Academic journal article Nathaniel Hawthorne Review

Nobody's Protest Novel: Art and Politics in the Blithedale Romance

Academic journal article Nathaniel Hawthorne Review

Nobody's Protest Novel: Art and Politics in the Blithedale Romance

Article excerpt

Of course it's only an accident that Hawthorne's most suggestively political novel was published the same year as Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852). Yet it seems significant that, though Blithedale made Melville even more envious of Hawthorne's popular success, it was the Stowe novel that became the runaway "best seller." Significant, too, that her work has found its way into the modern canon for reasons that have much to do with questions of race and gender. Within certain limits, sharply outlined in a famous essay by James Baldwin, Uncle Tom's Cabin knows very well what it is about: chattel slavery is an unmitigated evil which must be ended; this will happen only when men become more like women--more Christian and, in the sense we now more readily accept, more "sentimental." Baldwin may well be right in asserting that Mrs. Stowe does not really understand and indeed is fundamentally afraid of black people, but she knows her occasion and her audience. She could hardly have written a more popular work if she had set out to do no more than sell books. And it remains "Everybody's Protest Novel." (1)

By contrast, and from precisely the same political moment, The Blithedale Romance (1852) seems not entirely clear about what it is for. It certainly entertains the urgent question of "woman in the nineteenth century," and it may refract the Compromise of 1850 even more pointedly than does The Scarlet Letter; but it makes no very overt reference to the increasingly volatile question of race slavery; and indeed its drama, set in a theater at some remove from ordinary life, seems so painfully interpersonal as to be, in some fundamental sense, pre-political. It may easily be thought to recoup or to repent Hawthorne's nine-month stay at Brook Farm in 1841; and no doubt the novel could not have been written without that rare personal stimulus. But the cast of fictional characters is so different from that of the life experience that even the most ingenious attempts at reading roman a clef have fallen flat, just as Hawthorne predicted they would. (2)

Nor does Blithedale appear to attack the communitarian movement as such: Coverdale sounds--for him--convincingly thematic when in retrospect he muses that his odd little cohort "had struck upon what ought to be a truth," one which "Posterity" might "dig up, and profit by" (3:245-46).3 We may well wonder why the Hawthorne, who pondered, all his shy and private life, the limit-question of lonely self-enclosure, did not somewhere imagine a practical alternative. Yet the book reads nothing like a utopian tract; and indeed its Preface is never more convincing than when it disavows, most generally, "the slightest pretensions to illustrate a theory, or elicit a conclusion ... in respect to Socialism" (3:1). The capitalization emphasizes a scorn of political discourse perfectly Jamesian. Swarming agents of correctness care little enough for such questions of taste, of course, but the problem of genre remains: an art-novel if there ever was one, The Blithedale Romance presents a morale nothing like that of Uncle Tom's Cabin.

The problem is, above all, the narration. Mrs. Stowe--or whatever we decide to call the voice that tells the tale that turned the tide of Northern sentiment--speaks to us directly, more directly than Whitman, even, in a poem that insists we let his "dark patches" fall on us as well. Hers is not a literary strategy disguised as natural speech and designed to assure us of the identity of reader and writer in the Unity of the Soul. It is a plea from person to person. What Stowe wants to say is something like this: you, cautious and comfortable reader, whoever you are, are complicit in the worst crime against humanity the American Republic has so far to show; take the sufferings and death of Uncle Tom as a fair example. Let the fictional representation, drawn from sternest reality, change your mind and heart; then do whatever else you can to change the world in this regard. …

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