Monday, May 6, 2013

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.
“THE BLITHEDALE ROMANCE” by Nathaniel Hawthorne (first published 1852)

I’ve just been reading one light satire (Marina Lewycka’s Various Pets Alive and Dead) that incidentally points out how an attempt at communal living failed. I now turn to a more sober book that does something similar.

I chose a novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-64) once before as a “Something Old”. (Look up The House of the Seven Gables on the index at right). On that occasion I took the opportunity to remark that two of his four novels have managed to continue being read by a general public (The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables) while two now are kept alive only by the specialists in university literature departments (The Marble Faun and The Blithedale Romance). This is a truthful statement and I am not championing his two lesser-known novels as great works of literature. But, as always, the historian side of me does often find lesser-known novels fruitful material for considering the values of past ages, and such is indeed the case with the messy and ill-organised novel that is The Blithedale Romance.

Briefly, this is the story of a botched attempt at communal living.

The narrator, Miles Coverdale, joins a Utopian community at Blithedale farm, where the communards do all the manual work of toiling and tilling as well as trying to live a “higher” intellectual life. Coverdale’s chief companions in the scheme are the forceful reformer Hollingsworth; the forceful romantic woman, also an ardent feminist, who goes by the name Zenobia; and the waif-like and innocent Priscilla.

Hollingsworth’s chief aim is to find the ideal way of healthy living that will help to rehabilitate criminals. But the novel’s dramatic focus is on the relationships of the intellectual communards.

Priscilla dotes on Zenobia and sometimes serves her like a disciple; but she comes to worship Hollingsworth. Clearly Zenobia also loves Hollingsworth, so there is rivalry between the two women. A sinister mesmerist called Professor Westervelt hovers on the edge of the story, suggesting more mechanistic ways of “reforming” people’s character.

For many and various reasons not happy with the Utopian community, Coverdale drifts back to the city. Old Moodie, who brought Priscilla to the community, reveals to Coverdale that Zenobia and Priscilla are in fact half-sisters. They are both daughters of Old Moodie, by different women.

Typical of Hawthorne’s writing, the novel concentrates more on a “situation” upon which Hawthorne can comment than it does on dramatic development. Nevertheless, it does have its dramatic moments. In one climactic scene, Hollingsworth rescues Priscilla from the clutches of the mesmerist Westervelt, by intruding on his stage performance. In another, Hollingsworth renounces Zenobia and goes off with Priscilla.

Zenobia commits suicide by drowning.

In a postscript told years later, there are two ironic conclusions. The first is that Hollingsworth, the man who would have set the world to rights, has been emotionally and mentally stultified by his remorse at Zenobia’s suicide, and has given up all reforming activity. The second is that the narrator Miles Coverdale, who is still a bachelor, admits that he has achieved very little in his life, and has not developed as the poet he intended to be. He attributes this to his unrequited love for Priscilla, which he never admitted to himself when he was living at Blithedale.

Tapping in to Hawthorne’s typically symbolic choice of names, it is clear that there was nothing blithe in Blithedale. It was a blithe Edenic daydream unconnected with human social reality. The Utopian ideal could not withstand human nature and the personality clashes between individuals. The fact that Hawthorne has given his main character the name of an early Protestant reformer (and Bible-translator) Miles Coverdale also suggests that communal living didn’t sit easily with Hawthorne’s instinctive individualistic Protestant-Puritanism, no matter how much he attempted to distance himself from it. Note how the two “dales” clash.

As a whole, The Blithedale Romance seems to me to be an unresolved mess. Stylistically, it is of a piece with Hawthorne’s other works, but here, whatever his virtues are elsewhere, they have been turned into defects. Once again, the plot development is a jerky series of self-contained scenes and vignettes, hastily wrapped up in the conclusion. Once again, there is much unassimilated anterior action (Zenobia’s mysterious story of the Veiled Lady, and Old Moodie’s account of his prior life as “Fauntleroy”).

The first-person narration of Miles Coverdale creates a very special problem. Hawthorne always has much direct authorial comment, but the direct first-person voice inevitably makes Miles seem like a Peeping Tom. Committed to this voice, Hawthorne has to use Miles to convey to us intimate details of other characters’ lives. So we get Miles spying from a treetop in a forest so that he can witness an encounter between Zenobia and Westervelt; spying on the inhabitants of houses opposite his city hotel room; and passively witnessing the climactic encounter between Holingsworth, Zenobia and Priscilla. In all cases, he is the witness only because Hawthorne needs to tell us things.

Apparently much critical comment on this novel has focused on Hawthorne’s attitude to women. Thematically, Zenobia and Priscilla are respectively the forceful “modern” woman who wants to set the world to rights, and the “domestic” woman who craves a home and family. (A similar contrast is found in the characters of Miriam and Hilda in Hawthorne’s last novel The Marble Faun.) Hawthorne admires Zenobia’s fire, but gives every evidence of approving more of the domestic Priscilla. Indeed Zenobia, with her eventual suicide-for-love, ends up confirming all the negative things which Hawthorne claims not to believe about women’s intellect. (Given the contrast of the two women, and the wooing of one of them by a man, I can’t help wondering if Henry James had read this novel before writing his The Bostonians although, typically, in his own novel James implies a lesbian attraction of one woman for the other.)

In his longest single analysis of Zenobia’s mind, in Chapter Six, Hawthorne is in effect saying that feminists upset a social and sexual order worth preserving. The narrator says:

I recognized no severe culture in Zenobia; her mind was full of weeds… She made no scruple of oversetting all human institutions and scattering them as with a breeze from her fan. A female reformer, in her attacks upon society, has an instinctive sense of where the life lies, and is inclined to aim directly at that spot. Especially the relation between the sexes is among the earliest to attract her notion.”

Whenever he addresses the issue directly, Hawthorne affirms woman’s intellectual equality with man, but the trajectory of the story says that women who attempt to rival men intellectually will end up as self-destructive emotional wrecks. They are denying their essential domestic womanhood. You do not need to attend a seminar to be able to work out what recent feminist critics think of that.

Yet there is a string of irony here. The “domestic” woman Priscilla is also revealed to be the woman who is at times controlled by a mesmerist. Could this be a satirical rendering of conventional marriage?

The worst fault of this novel is that Hawthorne himself seems unclear in his purpose. The book is an uneasy blend of two things. First, there is a realistic account of a failed experiment (and note how vague Hawthorne is about the day-to-day running of Blithedale – is he suppressing details of sexual relations in such a setting?). Second, there is a world of fantasy with the portentous intrusion of the demonic mesmerist Westervelt. There is a “moral” of sorts – the idea that Utopian communities are impossible given the imperfect nature of human beings. In the character of Hollingsworth, Hawthorne apparently intends some such message. The man’s high-flown reformism shipwrecks on his own passions. He intends to reform criminals by appealing to their higher instincts. But he forgets how much he is ruled by his own instincts. At one point he conspires basely to get money for his schemes. This good thematic idea is, alas, buried in much dross. The novel’s fantastic element seems sheer impertinence, while the narrator’s priggish tone, and lack of self-awareness, merely irritate.

As so often in Hawthorne, however, there are some shining passages in the lousy overall design. Some of the best chart the community’s failure. In Chapter Three we are told:

Constituting so pitiful a minority as now, we were inevitably estranged from the rest of mankind in pretty fair proportion with the strictness of our mutual bond among ourselves.”

This is a pretty fair psychological deconstruction of the elitism and clannishness that are inherent in so many communard endeavours.

Then in Chapter Four there is this devastating admission:

The power of regaining our former position contributed much, I fear, to the equanimity with which we subsequently bore many of the hardships and humiliations of a life of toil.”

In other words, like commune-hippies of a later date, with credit cards in their back pockets, these communards are really only playing at adopting the simple life. They know that if things get really rough, they can return to urban or suburban comfort.

The novel’s best set-piece is in Chapter Eight, where Hawthorne contrasts the neighbouring farmers’ envious rumours about Blithedale with the hard reality of working the soil; and contrasts Arcadian daydreams with the reality that “intellectual activity is incompatible with any large amount of bodily exercise.” There is also, in Chapter Ten, an amusing account of those intellectual day-trippers whose enthusiasm for going back to the soil lasts all of about five minutes.

I would also applaud Hawthorne’s perception when his narrator describes the mesmerist introducing his show (in Chapter 23) thus: “It was eloquent, ingenious, plausible, with a delusive show of spirituality, yet really imbued throughout with a cold and dead materialism”. These are true words – especially that “delusive show of spirituality” bit - of all later charlatans who believe “sprituality” resides in drugs, reincarnation, séances, “altered consciousness”, hypnotism etc. all of which are really things that just bind us more closely to material reality.

When I commented on The House of the Seven Gables, I noted that Hawthorne anticipated some things that later became dominant motifs in American culture – the love of speed and the hope that technology would create a freer future, for example. For all its many and gross deficiencies as a piece of writing, The Blithedale Romance does likewise. Here we have a clear anticipation of the “alternative lifestyle” phenomenon. In my lexicographical ignorance, I also admit to being surprised that this 1852 novel describes a city bar where they mix “cocktails”. I thought this was a term of later origin.

One final point, which I have deliberately delayed mentioning because of my deep-seated belief that novels should stand or fall on their own merits, and not be interpreted through footnotes.

The character of Zenobia strikes me as quite incredible – 50% fiery feminist and 50% weak slave to passion, who pens soppy fables for a living. A little research tells me that in fact Hawthorne based her on a real woman, Margaret Fuller, who combined just these characteristics and was indeed a paradox. (Margaret Fuller died conveniently two years before the novel was written, but not by suicide). Indeed, the whole novel is based on Hawthorne’s own experience, a decade before the novel was written, of an attempt at communal living at Brook Farm. The narrator Miles Coverdale is a version of Hawthorne himself, accounting for much of his awkwardness as a narrator. Apparently, when the novel first appeared, some critics recognized it as a roman a clef and wrote about it as such.

But this simply reinforces my own aesthetic. In the novel, Zenobia remains unbelievable. Hawthorne may have done his work as a memoirist. But he hasn’t done his work as a novelist.

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