Monday, June 01, 2009

Nathaniel Hawthorne Remembered

I thought I knew my Nathaniel Hawthorne stuff but upon rereading The Blythedale Romance I discovered to my chagrin that the story was nearly new to me after all these years...but it was great to finally nail it down and figure it out once and for all...I used to think the town of Blythe, California, on I-10 on the Colorado River was named after the such luck, it was named after a gold prospector...oh well, another unverified fantasy exploded...anyway, to get back to The Blythedale Romance, I was originally attracted to it as a historical study of one of the mid-19th century utopian communes, Brook Farm, of which Hawthorne was the treasurer for a while apparently. There is a great blog commentary on the novel located at

One of Hawthorne's contributions to psychology is his study of Hollingsworth, a monomaniac who resembles the True Believer Eric Hoffer went on to describe a hundred years later. Zenobia is an interesting study of an early feminist leader, erotic and assertive, who, however he dooms to self-destruction unrealistically. She was a bit airy-fairy, lightweight intellectual, and that bothered him...although one gets the impression such strong women frightened him. Not that he was adverse to creating strong female characters as Hester Prynne of The Scarlet Letter.

It is rather touching that Hawthorne was one of the first tree-huggers, he was virtually the only person of the day to oppose the building of the Erie Canal in New York for the sole reason that it would destroy the forest. And in The Blythedale Romance we find his protagonist climbing a pine tree to get away from it all in a treehouse made by an enveloping grapevine...this guy really was a tree-hugger. He was also very human in his patriotic appreciation of General McClellan's grandiose military parades at the start of the Civil War, thinking like the other Northerners that such a great organizer and disciplinarian would soon rout the Rebels...of course it turned out McClellan was not only an idiot, coward and traitor, plotting to remove Lincoln, and then trying to lose the Civil War altogether by planning to allow the South to secede and become independent...but old Hawthorne cheered him on in 1861 or 62, who can expect an old literary genius to be a good judge of generals???

So the Blythedale Romance has very little to do with utopianism, merely a few wry comments about his inability to be creative after working so hard at farm labor all day...he actually does defend his unnamed companions as having the best of motives to create something new and just to contribute to the world community, but leaves it at that and concentrates all his attention on the triumvirate of Hollingsworth, Zenobia and Priscilla...when you come down to it, rather ordinary people, except for intimations of Zenobia's wild side, which is never the plot just goes on to show how these three suffer the consequences of having rejected the protagonist: Hollingsworth who tried to bully him into becoming a mere follower, is reduced to social and political impotence at the end, Zenobia, who failed to appreciate our hero's ego and ideas, kills herself, and Priscilla, who fails to favorably react to our hero's attentions, has to become a mere emotional crutch to a broken Hollingsworth. Our hero is really both jealous of and afraid of Hollingsworth, it is said H is merely the combination of 3 or more real persons of the day such as Horace Mann and Emerson, but I think he has to be based mainly on one real person Hawthorne knew during his Brook Farm period, given Hawthorne's intense emotions describing this character...not sure who yet...

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