A Study of Hawthorne, by G. P. Lathrop

Chapter 5

At Boston and Brook Farm.

1838–1842.

Hawthorne’s mood at this time was one of profound dissatisfaction at his elimination from the active life of the world. “I am tired of being an ornament,” he said, with great emphasis, to a friend. “I want a little piece of land that I can call my own, big enough to stand upon, big enough to be buried in. I want to have something to do with this material world.” And, striking his hand vigorously on a table that stood by: “If I could only make tables,” he declared, “I should feel myself more of a man.” He was now thirty-four, and the long restraint and aloofness of the last thirteen years, with the gathering consciousness that he labored under unjust reproach of inaction, and the sense of loss in being denied his share in affairs, had become intolerable. It was now, also, that a new phase of being was opened to him. He had become engaged to Miss Sophia Peabody, a sister of his friend.

President Van Buren had been two years in office, and Mr. Bancroft, the historian, was Collector of the port of Boston. One evening the latter was speaking, in a circle of Whig friends, of the splendid things which the Democratic administration was doing for literary men. “But there’s Hawthorne,” suggested a lady who was present.

“You’ve done nothing for him.” “He won’t take anything,” was the answer: “he has been offered places.” In fact, Hawthorne’s friends in political life had urged him to enter politics, and he had at one time been tendered a post of some sort in the West Indies, but refused it because he would not live in a slaveholding community. “I happen to know,” said the lady, “that he would be very glad of employment.” The result was that a commission for a small post in the Boston Custom House came, soon after, to the young author. On going down from Salem to inquire further about it, he received another and a better appointment as weigher and gauger, with a salary, I think, of twelve hundred a year. Just before entering the Collector’s office, he noticed a man leaving it who wore a very dejected air; and, connecting this with the change in his own appointment, he imagined this person to be the just-ejected weigher. Speaking of this afterward, he said: “I don’t believe in rotation in office. It is not good for the human being.” But he took his place, writing to Longfellow (January 12, 1839):

“I have no reason to doubt my capacity to fulfil the duties; for I don’t know what they are. They tell me that a considerable portion of my time will be unoccupied, the which I mean to employ in sketches of my new experience, under some such titles as follows: ‘Scenes in Dock,’ ‘Voyages at Anchor,’ ‘Nibblings of a Wharf Rat,’ ‘Trials of a Tide–Waiter,’ ‘Romance of the Revenue Service,’ together with an ethical work in two volumes, on the subject of Duties, the first volume to treat of moral and religious duties, and the second of duties imposed by the Revenue Laws, which I begin to consider the most important class.”

Two years later, when Harrison and Tyler carried the election for the Whigs, he suffered the fate of his predecessor. And here I may offer an opinion as to Hawthorne’s connection with the Democratic party. When asked why he belonged to it, he answered that he lived in a democratic country. “But we are all republicans alike,” was the objection to his defence. “Well,” he said, “I don’t understand history till it’s a hundred years old, and meantime it’s safe to belong to the Democratic party.” Still, Hawthorne was, so far as it comported with his less transient aims, a careful observer of public affairs; and mere badinage, like that just quoted, must not be taken as really covering the ground of his choice in politics. A man of such deep insight, accustomed to bring it to bear upon everything impartially, was not to be influenced by any blind and accidental preference in these questions; albeit his actual performance of political duties was slight. I think he recognized the human strength of the Democratic, as opposed to the theorizing and intellectual force of the Republican party. It is a curious fact, that with us the party of culture should be the radical party, upholding ideas even at the expense of personal liberty; and the party of ignorance that of order, the conservating force, careful of personal liberty even to a fault! Hawthorne, feeling perhaps that ideas work too rapidly here, ranged himself on the side that offered the greater resistance to them.

This term of service in Boston was of course irksome to Hawthorne, and entirely suspended literary endeavors for the time. Yet “my life only is a burden,” he writes, “in the same way that it is to every toilsome man. . . . But from henceforth forever I shall be entitled to call the sons of toil my brethren, and shall know how to sympathize with them, seeing that I likewise have risen at the dawn, and borne the fervor of the midday sun, nor turned my heavy footsteps homeward till eventide.” He need not always have made the employment so severe, but the wages of the wharf laborers depended on the number of hours they worked in a day, and Hawthorne used to make it a point in all weathers, to get to the wharf at the earliest possible hour, solely for their benefit. For the rest, he felt a vast benefit from his new intercourse with men; there could not have been a better maturing agency for him at this time; and the interval served as an apt introduction to the Brook Farm episode.

That this least gregarious of men should have been drawn into a socialistic community, seems at first inexplicable enough; but in reality it was the most logical step he could have taken. He had thoroughly tried seclusion, and had met and conquered by himself the first realization of what the world actually is. Next, he entered into the performance of definite duties and the receipt of gain, and watched the operation of these two conditions on himself and those about him; an experiment that taught him the evils of the system, and the necessity of burying his better energies so long as he took part in affairs. This raised doubts, of course, as to how he was to fit himself into the frame of things; and while he mused upon some more generous arrangement of society, and its conflicting interests, a scheme was started which plainly proposed to settle the problem. Fourier had only just passed away; the spread of his ideas was in its highest momentum. On the other hand, the study of German philosophy, and the new dissent of Emerson, had carried men’s thoughts to the very central springs of intellectual law, while in Boston the writing and preaching of Channing roused a practical radicalism, and called for a better application of Christianity to affairs. The era of the Transcendentalists had come. The Chardon Street meetings — assemblages of ardent theorists and “come-outers” of every type, who, while their sessions lasted, held society in their hands and moulded it like clay — were a rude manifestation of the same deep current. In the midst of these influences, Mr. Ripley, an enthusiastic student of philosophy, received an inspiration to establish a modified socialistic community on our own soil. The Industrial Association which he proposed at West Roxbury was wisely planned with direct reference to the emergencies of American life; it had no affinity with the erratic views of Enfantin and the Saint Simonists, nor did it in the least tend toward the mistakes of Robert Owen regarding the relation of the sexes; though it agreed with Fourier and Owen both, as I understand, in respect of labor. In a better and freer sense than has usually been the case with such attempts, the design sprang out of one man’s mind and fell properly under his control. His simple object was to distribute labor in such a way as to give all men time for culture, and to free their minds from the debasing influence of a merely selfish competition. It was a practical, orderly, noble effort to apply Christianity directly to human customs and institutions. “A few men and women of like views and feelings,” one of his sympathizers has said, “grouped themselves around him, not as their master, but as their friend and brother, and the community at Brook Farm was instituted.” At various times Charles Dana, Pratt, the young Brownson, Horace Sumner (a younger brother of Charles), George William Curtis, and his brother Burrill Curtis were there. The place was a kind of granary of true grit. People who found their own honesty too heavy a burden to carry successfully through the rough jostlings of society, flocked thither. “They were mostly individuals” says Hawthorne, “who had gone through such an experience as to disgust them with ordinary pursuits, but who were not yet so old, nor had suffered so deeply, as to lose their faith in the better time to come.”

To men like Hawthorne, however little they may noise the fact abroad, the rotten but tenacious timbers of the social order shake beneath the lightest tread. But he knew that the only wise method is to begin repairing within the edifice, keeping the old associations, and losing nothing of value while gaining everything new that is desirable. Because Brook Farm seemed to adopt this principle, he went there. Some of the meetings of the associators were held at Miss E. P. Peabody’s, in Boston, and the proceedings were related to him. Mr. Ripley did not at first know who was the “distinguished literary gentleman” announced as willing to join the company; and when told that it was Hawthorne, he felt as if a miracle had befallen, or “as if,” he tells me, “the heavens would presently be filled with angels, and we should see Jacob’s ladder before us. But we never came any nearer to having that, than our old ladder in the barn, from floor to hayloft.” For his personal benefit, Hawthorne had two ends in view, connected with Brook Farm: one, to find a suitable and economical home after marriage; the other, to secure a mode of life thoroughly balanced and healthy, which should successfully distribute the sum of his life’s labor between body and brain. He hoped to secure leisure for writing by perhaps six hours of daily service; but he found nearly sixteen needful. “He worked like a dragon,” says Mr. Ripley.

The productive industry of the association was agriculture; the leading aim, teaching; and in some cases there were classes made up of men, women, children, whom ignorance put on the same plane. Several buildings accommodated the members: the largest, in which the public table was spread and the cooking done, being called The Hive; another, The Pilgrim House; a smaller one, The Nest; and still another was known as The Cottage. In The Eyrie, Mr. and Mrs. Ripley lived, and here a great part of the associators would gather in the evenings. Of a summer night, when the moon was full, they lit no lamps, but sat grouped in the light and shadow, while sundry of the younger men sang old ballads, or joined Tom Moore’s songs to operatic airs. On other nights, there would be an original essay or poem read aloud, or else a play of Shakespere, with the parts distributed to different members; and, these amusements failing, some interesting discussion was likely to take their place. Occasionally, in the dramatic season, large delegations from the farm would drive into Boston in carriages and wagons to the opera or the play. Sometimes, too, the young women sang as they washed the dishes, in The Hive; and the youthful yeomen of the society came in and helped them with their work. The men wore blouses of a checked or plaided stuff, belted at the waist, with a broad collar folding down about the throat, and rough straw hats; the women, usually, simple calico gowns, and hats — which were then an innovation in feminine attire. In the season of wood-wanderings, they would trim their hats with wreaths of barberry or hop-vine, ground-pine, or whatever offered — a suggestion of the future Priscilla of “Blithedale.” Some families and students came to the farm as boarders, paying for their provision in household or field labor, or by teaching; a method which added nothing to the funds of the establishment, and in this way rather embarrassed it. A great deal of individual liberty was allowed. People could eat in private or public; and it has been said by those who were there that the unconventional life permitted absolute privacy at any time. Every one was quite unfettered, too, in the sphere of religious worship. When a member wished to be absent, another would generally contrive to take his work for the interval; and a general good-will seems to have prevailed. Still, I imagine there must have been a temporary and uncertain air about the enterprise, much of the time; and the more intimate unions of some among the members who were congenial, gave rise to intermittent jealousies in those who found no special circle. “In this way it was very much like any small town of the same number of inhabitants,” says one of my informants. Indeed, though every one who shared in the Brook Farm attempt seems grateful for what it taught of the dignity and the real fellowship of labor, I find a general belief in such persons that it could not long have continued at its best. The system of compensating all kinds of service, skilled or otherwise, according to the time used, excited — as some have thought — much dissatisfaction even among the generous and enlightened people who made up the society. “I thought I could see some incipient difficulties working in the system,” writes a lady who was there in 1841. “Questions already arose as to how much individual freedom could be allowed, if it conflicted with the best interests of the whole. Those who came there were the results of another system of things which still gave a salutary cheek to the more radical tendencies; but the second generation there could hardly have shown equal, certainly not the same, character.” A confirmation of this augury is the fact that the cast of the community became decidedly more Fourieristic before it disbanded; and it is not impossible that another generation might have decolorized and seriously deformed human existence among them. Theories and opinions were very openly talked over, and practical details as well; and though this must have had its charm, yet it would also touch uncomfortably on a given temperament, or jar upon a peculiar mood. In such enterprises there must always he a slight inclination to establish a conformity to certain freedoms which really become oppressions. Shyness was not held essential to a regenerated state of things, and was perhaps too much disregarded; as also was illness, an emergency not clearly provided for, which had to be met by individual effort and self-sacrifice, after the selfish and old-established fashion of the world. How this atmosphere affected Hawthorne he has hinted in his romance founded on some aspects of community life: “Though fond of society, I was so constituted as to need these occasional retirements, even in a life like that of Blithedale, which was itself characterized by a remoteness from the world. Unless renewed by a yet further withdrawal towards the inner circle of self-communion, I lost the better part of my individuality. My thoughts became of little worth, and my sensibilities grew as arid as a tuft of moss . . . crumbling in the sunshine, after long expectance of a shower.” A fellow-toiler came upon him suddenly, one day, lying in a green hollow some distance from the farm, with his hands under his head and his face shaded by his hat. “How came you out here?” asked his friend. “Too much of a party up there,” was his answer, as he pointed toward the community buildings. It has also been told that at leisure times he would sit silently, hour after hour, in the broad old-fashioned hall of The Hive, where he “could listen almost unseen to the chat and merriment of the young people,” himself almost always holding a book before him, but seldom turning the leaves.

One sees in his letters of this time [Footnote: American Note–Books, Vol. I.] how the life wore upon him; and his journal apparently ceased during the whole bucolic experience. How joyously his mind begins to disport itself again with fancies, the moment he leaves the association, even temporarily! And in 1842, as soon as he is fairly quit of it, the old darkling or waywardly gleaming stream of thought and imagination flows freshly, untamably forward. Hawthorne remained with the Brook Farm community nearly a twelvemonth, a small part of which time was spent in Boston. Some of the letters which his sisters wrote him show a delightful solicitude reigning at home, during the period of his experiment.

“What is the use,” says one, “of burning your brains out in the sun, if you can do anything better with them? . . . I am bent upon coming to see you, this summer. Do not you remember how we used to go a-fishing together in Raymond? Your mention of wild flowers and pickerel has given me a longing for the woods and waters again.”

Then, in August,

“C—— A— — ” writes his sister Louisa, “told me the other day that he heard you were to do the travelling in Europe for the community.”

This design, if it existed, might well have found a place in the Dialogues of the Unborn which Hawthorne once meant to write; for this was his only summer at Brook Farm. “A summer of toil, of interest, of something that was not pleasure, but which went deep into my heart, and there became a rich experience,” he writes, in “Blithedale.” “I found myself looking forward to years, if not to a lifetime, to be spent on the same system.” This was, in fact, his attitude; for, after passing the winter at the farm as a boarder, and then absenting himself a little while, he returned in the spring to look over the ground and perhaps select a house-site, just before his marriage, but came to an adverse decision. This no doubt accorded with perceptions which he was not called upon to make public; but because he was a writer of fiction there seems to have arisen a tacit agreement, in some quarters, to call him insincere in his connection with this socialistic enterprise. He had not much to gain by leaving the community; for he had put into its treasury a thousand dollars, about the whole of his savings from the custom-house stipend, and had next to nothing to establish a home with elsewhere, while a niche in the temple of the reformers would have cost him nothing but labor. The length of his stay was by no means uncommonly short, for there was always a transient contingent at Brook Farm, many of whom remained but a few weeks. A devoted but not a wealthy disciple, who had given six thousand dollars for the building of the Pilgrim House, and hoped to end his days within it, retired forever after a very short sojourn, not dissuaded from the theory, but convinced that the practical application was foredoomed to disaster. And, in truth, though a manful effort was made, with good pecuniary success for a time, ten years brought the final hour of failure to this millennial plan.

Very few people who were at Brook Farm seem to have known or even to have seen Hawthorne there, though he was elected chairman of the Finance Committee just before leaving, and I am told that his handsome presence, his quiet sympathy, his literary reputation, and his hearty participation in labor commanded a kind of reverence from some of the members. Next to his friend George P. Bradford, one of the workers and teachers in the community, his most frequent associates were a certain Rev. Warren Burton, author of a curious little book called “Scenery–Shower,” designed to develop a proper taste for landscape; and one Frank Farley, who had been a pioneer in the West, a man of singular experiences and of an original turn, who was subject to mental derangement at times. The latter visited him at the Old Manse, afterward, when Hawthorne was alone there, and entered actively into his makeshift housekeeping.

President Pierce, on one occasion, speaking to an acquaintance about Hawthorne, said: “He is enthusiastic when he speaks of the aims and self-sacrifice of some of the Brook Farm people; but when I questioned him whether he would like to live and die in a community like that, he confessed he was not suited to it, but said he had learned a great deal from it. ‘What, for instance?’ ‘Why, marketing, for one thing. I didn’t know anything about it practically, and I rode into Boston once or twice with the men who took in things to sell, and saw how it was done.’” The things of deepest moment which he learned were not to be stated fully in conversation; but I suppose readers would draw the same inference from this whimsical climax of Hawthorne’s as that which has been found in “The Blithedale Romance”; namely, that he looked on his socialistic life as the merest jesting matter. Such, I think, is the general opinion; and a socialistic writer, Mr. Noyes, of the Oneida Community, has indignantly cried out against the book, as a “poetico-sneering romance.” This study of human character, which would keep its value in any state of society that preserved its reflective faculty intact and sane, to be belittled to the record of a brief experiment! Hawthorne indeed, speaking in the prefatory third person of his own aim, says: “His whole treatment of the affair is altogether incidental to the main purpose of the romance; nor does he put forward the slightest pretensions to illustrate a theory, or elicit a conclusion, favorable or otherwise, in respect to socialism.” And though he has told the story autobiographically, it is through a character whom we ought by no means to identify with Hawthorne in his whole mood. I have taken the liberty of applying to Hawthorne’s own experience two passages from Coverdale’s account, because they picture something known to be the case; and a careful sympathy will find no difficulty in distinguishing how much is real and how much assumed. Coverdale, being merely the medium for impressions of the other characters, is necessarily light and diaphanous, and Hawthorne, finding it more convenient, and an advantage to the lifelikeness of the story, does not attempt to hold him up in the air all the time, but lets him down now and then, and assumes the part himself. The allusions to the community scheme are few, and most of them are in the deepest way sympathetic. Precisely because the hopes of the socialists were so unduly high, he values them and still is glad of them, though they have fallen to ruin. “In my own behalf, I rejoice that I could once think better of the world than it deserved. It is a mistake into which men seldom fall twice in a lifetime; or, if so, the rarer and higher is the nature that can thus magnanimously persist in error.” Where is the sneer concealed in this serious and comprehensive utterance? There is a class of two-pronged minds, which seize a pair of facts eagerly, and let the truth drop out of sight between them. For these it is enough that Hawthorne made some use of his Brook Farm memories in a romance, and then wrote that romance in the first person, with a few dashes of humor.

Another critic, acting on a conventional idea as to Hawthorne’s “cold, self-removed observation,” quotes to his disadvantage this paragraph in a letter from Brook Farm: “Nothing here is settled. . . . My mind will not be abstracted. I must observe and think and feel, and content myself with catching glimpses of things which may be wrought out hereafter. Perhaps it will be quite as well that I find myself unable to set seriously about literary occupation for the present.” This is offered as showing that Hawthorne went to the community — unconsciously, admits our critic, but still in obedience to some curious, chilly “dictate of his nature”— for the simple purpose of getting fresh impressions, to work up into fiction. But no one joined the society expecting to give up his entire individuality, and it was a special part of the design that each should take such share of the labor as was for his own and the general good, and follow his own tastes entirely as to ideal pursuits. A singular prerogative this, which every one who writes about Hawthorne lays claim to, that he may be construed as a man who, at bottom, had no other motive in life than to make himself uneasy by withdrawing from hearty communion with people, in order to pry upon them intellectually! He speaks of “that quality of the intellect and the heart which impelled me (often against my own will, and to the detriment of my own comfort) to live in other lives, and to endeavor — by generous sympathies, by delicate intuitions, by taking note of things too slight for record, and by bringing my human spirit into manifold accordance with the companions God had assigned me — to learn the secret which was hidden even from themselves”; and this is cited as evidence of “his cold inquisitiveness, his incredulity, his determination to worm out the inmost secrets of all associated with him.” Such distortion is amazing. The few poets who search constantly for truth are certainly impelled to get at the inmost of everything. But what, in Heaven’s name, is the motive? Does any one seriously suppose it to be for the amusement of making stories out of it? The holding up to one’s self the stern and secret realities of life is no such pleasing pursuit. These men are driven to it by the divine impulse which has made them seers and recorders.

As for Hawthorne, he hoped and loved and planned with the same rich human faith that fills the heart of every manly genius; and if discouraging truth made him suffer, it was all the more because his ideals — and at first his trust in their realization — were so generous and so high. Two of his observations as to Brook Farm, transferred to the “The Blithedale Romance,” show the wisdom on which his withdrawal was based. The first relates to himself: “No sagacious man will long retain his sagacity, if he live exclusively among reformers and progressive people, without periodically returning to the settled system of things, to correct himself by a new observation from that old standpoint.” He had too much imagination to feel safe in giving free rein to it, in a special direction of theoretic conduct; he also remembered that, as the old system of things was full of error, it was possible that a new one might become so in new ways, unless watched. The second observation touches the real weakness of the Brook Farm institution: “It struck me as rather odd, that one of the first questions raised, after our separation from the greedy, struggling, self-seeking world, should relate to the possibility of getting the advantage over the outside barbarians in their own field of labor. But to own the truth, I very soon became sensible that, as regarded society at large, we stood in a position of new hostility rather than new brotherhood.” And, in fact, the real good which Mr. Ripley’s attempt did, was to implant the co-operative idea in the minds of men who have gone out into the world to effect its gradual application on a grander scale. It is by introducing it into one branch of social energy after another that the regenerative agency of today can alone be made effectual. The leaders of that community have been broad-minded, and recognize this truth. None of them, however, have ever taken the trouble to formulate it as Hawthorne did, on perceiving it some years in advance.

The jocose tone, it maybe added, seems to have been a characteristic part of the Brook Farm experiment, despite the sober earnest and rapt enthusiasm that accompanied it. The members had their laughing allusions, and talked — in a strain of self-ridicule precisely similar to Coverdale’s — of having bands of music to play for the field-laborers, who should plough in tune. This merely proves that they were people who kept their wits whole, and had the humor that comes with refinement; while it illustrates by the way the naturalness of the tone Hawthorne has given to Coverdale.

The Priscilla of Blithedale was evidently founded upon the little seamstress whom he describes in the Note–Books as coming out to the farm, and Old Moodie’s spectre can be discerned in a brief memorandum of a man seen (at Parker’s old bar-room in Court Square) in 1850. It has been thought that Zenobia was drawn from Margaret Fuller, or from a lady at Brook Farm, or perhaps from both: a gentleman who was there says that he traces in her a partial likeness to several women. It is as well to remember that Hawthorne distinctly negatived the idea that he wrote with any one that he knew before his mind; and he illustrated it, to one of his most intimate friends, by saying that sometimes in the course of composition it would suddenly occur to him, that the character he was describing resembled in some point one or more persons of his acquaintance. Thus, I suppose that when the character of Priscilla had developed itself in his imagination, he found he could give her a greater reality by associating her with the seamstress alluded to; and that the plaintive old man at Parker’s offered himself as a good figure to prop up the web-work of pure invention which was the history of Zenobia’s and Priscilla’s father. There is a conviction in the minds of all readers, dearer to them than truth, that novelists simply sit down and describe their own acquaintances, using a few clumsy disguises to make the thing tolerable. When they do take a hint from real persons the character becomes quite a different thing to them from the actual prototype. It was not even so definite as this with Hawthorne. Yet no doubt, his own atmosphere being peculiar, the contrast between that and the atmosphere of those he met stimulated his imagination; so that, without his actually seeing a given trait in another person, the meeting might have the effect of suggesting it. Then he would brood over this suggestion till it became a reality, a person, to his mind; and thus his characters were conceived independently in a region somewhere between himself and the people who had awakened speculation in his mind.

He had a very sure instinct as to when a piece of reality might be transferred to his fiction with advantage. Mr. Curtis has told the story of a young woman of Concord, a farmer’s daughter, who had had her aspirations roused by education until the conflict between these and the hard and barren life she was born to, made her thoroughly miserable and morbid; and one summer’s evening she sought relief in the quiet, homely stream that flowed by the Old Manse, and found the end of earthly troubles in its oozy depths. Hawthorne was roused by Curtis himself coming beneath his window (precisely as Coverdale comes to summon Hollingsworth), and with one other they went out on the river, to find the poor girl’s body. “The man,” writes his friend, “whom the villagers had only seen at morning as a musing spectre in the garden, now appeared among them at night to devote his strong arm and steady heart to their service.”

By this dark memory is the powerful climax of “The Blithedale Romance” bound to the sphere of a reality as dread.

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