Academic journal article Nathaniel Hawthorne Review

Free Love among the Ruins

Academic journal article Nathaniel Hawthorne Review

Free Love among the Ruins

Article excerpt

In the month following the publication of Hawthorne's The Blithedale Romance, a reviewer in the Oneida Circular (11 August 1852) was struck by the tragedy of Zenobia and Priscilla, both in love with the same man. In "The Romance of Disappointment," the reviewer notes that these love triangles are common in American life:

Society is pretty thoroughly streaked with just such double loving and
disappointment. ... It seems to us a better solution of this common
problem might be found. The fact that nature permits and ordains the
coinciding love of two persons for another, is evidence that there is
some way for its innocent and harmonious adjustment, without the
horrible duel that is involved in the single marriage of one of them.

The Oneida community, founded in 1848 by John Humphrey Noyes, had already proposed complex marriage as an "innocent and harmonious adjustment" for such competing desires. Polyamory may have been a fleeting fever-dream for Miles Coverdale in his tree turret, but then it was a complicated reality for free love communities like Oneida.

In recent years, queer theorists have taken interest in the fluid eroticism of The Blithedale Romance: scholars such as Kent Bales, Benjamin Scott Grossberg and David Greven have argued that the novel represents Hawthorne's own polyamorous fantasies, his critique of traditional gender roles, or both. (1) However, these queer readings of the novel have not been fully historicized within the context of the nineteenth-century free-love movement. (2) When Hawthorne wrote The Blithedale Romance, he was less weighing in on socialism as entering a transatlantic debate on the future of love and marriage: Hawthorne chose to explore spiritual affinities rather than hard realities, the erotics rather than the logistics of a Utopian community. (3)

My article situates The Blithedale Romance within a transatlantic web of influences, from Utopian socialists like Fourier and Horace Greeley to feminists like Margaret Fuller and Harriet Martineau, from bachelor-heroes like Wilhelm Meister and Ik Marvel to free lovers like Noyes and George Sand. In particular, the erotic dimensions of Hawthorne's romance require that our interpretations of Zenobia must move beyond the feminism of Margaret Fuller to consider the free love of George Sand. Within this context, I argue that The Blithedale Romance is, in fact, more radical than it first appears: despite his sexual conservatism, Hawthorne aligned his novel with the concerns of free-love activists, particularly on the subject of marriage. (4) As the reviewer in the Oneida Circular suggests with his title, Hawthorne's Utopian novel is a "romance of disappointment," be the love free or fettered by matrimony.

At its publication, Hawthorne's Blithedale was placed alongside a transatlantic array of reform novels. In his review "A Socialist Romance in America" (December 1852), the French critic Emile Monegut compared the romance to Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, several British works about the "condition of the English working or rural classes," and William Godwin's political novels (129). However, if some critics believed Blithedale to be a straight reform novel, they were often disappointed. In the Boston Daily Times (21 July 1852), Charles C. Hazewell asked, "Why Brook Farm? The romance of the story has as much to do with liquor-selling as socialism," while a reviewer presumed to be George Eliot wrote in the Westminster Review (October 1852) that "the frame of socialism is not well-fitted to Zenobia's story, the two do not mix, and Socialism is entangled in responsibilities for which it is never truly responsible" (129). In staging the romance at a socialist community but not focusing on socialism, The Blithedale Romance irritated many realist critics: why would Hawthorne choose such a subject--modern, political, quasi-auto-biographical--and then inject it with a melodramatic love story, full of Gothic flourishes? …

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