Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

"The Tender Passion Was Very Rife among Us": Coverdale's Queer Utopia and the Blithedale Romance

Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

"The Tender Passion Was Very Rife among Us": Coverdale's Queer Utopia and the Blithedale Romance

Article excerpt

To what can we attribute the failure of the Blithedale experiment? In one way or another, most readers of Hawthorne's The Blithedale Romance approach this question. As John Hirsh observes, the fate of the Blithedalers' social experiment is at least as important as their inter-personal dynamics--is, in fact, inseparable from them: "The dichotomy between political and personal motivation ... is not Hawthorne's, who was well aware of how the two impinged on each other."(1) Hirsh sees the experiment as an initial success (in its rehabilitation of Coverdale and Priscilla) and insists that readers acknowledge the community's political fortune, success and then failure. Critics often bear out the truth of Hirsh's point. Most discussions of the novel, whether in terms of character, allegory or plot, do eventually confront the same question: why does this political community fail?

There seems to be less agreement on the cause. Quite a few readers have located responsibility for the failure in Hollingsworth. This approach focuses on Hollingsworth's vision, the extent to which it is incompatible with the utopian vision of Blithedale, and his character, which lacks the social flexibility necessary to work with others toward a common goal. Such a reading might find support in the exclusive nature of Hollingsworth's demands. It isn't just that he has his own utopian vision, but that his vision is contingent upon the failure of Blithedale; it requires the very same real estate. It isn't just that he wants Coverdale to work with him, but that he wants his person to the exclusion of all Coverdale's other attachments, a life-long commitment. Hollingsworth, then, becomes the worm that eats the apple, the essential undermining force. But this approach is not completely convincing. Are we to understand that Blithedale (or whatever it represents) would have succeeded without Hollingsworth, that he is the only destabilizing force? While it is important to note the idiosyncrasy of his vision, I suggest that the other principle Blithedalers possess a vision no less idiosyncratic or dissonant.

Other critics spread the cause of Blithedale's failure more generally among the characters, even finding it intrinsic to the utopian project itself. This argument is based on individuality, the idea that the novel takes a strong stance against communal utopian thinking by suggesting that such thinking entails a critical, costly loss of self and individual vision. Those who favor this approach might focus on the loss of individuality involved in becoming a member of the Blithedale community, for example the blurring of Zenobia's ideals in her love for Hollingsworth. The Blithedale experiment might then be understood as the expression of a strongly anti-romantic impulse: the desire to take refuge from the self. Hawthorne sets up the community only to demonstrate its failure, with the implication that this failure is both good and necessary.(2)

I risk the generalization, then: in the simplest terms, there may be a loose consensus among critics. Blithedale fails because of an incompatibility of vision, whether Hollingsworth alone be the cause, or whether such incompatibility be endemic to utopian thinking. Coverdale himself sketches the problem for us a third of the way through Blithedale:

   Our bond, it seems to me, was not affirmative, but negative. We had
   individually found one thing or another to quarrel with in our past life,
   and were pretty well agreed as to the inexpediency of lumbering along with
   the old system any further. As to what should be substituted, there was
   much less unanimity.(3)

Coverdale notices this tension throughout the novel, both directly, as here, and indirectly, through the tensions he observes between characters, for example during the debate at Eliot's pulpit. The problem in forging utopia is not finding willing participants; as Coverdale notes, the participants are both diverse and tolerant. …

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