The Modern Tragedy of Blithedale

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Curiously enough, one cannot read a book: one can only reread it. -Vladimir Nabokov Lectures on Literature (3)

Few books seem better designed to test the accuracy of Nabokov's assertion than does that most modern and elusive of Nathaniel Hawthorne novels, The Blithedale Romance (1852). Indeed, judging by the lack of consensus the book continues to elicit regarding what, if anything, may be said to account of Miles Coverdale's decision to select the Blithedale community as the subject for his narrative, it is clear that the narrator's revelation about himself at the story's end--"I--I myself--was in love--with--PRISCILLA!" (247)--marks the first, and too often last, moment when most readers even consider the possibility that this may have been the chief animating impulse behind that decision all along. Of course, this is not to be entirely wondered at, given that the work has been composed in such a way as to produce the sort of disequilibrium among first-time readers that might be imagined if an orchestra were asked to perform a symphony, the very key signatures of which were withheld by the composer until the work's final measure. Yet even then, and in spite of the narrator's specific admonition that this confession "will throw a gleam of light over [his] behavior throughout the foregoing incidents, and is, indeed, essential to the full understanding of [his] story" (247), readers remain reluctant to test the certainty of this confession by the simple act of rereading the piece in light of it. At the very least, I think it must be admitted, the remarkable skepticism with which so many critics continue to dismiss, or at best grudgingly concede, the veracity of Coverdale's confession becomes the most convincing proof of the novel's potential ability to transform itself dramatically on the basis of the addition of this single hitherto undisclosed fact. It would be illuminating, therefore, to demonstrate just how thoroughly transformative that fact proves to be; producing a change so thorough it amounts to nothing less than a transposition of the mode of the piece itself, turning what had at first appeared as a romance involving the doings of a small band of self-styled social reformers, as told by its most detached and insignificant performer, into a highly personal account of the narrator's singularly futile struggle against Fate, and a tragedy of unrequited love of the utmost poignance and originality.

Ultimately, of course, it is only by a careful reexamination of the text that we shall be able to establish the truth or falsity of Coverdale's confession; however, it may be useful to begin by indulging in a little historical speculation on the matter. The surviving evidence concerning the completion of Hawthorne's manuscript provides the basis for that speculation, as summarized by Annette Kolodny:

   The manuscript that he sent on May 2, 1852, to his friend, the
   literary critic Edwin Percy Whipple (later his most astute
   reviewer), had "Hollingsworth: a Romance" on the title page. In the
   covering letter to Whipple, Hawthorne suggested other tides, none of
   which pleased him, and he hoped that "just the thing" would "pop
   into [Whipple's] mind." Whipple's reply no longer exists, so we
   cannot know whether his remarks influenced the choice of title. And
   we cannot know whether Whipple's response to the manuscript prompted
   Hawthorne's subsequent decision, as he put it in his notebook, to
   "modif[y] the conclusion," thereby lengthening the text by two
   handwritten pages. (The modification was probably the addition of
   the final chapter, "Miles Coverdale's Confession.") (xiv-xv)

At first glance, such facts might seem to concur with the idea that there is indeed something dishonest, perhaps altogether belatedly manufactured, about the essence of Coverdale's confession. However, let us consider these facts a little more closely. Hawthorne sent the original manuscript to Whipple and subsequently altered the conclusion, probably by the addition of the narrator's confession of love for Priscilla--an alteration Hawthorne describes as a modification, rather than a change. …