Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The Blithedale Romance

Recently read The Blithedale Romance by Nathaniel Hawthorne.  Since Hawthorne clearly inserts himself into the role of narrator, aka Miles Coverdale, and indirectly asks the question of how he is perceived by the world and how he should fit into the world, I really felt comfort in reading it.  I am constantly depressed and overwhelmed and exhausted by trying to live like everyone else, so it's nice to read that Hawthorne had the exact same problem, fictionalizing his thoughts on the subject often ("The Artist of the Beautiful" is probably his other most famous work on the subject).  It doesn't exactly make me feel better to consider Hawthorne's final conclusion in Blithedale, that he--and I--should simply avoid living normally in any context, but at least I know I'm not alone.  The major problem here is that Hawthorne had clear talent that I do not have.  So, maybe I will have to live normally and forego my writing.  Oh well.  Anyway, since I'm talking about it, I'll include the review that I wrote for Blithedale here and call it a day.

This book lacks much of what you might expect of Hawthorne and suffers because of it.  The "romance" that Hawthorne should be most recognized for struggles mightily to fit into the narrative.  What supernatural/mysterious elements that do exist are of a lower order; far less mysterious than one might hope.  The character Westervelt remains a mystery to the end, but unlike Chillingworth or Judge Pyncheon in Hawthorne's other major works, Westervelt simply doesn't make a whole lot of sense.  Truthfully, it's as if Hawthorne desperately wanted to write a story about his Brook Farm experience but, in writing it, found himself scrambling for some type of conflict to rescue his thoughts from being merely a long essay.  His solution is a half-baked one with Westervelt and Priscilla.  The cohesiveness of the plot likewise suffers because it must bear the burden of added, alien material to the text.

Aside from the fact that I was greatly disappointed in not finding Hawthorne in this romance, and the fact that the plot is a mess, there are a number of nice surprises in Blithedale.  As one example, Hawthorne explores the depth of personality in his characters far more determinedly than he does elsewhere.  Really authors everywhere could use Blithedale as a model for what we call "characterization."  Not that any of these characters are particularly riveting or inspiring, but Hawthorne has created characters that are extremely believable, realistic, consistent, and exactly like your next door neighbor.  They are timeless characters considering the timeless question of how and whether to develop a utopia.  Coverdale is a typical white-collar intellectual (like myself, I suppose), Zenobia is the hypocritical graceful person who lacks any real goodness or conviction, Priscilla is the loving and emotional but loyal friend, and Hollingsworth is the closed-minded "open-minded" philanthropist that we all know and praise but really shouldn't.  Typically for Hawthorne, there are very few characters introduced, and those all receive a great deal of time and analysis.  The only other characters than the main four are Westervelt and Silas Foster and Old Moodie.  Unlike Hawthorne, though, these characters are absolutely timeless and therefore rather educational as models or anti-models.

The major reason that the characters are timeless is that, not surprising at all in a Hawthorne piece, the driving force of the book is the question of a practical matter: creating utopia.  That sounds fantastic and impractical, but considering that people try creating utopias at least once a generation, and the very notion of government and social construction, convinces us that we are all constantly involved in the same narrative.  Because Hawthorne so often tackles romantic stories he rarely mixes his thoughtful and observant moralism with tangibly practical matters.  In doing so he has finally reached the height of his ability in developing characters, all of whom have clear faults and strengths, and the reader is left to determine what type of character is best to live in this world with.  Hawthorne purposely does not answer that question.  Nor does he directly answer the question of the practicality of creating the utopia; he simply emphatically denies his own suitability for such a task in having Coverdale retreat from Blithedale. 

At the end of the day, Blithedale is not a great story, sad face; but it is a great fictionalization of superb philosophical and theological pondering about the human quest for perfection, individually and socially.  Of all fictional authors I've ever read, Hawthorne probably has the best mind.  And thus he is well-suited for such a task as writing Blithedale.  He just unfortunately lacks the novelistic skills to carry it off in a more entertaining fashion.

For anyone out there interested in an author's including autobiographical material in fiction, Blithedale is also probably the best source for getting to know Hawthorne.  Since Blithedale so clearly reflects on Hawthorne's experience at Brook Farm, and Coverdale so clearly mirrors Hawthorne, you can see how Hawthorne may have responded to certain events in his life point by point.  Personally, as a writer struggling to find my place in the world, I find a lot of comfort in reading Blithedale through Coverdale's narration.  That's all I'll say.

No comments:

Post a Comment