he was hoping to find a cheap place to live within the community in regard to his future marriage to Sophia Peabody. The plan that the inhabitants only had to work for three hours a day to keep the farm functioning yet turned out to be unrealizable.26

First, he was enthusiastic about this new way of life as a letter to his fiancé on 13 April 1841 shows: “I shall make an excellent husbandman. I feel the original Adam reviving within me.”27 When he caught a bad cold on 28 April 1841, the idyll started to crumble. By June he wrote Sophia that Brook Farm was “of all the hateful places that is the worst. […] The real ME was never an associate of the community.”28 The cynic undertone, which is present throughout The Blithedale Romance, is also present in his accusation “that a man’s soul may be buried and perish under a dung-heap, or in a far- row of the field, just as well as under a pile of money.” Middle of August he called manual labor as “the curse of the world” and a few days later he expresses his discard of the former plan to settle down at Brook Farm with her: “Whatever is to be done, must be done by the husband’s own individual strength.”29 Besides this anticlimax, Haw- thorne also felt displaced within the community due to his introverted and conservative character. Georgiana Kirby, a former tenant of Brook Farm, remembers: “He was mor- bidly shy and reserved, needing to be shielded from his fellows. [...] He was therefore not amenable to the democratic influences at the community.”30 Hawthorne left Brook Farm after only eight months.

3 The Blithedale Romance - a subverted utopia

Almost ten years later, Hawthorne wrote The Blithedale Romance in 1851 living at the house of the educational reformer Horace Mann in West Newton. His third novel was finally published in 1852. The romance is undeniably based on his Brook Farm experi- ence. He states in the novel’s preface that he did not “wish to deny, that he had this Community in mind” (1).31 Further, he admits: “Many readers will probably suspect a faint and not very faithful shadowing of Brook Farm, Roxbury” (1). However, the main plot of the shifting relationships among the central characters is fictional.32

3.1 Coverdale’s pessimism and harbingers of failure

The title of the novel already establishes a connection to the transcendental movement, respectively to Emerson’s Nature: “Standing on the bare ground, - my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, - a mean egotism vanishes.” The title is to be understood in an ironic way in regard to the bitter ending of the novel and the reveal- ing egotism of the main characters (cf. p. 9 and p. 20). Böhmer rather sees an ironic hint at the narrator’s disappointing experience at the Blithedale farm, which was little ‘blithesome’ for him.33 Also Waggoner aims at the ironic depictions within the novel by literally translating the farm’s name into ‘happy valley,’ which “turns out to be a fool’s paradise.”34 A further option to symbolically understand the name ‘Blithedale’ is by comparing it to John Winthrop’s puritan ambition to build “a city upon a hill.”35 Instead of a hill, the promising transcendental society is in a dale. This location is remarkably unfavorable for a role model and therefore hints at its failure.

Not only the title but also Coverdale cynically points out that the project was doomed from the beginning. Throughout the whole novel, the wording has an ironic touch emphasizing the vanity of the experiment. For example, the purpose of the Blithedale community to show “mankind the example of a life governed by other than the false and cruel principles on which human society has all along been based” (19) has a cynical undertone in regard to the falseness of Hollingsworth (cf. p. 20). The façade of the “brotherhood” and “sisterhood” (18) will crumble soon just like the name ‘Blithedale’, “which seemed to fill the mouth with a mixture of very stiff clay and very crumbly pebbles” (37). Here, the pessimistic character of Coverdale’s attitude opposes the transcendentalists’ confident and hopeful view on life. Positive thinking was an im- portant part of Emerson’s philosophy, who was an optimist about the goodness of hu- man nature, of the universe and about our ability to know the truth.36 Hawthorne was, as well as his alter-ego Coverdale, an anti-transcendentalist rejecting their optimism by accusing their reform plans of being naïve, selfish and impractical.37 This underlying critique of the rosy view on life is present throughout the whole novel. In this way, the description of the search for a name for the community also foreshadows the failure: Coverdale’s suggestion ‘Utopia’ hints at his disbelief in the success of the community, hinting at the impractical character of an ideally perfect place. However, since the Blithedalers cannot decide on any name, they postpone the decision. Indecision does not only exist in regard to the naming but also a concrete reform plan is missing.


1 Henry James, Hawthorne (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011) 132.

2 From an unsigned review in the Christian Examiner (September 1852), repr. in J. Donald Crowley (Ed.), Hawthorne: The Critical Heritage (London: Routledge 1970) 252.

3 Irving Howe, Politics and the Novel (New York: Horizon Press, 1957) 290.

4 Laura A. Sterling, How to Write about Nathaniel Hawthorne (New York: Bloom’s Literary Criticism, 2009) 294.

5 Debby Applegate, The Most Famous Man in America. The Biograph y of Henry Ward Beecher (New York: Three Leaves, 2006) 272.

6 Jerome Loving, Walt Whitman: The Song of Himself (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1999) 185.

7 Applegate 272.

8 Henry James, Hawthorne. English Men of Letters Series (London: Macmillan, 1879) 83.

9 Applegate 272.

10 In contrast, Emerson calls it the ‘Over-Soul.’ Marjorie J. Elder, Nathaniel Hawthorne, transcendental symbolist (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1969) 49.

11 Wesley T. Mott (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Transcendentalism (New York: Greenwood Press, 1996) 228.

12 Applegate 272. The word ‘heart’ is mentioned 146 times within The Blithedale Romance, which stresses its transcendental context.

13 Emerson in Patrick J. Keane, Romanticism, and Intuitive Reason: The Transatlantic ‘ Light of All Our Day ’ (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2005) 186.

14 Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Nature,” The Complete Essays and Other Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Brooks Atkinson (New York: The Modern Library, 1940) 39.

15 Elder 8.

16 Elder 8.

17 Henry David Thoreau, Walden; Or, Life in the Woods (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1995) 59.

18 Mott 228.

19 Mott 228.

20 Elder 6.

21 Hawthorne in Elder 9.

22 Sarah Bird Wright, Critical companion to Nathaniel Hawthorne. A literary reference to his life and work (New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2009) 39.

23 Elder 10.

24 Emerson in Sam McGuire Worley, Emerson, Thoreau, and the Role of the Cultural Critic (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001) 6.

25 Emerson in Elder 9.

26 Arlin Turner, Nathaniel Hawthorne: A Biography (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980) 133.

27 Louise Desalvo, Nathaniel Hawthorne (Brighton: The Harvester Press, 1987) 97.

28 Hawthorne in Desalvo 99.

29 Hawthorne in Desalvo 98.

30 Kirkby in Desalvo 99.

31 All references to The Blithedale Romance are to The Centenary Edition of the Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, ed. William Charvat et al., vol. 3 (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1964).

32 Wright 39.

33 Lisa Böhmer, Brookfarm und Hawthorne ’ s Blithedale Romance (Diss. Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Berlin, 1936) 83.

34 Hyatt H. Waggoner, Hawthorne. A Critical Study (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1963) 189.

35 Winthrop in Alan Heimert and Andrew Delbaco (Eds.), The Puritans in America: A Narrative Anthology (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985) 91.

36 George Miller, “Emerson’s Optimism,” 2005. (17.09.13).

37 Alfred F. Rosa, Salem, Transcendentalism, and Hawthorne (Cranbury: Associated University Presses, 1980) 14.

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Nathaniel Hawthorne, the transcendental movement and The Blithedale Romance as a novelistic critique
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