Labor befitting artists, not machines. No bosses. Free love. Born 210 years ago, on July 4, 1804, Nathaniel Hawthorne took great interest in matters that today we associate with the 1960s and early ’70s, that era of back-to-the-land aspirations and open relationships whose experiments fared just as badly as those of the Transcendentalists 120 years before.
Many communes of the recent past failed because charismatic leaders proved themselves to have feet of clay, or, as in T. Coraghessan Boyle’s novel Drop City (2003), because freaks came along and made a hash of the original communards’ ideals. Too many layabouts contented themselves, in those pre-eminently sexist days, to put the “old ladies” to it. The places that did last, like The Farm, did so because everyone who stayed on did work at enterprises ranging from farming to midwifery to publishing.
Nathaniel Hawthorne wasn’t afraid of hard work, but he might not have quite expected the job he was handed when he appeared at the Brook Farm, a Transcendentalist commune on the then-rural outskirts of Boston: He was put to work tending to the manure pile. The Brook Farmers were inspired by the thought that by sharing their labor they could give themselves plenty of free time to engage in artistic pursuits, not quite reckoning with the reality that farm labor never ends. It didn’t take Hawthorne long to move off the farm and settle into a more comfortably bourgeois existence.
After he left, and after the remaining communards began squabbling over such things as how to divide the workload and how to divide the bills (as will happen), Hawthorne wrote a cheerless novel called The Blithedale Romance, published in 1852. Blithedale is a utopian community that is Brook Farm in all but name, shunning “worldly society, where a cold skepticism smothers what it can of our spiritual aspirations.” At Blithedale, young Miles Coverdale puts a few blisters on his own hands while tilling fields and putting new shingles on barns. He finds himself caught up in the intense strangeness of a girl named Priscilla, who arrives in the company of his friend Hollingsworth and who seems not quite to belong. In fact, no one can quite figure out why Priscilla is there and who asked her to come.
Miles and Hollingsworth begin to feud, at first over philosophical principles, then over just about everything there is to argue about, recruiting supporters and enemies. Priscilla wanders on- and offstage, influenced and repelled by Zenobia, the iron center of Blithedale. Priscilla and Zenobia share more than an interest in talking about women’s rights and “playing at philanthropy and progress,” and it is that discovery that sets the novel from a sort of dreamy utopia into territory verging on nightmare.
Suffice it to say that not everyone makes it out in one piece and that Hawthorne moves, for a moment, from the gentle ground of Massachusetts to flinty Raymond Chandler territory. Published a dozen years before Hawthorne’s death, when he was at the height of his powers, Blithedale makes for odd but compelling reading today—especially for anyone thinking of taking up householding with strangers.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor at Kirkus Reviews.