Saturday, January 1, 2022

Failed Utopias: A Book Review of The Blithedale Romance by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Have I ever told you how much I love Nathaniel Hawthorne? Maybe here? Or here? Perhaps here? Oh yeah, and this one. Well, if you aren't already aware, I think he's genius. Witty but not obnoxious, compassionate but not pathetic, intelligent but not droning---Hawthorne gets people. I especially enjoy his works on religious hypocrisy because he shows us our faults without being preachy. He knows he has the same faults. Even in this Victorian era story I just finished, he made some good counter culture points about the abilities and aptitudes of women. He's always seemed to be a man outside of time---the Tesla of professional writing, maybe?

I initially picked up this book because it was Hawthorne and secondly because it is on the 1001 list. However, when I sat down to read it and perused the back cover teaser, I became intrigued by the story that seemed similar to some of the communities we've seen attempted within certain groups of people in our area. I think we are again in a time when people are looking to break away from the failures of society and find peace at whatever the cost. I have encountered several people in the last couple years who wanted to break off from society and form a set apart community. While I agree and believe Messiah followers are to be set apart spiritually, sometimes requiring us to be set apart physically, I’m pessimistic about the success of a set apart community functioning with equality in this 21st century world. Mainly because I think human nature gravitates toward the idea that every established group like this must have a leader. Think about any group activity you've been involved in, whether big or small. In most cases, we work ourselves into hierarchies of intelligence, ability, aptitude, and attitude---even without really meaning to. Because I think every man should be in charge of his own household, and every single woman in charge of herself, this model is obviously not ideal.

I think it's the similarities in motivations between Hawthorne's Blithedale and the potential communities I've known here that strike me as interesting. People who crave this self-imposed segregation, for whatever reason, often see it as a chance at Utopia. If everyone just works together and pulls their weight, what could go wrong? As Hawthorne shows in this faintly-autobiographical work (Hawthorne himself took part in a failed attempt at commune life), it takes more than a willingness to tolerate one another to make a non-mainstream community like this work. In his chapter, "A Modern Arcadia" his mostly level-headed narrator, Coverdale, says, "On the whole, it was a society such as has seldom met together; nor, perhaps, could it reasonably be expected to hold together long. Persons of marked individuality---crooked sticks, as some of us might be called---are not exactly the easiest to bind up into a fagot". People who want to be completely free of their societal responsibilities to anyone else often find themselves alone and cynical as everyone else realizes they need one another.

Near the end of the story, the commune experiences their first death and realizes they've not really thought through how they would handle laying to rest one of their own. However, Coverdale seems to have received a pretty solid takeaway from his summer at Blithedale. He says, "But when the occasion came, we found it the simplest and truest thing, after all, to content ourselves with the old fashion, taking away what we could, but interpolating no novelties, and particularly avoiding all frippery of flowers and cheerful emblems." It appears they've learned that the simple life is not about changing everything, but just letting go of all the extra and finding beauty in the understated.

While most Victorian literature I've read can become really preachy really fast, The Blithedale Romance, like everything else I've read from Hawthorne, tells a strong moral tale in an entertaining and relatable way. I truly think he is a one-of-a-kind author.

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