The Life and Genius of Nathaniel Hawthorne, by Frank Stearns

Chapter 7

Hawthorne as a Socialist: 1841–1842

Who can compute the amount of mischief that Fourier has done, and those well-meaning but inexperienced dreamers who have followed after him? A Fourth-of-July firecracker once consumed the half of a large city. The boy who exploded it had no evil intentions; neither did Fourier and other speculators in philanthropy contemplate what might be the effect of their doctrines on minds actuated by the lowest and most inevitable wants. Wendell Phillips, in the most brilliant of his orations, said: “The track of God’s lightning is a straight line from justice to iniquity,” and one might have said to Phillips, in his later years, that there is in the affairs of men a straight line from infatuation to destruction. In what degree Fourier was responsible for the effusion of blood in Paris in the spring of 1871 it is not possible to determine; but the relation of Rousseau to the first French revolution is not more certain. Fate is the spoken word which cannot be recalled, and who can tell the good and evil consequences that lie hidden in it? The proper cure for socialism, in educated minds, would be a study of the law. There we discover what a wonderful mechanism is the present organization of society, and how difficult it would be to reconstruct this, if it once were overturned.

As society is constituted at present, the honest and industrious are always more or less at the mercy of the vicious and indolent, and the only protection against this lies in the right of individual ownership. In a general community of goods, there might be some means of preventing or punishing flagrant misdemeanors, but what protection could there be against indolence? Those who were ready and willing to work would have to bear all the burdens of society.

In order that an idea should take external or concrete form it has to be married, as it were, to some desire or tendency in the individual. Reverend George Ripley had become imbued with Fourierism through his studies of French philosophy, but he had also been brought up on a farm, and preferred the fresh air and vigorous exercise of that mode of life to city preaching. He was endowed with a strong constitution and possessed of an independent fortune, and his aristocratic wife, more devoted than women of that class are usually, sympathized with his plans, and was prepared to follow him to the ends of the earth. He not only felt great enthusiasm for the project but was capable of inspiring others with it. There were many socialistic experiments undertaken about that time, but George Ripley’s was the only one that has acquired a historical value. It is much to his credit that he gave the scheme a thorough trial, and by carrying it out to a logical conclusion proved its radical impracticability.

Such a failure is more valuable than the successes of a hundred men who merely make their own fortunes and leave no legacy of experience that can benefit the human race.

It must have been Elizabeth Peabody who persuaded Hawthorne to enlist in the Brook Farm enterprise. She wrote a paper for the Dial 56 on the subject, explaining the object of the West Roxbury community and holding forth the prospect of the “higher life” which could be enjoyed there. Hawthorne was in himself the very antipodes of socialism, and it was part of the irony of his life that he should have embarked in such an experiment; but he invested a thousand dollars in it, which he had saved from his Custom House salary, and was one of the first on the ground. What he really hoped for from it — as we learn by his letters to Miss Sophia Peabody — was a means of gaining his daily bread, with leisure to accomplish a fair amount of writing, and at the same time to enter into such society as might be congenial to his future consort. It seemed reasonable to presume this, and yet the result did not correspond to it. He went to West Roxbury on April 12, 1841, and as it happened in a driving northeast snowstorm — an unpropitious beginning, of which he has given a graphic account in “The Blithedale Romance.”

At first he liked his work at the Farm. The novelty of it proved attractive to him. On May 3 he wrote a letter to his sister Louisa, which reflects the practical nature of his new surroundings; and it must be confessed that this is a refreshing change from the sublunary considerations at his Boston boarding-house. He has already “learned to plant potatoes, to milk cows, and to cut straw and hay for the cattle, and does various other mighty works.” He has gained strength wonderfully, and can do a day’s work without the slightest inconvenience; wears a tremendous pair of cowhide boots. He goes to bed at nine, and gets up at half-past four to sound the rising-horn — much too early for a socialistic paradise, where human nature is supposed to find a pleasant as well as a salutary existence. George Ripley would seem to be driving the wedge in by the larger end. Hawthorne is delighted with the topographical aspect, and writes:

“This is one of the most beautiful places I ever saw in my life, and as secluded as if it were a hundred miles from any city or village. There are woods, in which we can ramble all day without meeting anybody or scarcely seeing a house. Our house stands apart from the main road, so that we are not troubled even with passengers looking at us. Once in a while we have a transcendental visitor, such as Mr. Alcott; but generally we pass whole days without seeing a single face save those of the brethren. The whole fraternity eat together; and such a delectable way of life has never been seen on earth since the days of the early Christians.” 57

From Louisa Hawthorne’s reply, it may be surmised that his family did not altogether approve of the Brook Farm venture, perhaps because it withdrew him from his own home at a time when they had looked with fond expectation for his return; and here we have a glimpse into the beautiful soul of this younger sister, otherwise so little known to us. Elizabeth is skeptical of its ultimate success, but Louisa is fearful that he may work too hard and wants him to take good care of himself. She is delighted with the miniature of him, which they have lately received: “It has one advantage over the original — I can make it go with me where I choose!”

Louisa wrote another warm and beautiful letter on June 11, recalling the days when they used to go fishing together on Lake Sebago, and adds:

“Elizabeth Cleveland says she saw Mr. George Bradford in Lowell last winter, and he told her he was going to be associated with you; but they say his mind misgave him terribly when the time came for him to go to Roxbury, and whether to make such a desperate step or not he could not tell.” 58

George P. Bradford was the masculine complement to Elizabeth Peabody — flitting across the paths of Emerson and Hawthorne throughout their lives. His name appears continually in the biographies of that time, but future generations would never know the sort of man he was, but for Louisa’s amiable commentary. He appeared at Brook Farm a few days later, and became one of George Ripley’s strongest and most faithful adherents. He is the historian of the West Roxbury community, and late in life the editor of the Century asked him to write a special account of it for that periodical. Bradford did so, and received one hundred dollars in return for his manuscript; but it never was published, presumably because it was too original for the editor’s purpose.

Is it possible that Hawthorne put on a good face for this letter to his sister, in order to keep up appearances; or was it like the common experience of music and drawing teachers that the first lessons are the best performed; or did he really have some disagreement with Ripley, like that which he represents in “The Blithedale Romance”? The last is the more probable, although we do not hear of it otherwise. Spring is the least agreeable season for farming, with its muddy soil, its dressing the ground, its weeds to be kept down and its insects to be kept off. After the first week of June, the work becomes much pleasanter; and the harvesting is delightful — stacking the grain, picking the fruit — with the cheery wood fires, so restful to mind and body. Yet we find on August 12 that Hawthorne had become thoroughly disenchanted with his Arcadian life, although he admits that the labors of the farm were not so pressing as they had been. Ten days later, he refers to having spent the better part of a night with one of his co-workers, “who was quite out of his wits” and left the community next day. He then continues in his diary: 59

“It is extremely doubtful whether Mr. Ripley will succeed in locating his community on the farm. He can bring Mr. E—— to no terms, and the more they talk about the matter, the further they appear to be from a settlement. We must form other plans for ourselves; for I can see few or no signs that Providence purposes to give us a home here. I am weary, weary, thrice weary, of waiting so many ages. Whatever may be my gifts, I have not hitherto shown a single one that may avail to gather gold.”

Here are already three disaffected personages, desirous of escaping from an earthly paradise. Mr. Ripley has by no means an easy row to hoe. Yet he keeps on ploughing steadily through his difficulties, as he did through the soil of his meadows. In September we find Hawthorne at Salem, and on the third he writes: 60

“But really I should judge it to be twenty years since I left Brook Farm; and I take this to be one proof that my life there was unnatural and unsuitable, and therefore an unreal one. It already looks like a dream behind me. The real Me was never an associate of the community: there has been a spectral appearance there, sounding the horn at daybreak, and milking the cows, and hoeing potatoes, and raking hay, toiling in the sun, and doing me the honor to assume my name. But this spectre was not myself.”

This idea of himself as a spectre seems to have accompanied him much in the way that the daemon did Socrates, and to have served in a similar manner as a warning to him. He left Brook Farm almost exactly as he describes himself doing, in “The Blithedale Romance,” and he returned again on the twenty-second, but the brilliant woodland carnival which he describes, both in his “Note-book” and in “The Blithedale Romance,” did not take place there until September 28. It was a masquerade in which Margaret Fuller and Emerson appeared as invited guests, and held a meeting of the Transcendental club “sub tegmine fagi.” As Hawthorne remarks, “Much conversation followed,”— in which he evidently found little to interest him. Margaret Fuller also made a present of a heifer to the live-stock of the Farm, of whose unruly gambols Hawthorne seems to have taken more particular notice. He would seem in fact to have attributed the same characteristics to the animal and its owner.

Having more time at his own disposal, he now attempted to write another volume of history for Peter Parley’s library, but, although this was rather a childish affair, he found himself unequal to it. “I have not,” he said, “the sense of perfect seclusion here, which has always been essential to my power of producing anything. It is true, nobody intrudes into my room; but still I cannot be quiet. Nothing here is settled; and my mind will not be abstracted.” During the whole of October he went on long woodland walks, sometimes alone and at others with a single companion. He tried, like Emerson, courting Nature in her solitudes, and made the acquaintance of her denizens as if he were the original Adam taking an account of his animal kingdom. He picks up a terrapin, the Emys picta, which attempts to hide itself from him in a stone wall, and carries it considerately to a pond of water; but there is not much to be found in the woods, and one can travel a whole day in the forest primeval without coming across anything better than a few squirrels and small birds. In fact, two young sportsmen once rode on horseback with their guns from the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean without meeting any larger game than prairie-chickens.

It was all in vain. Hawthorne’s nature was not like Emerson’s, and what stimulated the latter mentally made comparatively little impression on the former. Hawthorne found, then as always, that in order to practice his art, he must devote himself to it, wholly and completely, leaving side issues to go astern. In order to create an ideal world of his own, he was obliged to separate himself from all existing conditions, as Beethoven did when composing his symphonies. Composition for Hawthorne meant a severe mental strain. Those sentences, pellucid as a mountain spring, were not clarified without an effort. The faculty on which Hawthorne depended for this, as every artist does, was his imagination, and imagination is as easily disturbed as the electric needle. There is no fine art without sensitiveness. We see it in the portrait of Leonardo da Vinci, a man who could bend horseshoes in his hands; and Bismarck, who was also an artist in his way, confessed to the same mental disturbance from noise and general conversation, which Hawthorne felt at Brook Farm. It was the mental sensitiveness of Carlyle and Bismarck which caused their insomnia, and much other suffering besides.

George Ripley published an essay in the Dial, in which he heralded Fourier as the great man who was destined to regenerate society; but Fourier has passed away, and society continues in its old course. What he left out of his calculations, or perhaps did not understand, was the principle of population. If food and raiment were as common as air and water, mankind would double its numbers every twelve or fifteen years, and the tendency to do so produces a pressure on poor human nature, which is almost like the scourge of a whip, driving it into all kinds of ways and means in order to obtain sufficient sustenance. Most notable among the methods thus employed is, and always has been, the division of labor, and it will be readily seen that a community like Brook Farm, where skilled labor, properly speaking, was unknown, and all men were all things by turns, could never sustain so large a population relatively as a community where a strict division of industries existed. If a nation like France, for instance, where the population is nearly stationary, were to adopt Fourier’s plan of social organization, it would prove a more severe restriction on human life than the wars of Napoleon. This is the reason why the attempt to plant a colony of Englishmen in Tennessee failed so badly. There was a kind of division of labor among them, but it was purely a local and a foreign division and not adapted to the region about them. Ripley’s method of allowing work to be counted by the hour instead of by the day or half-day, was of itself sufficient to prevent the enterprise from being a financial success. Farming everywhere except on the Western prairies requires the closest thrift and economy, and all hands have to work hard.

Neither could such an experiment prove a success from a moral point of view. Emerson said of it: “The women did not object so much to a common table as they did to a common nursery.” In truth one might expect that a common nursery would finally result in a free fight. The tendency of all such institutions would be to destroy the sanctity of family life; and it would also include a tendency to the deterioration of manliness. One of the professed objects of the Brook Farm association was, to escape from the evils of the great world — from the trickery of trade, the pedantry of colleges, the flunkyism of office, and the arrogant pretensions of wealth. Every honest man must feel a sympathy with this; there are times when we all feel that the struggle of life is an unequal conflict, from which it would be a permanent blessing to escape; yet he who turns his back upon it, is like a soldier who runs away from the battle-field. It is the conflict with evil in the great world, and in ourselves, that constitutes virtue and develops character. It is good to learn the trickery of knaves and to expose it, to contend against pedantry and set a better example, to administer offices with a modest impartiality, and to treat the gilded fool with a dignified contempt. But if the wings of the archangel are torn and soiled in his conflict with sin, does it not add to the honor of the victory? The man who left his wife and children, because he found that he could not live with them without occasionally losing his temper, committed a grievous wrong; and it is equally true that hypocrisy, the meanest of vices, may sometimes become a virtue.

George P. Bradford, and a few others, enjoyed the life at Brook Farm, and would have liked to remain there longer. John S. Dwight, the translator of Goethe’s and Schiller’s ballads, 61 said in his old age that if he were a young man, he would be only too glad to return there; and it is undeniable that such a place is suited to a certain class of persons, both men and women. It cannot be repeated too often, however, that the true object of life is not happiness, but development. It is our special business on this planet, to improve the human race as our progenitors improved it, and developed it out of we know not what. By doing this, we also improve ourselves and happiness comes to us incidentally; but if we pursue happiness directly, we soon become pleasure-seekers, and, like Faust, join company with Mephistopheles. Happiness comes to a philosopher, perhaps while he is picking berries; to a judge, watching the approach of a thunder-storm; to a merchant, teaching his boy to skate. It came to Napoleon listening to a prayer-bell, and to Hawthorne playing games with his children. 62 Happiness flies when we seek it, and steals upon us unawares.

George P. Bradford’s account of Brook Farm in the “Memorial History of Boston” 63 is not so satisfactory as it might have been if he had given more specific details in regard to its management. The general supposition has been that there was an annual deficit in the accounts of the association, which could only be met by Mr. Ripley himself, who ultimately lost the larger portion of his investment. It is difficult to imagine how such an experiment could end otherwise, and the final conflagration of the principal building, or “The Hive,” as it was called, served as a fitting consummation of the whole enterprise — a truly dramatic climax. George Ripley went to New York to become literary editor of the Tribune, and was as distinguished there for the excellence of his reviews, and the elegance of his turnout in Central Park as he had been for the use of the spade and pitchfork at West Roxbury.

Mr. Bradford returned to the instruction of young ladies in French and Latin; and John S. Dwight became one of the civilizing forces of his time, by editing the Boston Journal of Music. None of them were the worse for their agrarian experiment.

Even if the West Roxbury commune had proved a success for two or three generations, it would not have sufficed for a test of Fourier’s theory for it would have been a republic within a republic, protected by the laws and government of the United States, without being subjected to the inconvenience of its own political machinery. The only fair trial for such a system would be to introduce it in some tract of country especially set apart and made independent for the purpose; but the chances are ten to one that a community organized in this manner would soon be driven into the same process of formation that other colonies have passed through under similar conditions. The true socialism is the present organization of society, and although it might be improved in detail, to revolutionize it would be dangerous. Yet the interest that has been aroused at various times by discussions of the Brook Farm project, shows how strong the undercurrent is setting against the present order of things; and this is my chief excuse for making such a long digression on the subject.

During these last months of his bachelorhood, Hawthorne appears to us somewhat in the light of a hibernating bear; for we hear nothing of him at that season at all. Between the last of October, 1841, and July, 1842, there are a large number of odd fancies, themes for romances, and the like, published from his diary, but no entries of a personal character. We hear incidentally that he was at Brook Farm during a portion of the spring, which is not surprising in view of the fact that Doctor Nathaniel Peabody had removed from Salem to Boston in the mean time. One conclusion Hawthorne had evidently arrived at during the winter months, and it was that his engagement to Miss Sophia Peabody ought to be terminated in the way all such affairs should be; viz., by matrimony. Their prospects in life were not brilliant, but it was difficult to foresee any advantage in waiting longer, and there were decided disadvantages in doing so. It was accordingly agreed that they should be married at, or near, the summer solstice, the most suitable of all times for weddings — or engagements. On June 20, he wrote to his fiancée from Salem, reminding her that within ten days they were to become man and wife, and added this significant reflection: “Nothing can part us now; for God himself hath ordained that we shall be one. So nothing remains but to reconcile yourself to your destiny. Year by year we shall grow closer to each other; and a thousand years hence, we shall be only in the honeymoon of our marriage.”

Yet we find him writing again the tenderest and most graceful of love-letters on June 30. 64 The wedding has evidently been postponed; but two days later he is in Boston, and finds a pleasant recreation watching the boys sail their toy boats on the Frog Pond. The ceremony finally was performed on July 9, and it was only the day previous that Hawthorne wrote the following letter, which is dated from 54 Pinckney Street:


“Though personally a stranger to you, I am about to request of you the greatest favor which I can receive from any man. I am to be married to Miss Sophia Peabody tomorrow, and it is our mutual desire that you should perform the ceremony. Unless it should be decidedly a rainy day, a carriage will call for you at half-past eleven o’clock in the forenoon.

“Very respectfully yours,

56 Dial, ii. 361.

57 J. Hawthorne, i. 228.

58 J. Hawthorne, i. 232.

59 American Notebook, ii. 15.

60 American Notebook, ii. 16.

61 One of the most musical translations in any language.

62 Perhaps also in his kindliness to the terrapin.

63 Vol. iv. 330.

64 J. Hawthorne, i. 241.


“Chestnut St.”

George S. Hillard lived on Pinckney Street, and Hawthorne may have been visiting him at the moment. The Peabodys attended service at Mr. Clarke’s church in Indiana Place, where Hawthorne may also have gone with them. He could not have made a more judicious choice; but, singularly enough, although Mr. Clarke became Elizabeth Peabody’s life-long friend, and even went to Concord to lecture, he and Hawthorne never met again after this occasion.

The ceremony was performed at the house of Sophia Peabody’s father, No. 13 West Street, a building of which not one stone now rests upon another. It was a quiet family wedding (such as oftenest leads to future happiness), and most deeply impressive to those concerned in it. What must it have been to Hawthorne, who had known so much loneliness, and had waited so long for the comfort and sympathy which only a devoted wife can give?

Time has drawn a veil over Hawthorne’s honeymoon, but exactly four weeks after the wedding, we find him and his wife installed in the house at Concord, owned by the descendants of Reverend Dr. Ripley. It will be remembered that Hawthorne had invested his only thousand dollars in the West Roxbury Utopia, whence it was no longer possible to recover it. He had, however, an unsubstantial Utopian sort of claim for it, against the Association, which he placed in the hands of George S. Hillard, and subsequent negotiation would seem to have resulted in giving Hawthorne a lease of the Ripley house, or “Old Manse,” in return for it. It was already classic ground, for Emerson had occupied the house for a time and had written his first book there; and thither Hawthorne went to locate himself, determined to try once more if he could earn his living by his pen.


Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38