Academic journal article Nathaniel Hawthorne Review

"Our New Arrangement of the World": Anna Leonowens, Francis George Shaw, and Anti-Colonial Fourierist Dissent in the Blithedale Romance

Academic journal article Nathaniel Hawthorne Review

"Our New Arrangement of the World": Anna Leonowens, Francis George Shaw, and Anti-Colonial Fourierist Dissent in the Blithedale Romance

Article excerpt

If The Blithedale Romance serves as any indication, the philosophy of Francois Marie Charles Fourier represented a considerable source of interpersonal friction at the Brook Farm commune. Plying Hollingsworth with "several points of Fourier's system," Miles Coverdale touches upon the philosopher's prediction that the world's oceans would, in time, transform into "'limonade a cedre.'" For Hollingsworth, this is flatly unacceptable: "'Let me hear no more of it... I never will forgive this fellow'" (3:53). Part of what makes Fourier's oceanic metamorphosis so implausible is its global magnitude, which beggars belief. The outsized physical dimensions of such a transformation also implicitly flaunt a Christological paradigm. If Jesus of Nazareth only brought about the miraculous transmutation of water into wine at a single wedding, by what right could Fourier claim the future amelioration of all the world's salt water into a recreational, non-alcoholic cocktail? Fourier's exponentially larger substitution of liquids is one miracle prophesied on far too great a scale.

While such sea-changes lay in the distant future, Fourier's prescription for actualizing Utopia rested on imperatives of the present moment. Philosophically and practically, Fourier maintained that human populations should be reorganized into social collectives of his own design. As Walter Benjamin later observed, Fourier intended this communal nexus to function with the precision and economy of a machine. Such an arrangement would, ideally, be supremely gratifying and minutely efficient for all, producing an oceanic feeling of social connectivity among its citizenry. (1) Laid out with a characteristic grandiosity, Fourier anticipated that his system would, during his lifetime, be propagated across the planet and induct the entirety of the human species into a single, hyper-connected social entity. He designated the whole world (and nothing less) as his mission field. Yet the exact rate, scale, and means by which Fourierist innovations might effect change across humanity was a subject of dissent at Brook Farm, and the issue would re-surface among Brook Farm alumni in the 1870s--albeit, in an unlikely venue.

Acknowledging the special contributions of two veteran Brook Farmers, the Siam memoirs of Anna Harriette Leonowens contain a proxy debate on the merits and real-world applicability of Fourierism. Recounting her tenure as governess to the Siamese royal family, Leonowens' The English Governess at the Siamese Court (1870) thanks George William Curtis. A sequel, The Romance of the Harem (1873), recognizes the help of Francis George Shaw. Curtis and Shaw had been at the epicenter of Brook Farm's Fourierist fallout during the 1840s; Curtis' open disdain for Fourierism was matched only by Shaw's robust public endorsement. As a result, The English Governess and The Romance of the Harem bear the marks of Curtis' anti-Fourierism and Shaw's Fourierism, respectively. The two volumes could consequently not be more dissimilar, even as they purportedly document the same period of the author's life. With its distinct pro-Fourierist inflection, The Romance of the Harem depicts Anna Leonowens mustering a vanguard of Siamese converts, who successfully effect broad-based national transformation in Siam. Leonowens' account of revolution in Siam is particularly consonant with the specific iteration of Fourierism advocated by Frank Shaw more than two decades earlier.

The influence of a coterie of ex-Brook Farmers on Anna Leonowens' literary output has gone entirely unnoticed. (2) Dredging up the lost genealogical links connecting Fourier and Leonowens, I argue, helps to revivify the anti-Fourierist, anti-colonial critique encoded in The Blithedale Romance. In spite of Hawthorne's protestations to the contrary, Miles Coverdale's "conviction of the folly of attempting to benefit the world" captures a growing skepticism toward a curriculum of global reform that represents nothing less than a model for re-colonization (3:101). …

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