Thursday, July 06, 2006

Life on the Farm

Very likely I would never have picked up Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel The Blithedale Romance if it hadn't been for Emerson. No, Emerson did not appear to me in a dream and tell me to read the book (that would have been cool though, if a little scary). I found out about the book while reading about Brook Farm at Wikipedia. Brook Farm was an utopian transcendentalist community founded by Hawthorne and others. Emerson also had a hand in it and lived there for a short time. Blithedale is a gentle satirical spoof of Brook Farm. On its own, Blithedale is quite the soap opera. There are four main characters, the narrator, Miles Coverdale, Zenobia, Priscilla, and Hollingsworth. Coverdale is one of the biggest voyeurs I have ever come across. He is always watching the other three, eternally interested in what they are up to. He is also supremely jealous because both of the women's hearts flutter for Hollingsworth. Hollingsworth is at the farm under false pretenses. He wants their endeavors to fail because he wants to buy up the farmland and turn it into a school for the rehabilitation of the down and out. Hollingsworth is a philanthropist which is a dirty word in this book. It means you are single-minded and driven with a vision only for the small niche of a project you have set you time and money to. Philanthropy is a road to Hell paved with good intentions as Coverdale says at one point, though not in those exact words. But Hollingsworth is a big bear of a man, sure of himself and his path. Zenobia, a wealthy feminist who has never had eyes for a man until now, falls for Hollingsworth. But she has no idea that his only interest in her is for her money. He wants her to invest her fortune in his philanthropic schemes. Because she loves him, she is willing to give him everything expecting him to love her back. Priscilla has to go and throw a wrench in the works. She has a mysterious background that is revealed bit by bit but never by her, always by people who know her. She is ethereal and beautiful, born in poverty and raised in poverty, at the farm she comes into her own. She falls in love with Hollingsworth too. Hollingsworth, being the wanker that he is, leads both women on, never declaring his intentions until then end when he is forced by Zenobia to make a choice. The reader knows all along who he is going to choose. In good soap opera fashion, the woman who is jilted makes an untimely end of herself in the river. And Coverdale, who at one point compares his role in all this to that of a Greek chorus, finally at the last, confesses his own love for one of the women. This confession is written in all seriousness and in such a way as to heighten the tension before the secret is revealed. But when he admits in the very last words of the book who he loved, I couldn't help but laugh. Yes, I laughed out loud even because it is obvious from nearly the beginning so that Coverdale's confession is no real confession at all. I don't think Hawthorne meant it to be funny, but then maybe he did and made the confession outrageously over the top on purpose. As for the satire, it's good. Blithedale was conceived as a place for all the city intellectuals who wanted to get back to nature to go and work and find their souls and thereby make the world a better place. They are so inept in the beginning that they couldn't do this alone so they have a sort of overseer in the person of Silas Foster, a lifelong farmer who wakes them up in the morning and shows them how to milk cows, drive oxen, plow, plant and all the other stuff you need to know to run a farm. The first night at Blithedale Foster asks, " 'Which man among you is the best judge of swine? Some of us must go to the next Brighton fair, and buy half-a-dozen pigs!' " Coverdale is silently outraged and thinks, "Pigs! Good heavens, had we come out from among the swinish multitude, for this?" Obviously he thought farm life would be some idyllic pastoral where all the work got done by the fairies while the people slept. He, and the others involved, thought they would labor without strain all day and gather in the evenings for lively intellectual discussions around the fire. But that's not quite how things worked out:

The clods of earth, which we so constantly belabored and turned over and over, were never etherealized into thought. Our thoughts, on the contrary, were fast becoming cloddish. Our labor symbolized nothing, and left us mentally sluggish in the dusk of the evening. Intellectual activity is incompatible with any large amount of bodily exercise.
And so it is they all learn their romantic visions of bucolic life on the farm are but the misguided and ignorant ideas of people who have only ever lived in a city. No doubt this was something the inhabitants of the real Brook Farm learned very quickly too.