A Utopia of "Spheres and Sympathies": Science and Society in the Blithedale Romance and at Brook Farm

By White, Craig | Utopian Studies, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview
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A Utopia of "Spheres and Sympathies": Science and Society in the Blithedale Romance and at Brook Farm


White, Craig, Utopian Studies


Historical and fictional Utopias converge at Brook Farm, where Nathaniel Hawthorne was a founding member in 1841, and in Hawthorne's novel of 1852, The Blithedale Romance, which he partly based on his experience there. Scholars, though acknowledging this link, have largely acceded to the author's claim in the novel's preface that the "affair is altogether incidental to the main purpose of the Romance, nor does he put forward the slightest pretension to illustrate a theory" (1). Critics of the novel have, with a few exceptions, dissented from this position only by reading Blithedale as a roman a clef, in which the feminist Zenobia may stand for Margaret Fuller, who visited Brook Farm; the reformer Hollingsworth (or the mesmerist Westervelt) for Albert Brisbane, the community's "apostle of Fourierism"; and the narrator, Coverdale, for Hawthorne himself. Historians of American utopias from John Humphrey Noyes to Carl Guarneri have in their turn minimized any reference the novel may have to Brook Farm. (Noyes 107; Guarneri 2). Thus, even though this classic text and this prestigious community intersect in the United States's "American Renaissance" of literature and in one of its most extensive utopian movements, they remain surprisingly isolated not only from each other but also from the surrounding culture of which utopia is, in Ernst Bloch's phrase, "the condensed form" (107).(1)

If the fictional and the actual utopia are instead placed in dialogue, the language they share traces the historical narrative of a scientific and cultural revolution. To reconstruct this background, a cryptic yet conspicuous rhetoric in the novel and in the farm's records must be highlighted: a vernacular of "spheres," "influences," "sympathies," and other occult signs. This peculiar jargon at Brook Farm and in The Blithedale Romance, like the historical relation between them, has been remarked but not scrutinized. Guarneri, for instance, notes Fourierism's "alien language" envisioning "global bliss" (3). The congruities between this idiom and vision have been neglected, however, beginning with Hawthorne's major literary heir, Henry James, who in his critical biography Hawthorne (1879) chided his subject's "disposition" in Blithedale "to talk about spheres and sympathies" (108). Such figures of speech were generally in disuse by James's time, but if they are recovered from their intellectual background in the American Renaissance, Brook Farm's and Blithedale's "alien language" relates a history of antebellum utopianism and of scientific and cultural change.

The field of reference for the rhetoric of "spheres and sympathies" emerges from the history of science. The prototype for the narrative in which these figures participate is the scientific revolution in Europe centuries before, in which an occult cosmos of spheres, influences, and sympathies was replaced by a mechanical universe of multiplying stars and expanding space. As above, so below: European people imitated (if they did not inspire) this new natural worldview as they abandoned their rural spheres for growing cities in the Old World or spacious skies in the New. This intellectual and social transformation recurs in abbreviated form in the antebellum decades, before which the USA had no astronomical observatories. "Spheres" and "sympathies" prevailed in colonial folklore until the scientific ferment of the 1840s and 50s--the same decades as Brook Farm and Blithedale--when the "American Observatory Movement" publicized a new cosmos and erected dozens of telescopes, an event to which The Blithedale Romance alludes in two "observatory" scenes. As in the European Renaissance, this scientific revolution corresponded to cultural change, as the Jeffersonian, agrarian economy of early America gave way to a state mirroring the modern sky: manifest destiny's "star of empire" on the expanding frontier, and "cities of lights" taking the form of the new galaxies then being discovered.

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