Hawthorne and the Universal Reformers

By Beauchamp, Gorman | Utopian Studies, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

Hawthorne and the Universal Reformers


Beauchamp, Gorman, Utopian Studies


WRING TO THOMAS CARYLE in 1840, Emerson reported that "We are a little wild here with numberless projects of social reform. Not a reading man but has a draft of a new Community.... One man renounces the use of animal food; another of coin; ... and another of the State; and on the whole we have a commendable share of reason and hope" (Correspondence, I, 334-35). Emerson engaged no doubt in some hyperbole here, not only as to the number but the nature of his countrymen's reformist projects. Few were the sort of detailed drafts for the complete reorganization of society such as Charles Fourier produced contemporaneously in France or Robert Owen in England--the sort of imaginative reconstructions that we call utopias. And compared with the enormous outpouring in the last half of the nineteenth century, the first half of the century generated far fewer utopian fictions; furthermore, according to Joel Nydahl, "the main thrust of American utopian fiction during the first half of the nineteenth century was anti-progressive"--offering, that is, primarily negative visions of America's prospects and possibilities (274). In this sense, then, Emerson's era produced little memorable utopian literature, fictive or otherwise; it was, however, an era fermentative with the utopian impulse, rife with plans, projects, schemes and visions for reforming the world. "The present age," Emerson claimed elsewhere, "will be marked by its harvest of projects for the reform of domestic, civil, literary, and ecclesiastical institutions" (Works, I, 269).

Indeed, 1840 witnessed the convocation in Boston's Chardon Street Chapel of the Convention of Friends of Universal Reform, an assemblage--to cite Emerson once more--of "madmen, madwomen, men with beards, Dunkers, Muggletonians, Come-outers, Groaners, Agrarians, Seventh-Day Baptists, Quakers, Abolitionists, Calvinists, Unitarians, and Philosophers ... [all come] to chide, or pray, or preach, or protest" (Works, X, 374). Thoreau, viewing this melioristic mania with the wryly skeptical eye that shades Walden, avowed: "If anything all a man ... if he have a pain in his bowels even, he forthwith sets about reforming--the world" (53). Much pain must have afflicted many bowels in the decades of the 40s and 50s, for, as James Russell Lowell declared, "every possible form of intellectual and physical dyspepsia brought forth its gospel. Everybody has a mission (with a capital M) to attend to everybody-else's business" (Works, I, 362). The Friends of Universal Reform clearly were afoot.

Hawthorne was no friend of the Friends of Universal Reform, nor, indeed, of sweeping reform of any sort. Of all the significant intellectual figures of this time and place, he was probably the most conservative, certainly the most skeptical of the efficacy of human effort to effect its conscious design. In his 1852 campaign biography of Franklin Pierce, Hawthorne claimed categorically: "There is no instance, in all history, of the human will and intellect having perfected any great moral reform by methods which it adapted to that end" (Works, XII, 417). (1) Ten years later in "Chiefly About War Matters," that curious, provocative account of his trip to the battlefields of Virginia, he reiterated this view: "No human effort, on a grand scale, has ever yet resulted according to the purpose of its projectors.... We miss the good we sought, and do the good we little cared for" (Works, XII, 332). Construed literally, such statements would entail a fatalism severe enough to satisfy the most orthodox Muslim. Hawthorne was, however, no rigorous philosopher of history, and one could most charitably construe such sweeping generalizations as the somewhat overwrought response to the meddlesome and misguided attempts of the Universal Reformers to impose simplistic rationalistic theories on the intractable complexity of life. Put another way, Hawthorne may be suggesting, in these skeptical pronouncements, what Marx in The Eighteenth Brumaire called "the irony of history"--the fact that historical actions frequently have unintended consequences, consequences often in complete contradiction to the purposes of the actors. …

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