“I had staked no valuable amount of hope or fear; it had enabled me to pass the summer in a novel and agreeable way, [and] afforded me some grotesque specimens of artificial simplicity.” Nathaniel Hawthorne from The Blithedale Romance
Having sent one of my main characters, BUCK CRENSHAW, to a 19th century perfectionist community based on THE ONEIDA COLONY and having lived on a modern-day farm with utopian pretensions, and having worked on yet another farm with similar pretensions, I was excited to read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance—to compare his opinions with my own.
The book is a strange one; seeming to first be about the utopian society and then about the mysterious history of two female characters. Many of the people I’ve met in my utopian circles, who often disdained “conventional society,” tended to be running from some real or imagined life of mystery and horror.
Unlike my character Buck who arrives at my fictional “Middlemay Farm” as a somewhat prudish and naïve babe in the woods, Hawthorne’s narrator, Miles Coverdale is a poet who manages to keep just enough of his individualism to begin to question the motives of the charismatic leader of the Blithedale community. This leads to the first thing one can expect when joining a society of people who think they know just how to fix the world, and by world I mean other people.
A reform movement usually has a charismatic leader who, while possessing a dynamic sexual energy (felt by one and all), is actually kind of gross, mean-spirited and selfish in his desire to change the world as he sees fit. This man may be, as at Blithedale, a man who is obsessed with prison reform. Miles Coverdale is shunned when he expresses honest concerns about Hollingsworth’s grand schemes of reform:
“They have no heart, no sympathy, no reason, no conscience … They will keep no friend, unless he make himself the mirror of their purpose; they will smite and slay you, and trample your dead corpse under foot, all the more readily, if you take the first step with them, and cannot take the second, and the third, and every other step of their terribly straight path.”
At Middlemay, Richard Rhinedale is obsessed with sexual reform. Buck becomes a useful pawn until he is no longer useful. The socialist farmer I worked for was obsessed with Cuba, wind energy and shocking Hasidic Jews (who paid for farm tours) with his hatred of their religion. He did this in the name of women’s rights but it seemed to me that he was bitter at losing his own faith while attending Yale Divinity School. I was also shunned for questioning a socialist idea.
These strangely charismatic men often attract women who are willing to fund the leaders’ pipe-dream endeavors while also accepting the men’s only slightly veiled contempt for said women. Miles Coverdale is shocked by the mad infatuation and devotion the two lead female characters have for the brooding, self-absorbed Hollingsworth.
Utopian women often subject themselves to “free love” once they are convinced that it will improve their relations in the long run. At Blithedale, the woman perceived to have money is thrown aside when it becomes clear that she has nothing.
In MY NOVEL, Richard’s wife is given the job of training young men to control themselves sexually. This is Richard’s inside joke since he finds his wife so repulsive and assumes the young trainees will control themselves with little coaching. As I mentioned in a post long ago, a friend raised in a Utopian society bitterly remembers his mother’s neglect due to her devotion to “the cause” of socialism in the 1960’s.
Many (if not most) people who dive into this lifestyle really don’t like people they consider “common.” For instance, I’ve heard many an erudite farmer blame regular farmers’ stupidity for the loss of their family farms. The fact that many of these perfectionists often rely on unpaid labor in the form of eco-apprentices or converts to their cause and often aren’t more successful than the regular guys who don’t read Mother Earth and Foreign Affairs, their disdain seems pretty hypocritical.
One farmer I knew insisted on only using horse-power-unless he was in a hurry. His contempt of modern machinery was thrown aside when he butchered a lame old goat with a dull knife in front of a family of Hassidic Jews in the rain and unceremoniously shoveled up the animal with his tractor. Hawthorne brilliantly captures the uncouth but far more able true farmer who trains the city folk at country life.
Manual labor is often “spiritualized,” says Hawthorne, with the actual sweat on someone else’s brow at these colonies. There is something quite lovely about raising your own food, living by the seasons and going to sleep tired, but the work is mentally, emotionally and physically exhausting. From a distance golden hay bales look beautiful at sunset, but hay up close means work, sweat and worry. It doesn’t take long for those of us with big ideas to realize that picking and hauling potatoes isn’t the glamorous thing it looked like in the old peasant paintings. Hawthorne quips,
“I seldom saw the new enthusiasm that did not grow flimsy and flaccid as the proselyte’s moistened shirt-collar, with a quarter-of-an-hour’s active labor, under a July sun.”
Usually when living in utopia people start dressing funny. Many of these reformers think they are quite unconventional yet in most cases they only trade one uniform for another. Whether it be at the Oneida Colony where dress reform was explored or on your basic farm as at Blithedale. When city folk come for a visit you’re usually pretty shocked at how far off the path you’ve gone in terms of fashion. Zenobia, the beauty at Blithedale, wears a hothouse flower in her hair. In the city it’s a flower of jewels. I suppose it’s true that in real life we buy more fake things. Certain high-end farm gear is always in style on the “better” farms these days (on others the badge of honor is wearing 100% thrift store items—I do both ;)).
Utopians hate the present. Some romanticize the past. Some, at the very beginning of their endeavors, worship the future. In the present, many feel misunderstood, angry at humanity and depressed. I’ve seen this myself far too many times. It’s sad because if these reformers actually stepped out of their dream/nightmare they might possibly see some of the pleasant things in life that make humanity and the world worth saving.
A very odd thing I’ve noted and Hawthorne mentions is that there’s usually a utopian who insists on being called by a name that isn’t their own. I’m still not sure what to make of a young lady I once met who called herself “Fiddlin.” She didn’t play an instrument as far as I know. Zenobia at Blithedale sported a fake name as well (for mysterious reasons).
Utopians are bound by their hatreds:
“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 farther. As to what should be substituted, there was much less unanimity.”
Hawthorne, like many other people who end up deserting these attempts to change the world one elevated summer at a time, sees the characters he once called friends as tragic and deluded.
Related: UTOPIA & SEX
***Peasant Girl by Jules Breton