Literature

Why an 1852 Novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne is More Relevant Than Ever & Should Be Your Next Beach Read.

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I've got a piece about The Blithedale Romance over at Barron's. I'm making the case that the novel is a not only a great and neglected meditation on the very essence of America as an "intentional community," it's actually pretty damn funny too.And Zenobia, one of the book's flawed protagonists, is simply one of the great female characters in all of our national literature (so is the narrator, a writer-blocked poet named Miles Coverdale).

If you're looking for a summer beach read, this is one worth checking out; it's funny, sexy, and sad. And if you're a progressive or neo-con reformer, put down down your slide rule or whatever instrument you're using to create the parameters of your nouveau Great Society and pick this up immediately.

Here's the lede:

One of the first and best American meditations on why experimental societies break down is also one of the least appreciated. English majors may fondly recall novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne for enthralling works like The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables. But few seem to have read Hawthorne's brilliant 1852 satire The Blithedale Romance, which draws on his frustrating experiences with the short-lived utopian community called Brook Farm.

Despite the novel's mid-19th-century publication date, The Blithedale Romance holds obvious relevance to an America that continues to fail epically both at creating new societies abroad (think Iraq and Afghanistan) and at home (think Detroit). The novel is also a commentary on the messianic and utopian urges that periodically plague everyone from left-wing radicals to neoconservatives. Besides all that, The Blithedale Romance remains an entertaining read.

Hawthorne lasted only about six months at Brook Farm, which was organized along socialist lines in a rural area just outside Boston in 1841… No socialist himself, Hawthorne foolishly joined in hopes of earning a return on his membership stake and gaining a quiet place to write. He confessed to his fiancée that he "never suspected farming was so hard" and that he needed to get out "before my soul is utterly buried in a dung heap." He also complained that communal living made it impossible for him to work on his fiction.

And there's this:

The Blithedale Romance is by turns laugh-out-loud funny and darkly tragic, and its ending packs a wallop. In a world where so-called intentional businesses, foundations, and communities built around shared moral purposes are all the rage, the novel should be required reading. It reminds us that even the best intentions are rarely strong enough to overrule either the longings of the human heart or the basic laws of economics.

Read the whole thing here (shouldn't require log-in or subscription).

Bonus: The great Joe Queenan's take on Anthony Trollope's The Way We Live Now.

Blithedale, for free, as an e-book.

NEXT: R.J. Lehmann on Ensuring the Sharing Economy Thrives

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  1. Actually we managed to develop a strong community of rebels over in a Iraq

    1. So…. you mean….. that…….nation building is possible?!?! My head just exploded.

    2. How so?

      They mostly seem interested in killing each other.

      1. They rebel against everyone, including each other! It’s the platonic ideal of rebellion.

  2. Thanks a lot, Nick. Another book that I’ll put on my bed stand with good intentions….., but I’ll never get to it.

    (although I would like being able to brag that the 160 year old book I’m reading is something I consider a good “summer beach read.”

    1. A few good reads I’ve done lately from the (late) 19th C.:

      Tales of Terror and Mystery”
      and
      “Round The Fire Stories”
      by A.C. Doyle

      My Official Wife by Richard Savage

      The Doyle stuff was background reading for my investig’n into Lost, the TV serial.

  3. I’ll stick with Animal Farm, thank you very much.

    1. I mean, talking animals? What will they think of next?

      1. Well, are the animals funny, sexy, and sad?

        1. They are in The Wind in the Willows, another good “beach read”.

          Well, maybe not exactly *sexy* ….

          1. I loved WITW as a kid. I may have to pick it up again.

            1. It is LOL funny.

  4. Hawthorne lasted only about six months at Brook Farm

    They just didn’t know how to do it, back then.

    It’ll work this time, for sure.

    1. He confessed to his fianc?e that he “never suspected farming was so hard” and that he needed to get out “before my soul is utterly buried in a dung heap.”

      The vibe I’m getting is that it’s less a condemnation of socialism and more a tacit admission from Hawthorne that he was just too special to do any job that upset his delicate mind.

      1. Or he just found farming really hard which it was in 1852.

  5. It reminds us that even the best intentions are rarely strong enough to overrule either the longings of the human heart or the basic laws of economics.

    Replace “rarely” with “never”.

    1. Also, why does it have to be a “beach read”? Do you have something against vacationing in the mountains?

      1. I know right? I usually vacation in my office.

    2. Well, maybe very rarely. The Farm was a hippie commune in Tennessee that managed to survive up until the present.

      Of course, it’s notable mainly because of all the communes that tried, it succeeded.

      1. The Hutterites nearby have making a decent go of it for a while.

      2. I have talked to some people who have first hand experience with that shithole. It only survives because it has a constant supply of new recruits. No one except the senior members last very long.

        Like all socialist constructs the ‘society’ runs on the slave labor of the little people while the leadership lives high. Lost souls arrive hoping to find utopia, quickly figure out what is going on and leave to be replaced by a newly arriving lost soul. Pathetic really.

        As Cavalier said, rarely means never.

        1. I know nothing about The Farm, but I’d be curious to know if is economically viable without a steady stream of contributions/donations.

          1. I know nothing about The Farm, but I’d be curious to know if is economically viable without a steady stream of contributions/donations.

            Some of these communes are pretty big operations and supply local farmers’ markets and restaurants. Even the smaller ones with have a booth at a farmers’ market, or a shop at the end of their driveway to sell their goods.

            When you have a steady stream of slave labor to do all of the real work a farming operation can actually be quite profitable. The profits are just never “shared” equitably.

        2. Ah, I didn’t know that, although it makes sense. So they’re 0-for-99,999 instead of 1-for-99,999.

        3. I have talked to some people who have first hand experience with that shithole. It only survives because it has a constant supply of new recruits. No one except the senior members last very long.

          Like all socialist constructs the ‘society’ runs on the slave labor of the little people while the leadership lives high. Lost souls arrive hoping to find utopia, quickly figure out what is going on and leave to be replaced by a newly arriving lost soul. Pathetic really.

          As Cavalier said, rarely means never.

          BINGO!!!!

  6. I would point out that Nick is a big fan of the writing of Alan Vanneman. Blind squirrels and acorns and all, I think I will skip this one.

  7. I will read it.

  8. Downloaded it to my iPhone. It better be good, Nick. Or you will pay. In blood.

    1. Will Moynihan be collecting?

  9. …it’s funny, sexy, and sad.

    It’s the Kardashian of novels!

    1. …it’s funny, sexy, annoying and sad.

      Now it’s the Kardashians of novels.

      1. I was going to say Brittney Spears, but the reference would have been a little dated.

        Katy Perry? Maybe?

        1. Get off my lawn!

          1. Dude! I’m fracking over here!

            1. Laying pipe and injecting, err, special solutions?

  10. Alas, I am unable to read your full review. It requires a log-in or subscription.

    1. Liar!

      (shouldn’t require log-in or subscription).

      1. It shouldn’t, but it does.

      2. Maybe I just need a new pair of specs…

  11. As good a place as any:
    Zoning is a really good idea, since the top men make sure that various activities are not dangerously co-mingled, right?

    “Homeless shelter plan pits Bayview against City Hall”
    http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/…..663723.php

    The gov’t is proposing a 100-bed shelter smack in the middle of one of the few remaining industrial areas of the city: …”David Eisenberg is the president of Micro-Tracers Inc., which is next to the proposed shelter”…

    1. The neighbors say there wasn’t an adequate public-comment process for the project, that the property is unsuitable for a shelter and that the neighborhood already has too much poverty.

      Who do these “neighbors” think they are? This is the lawful governing authorities doing their jobs!

      Social Contract, you whiny babies!!

    2. Some locals say adding the beds as proposed will do more harm than good. They say the city is trying to concentrate poverty in a neighborhood that’s already overburdened.

      Where are the homeless staying now? If you want your neighborhood to not be poverty-ridden, then save and invest in the area.

      Also, “Concentrated Poverty” sounds like a good name for a rap star. Needs to be misspelled, though. “Kahnsintratid Pavurtee”, maybe.

      1. Where are the homeless staying now?

        From what I remember of SF… in camps downtown and on every single city bus.

      2. They say the city is trying to concentrate poverty in a neighborhood that’s already overburdened.

        Good luck building that shelter in Sea Cliff or Presidio Heights.

        1. “Good luck building that shelter in Sea Cliff or Presidio Heights.

          That hag Pelosi just couldn’t get the permits for the shelter in her back yard…

    3. From the comments:

      NoReason Rank 7
      Awww, poor Bayview! We’ve got a homeless shelter in my area– an area that was once relatively free of bums and junkies, but now has a plague of them.

      You think the city is going to put homeless shelters in areas like Pacific Heights or the Marina or the Avenues– to say nothing of places like Seacliff and St. Francis Wood? HA! When hell freezes over! No, the city is going to put homeless shelters in areas where the limousine liberals who run the city don’t live, and where THEY won’t have to suffer the repercussions of having a bum magnet next door or down the block or around the corner. They just LOVE the homeless… as long as THEY don’t have to put up with them.

      Sorry, Bayview, but that’s the way it is. Maybe you should stop voting for phony-a__s limousine liberals.

      1. One of our own comments there, and he’s amazingly calm in dealing with the mental sewage that is the majority of SF Gate comments.
        Oh, and Starchild does too, from time to time.

    4. I’m not NIMBY, but… NIMBY!!!

      Hahahahaha!!! Hypocritical liberal douchebag good government bootlickers don’t like it when government wants to put icky people near their stuff. Suck it San Francisco!

      1. Suck it San Francisco!

        I don’t think they need any encouragement to…oh, you were doing a thing.

        1. Well, the Castro can suck it.

      2. I think there’s even more corruption here than normal.
        The Supe for that district is that gal Cohen mentioned in the article. She’s a horse’s ass who pisses off everyone with whom she has dealings. And she’s up for re-election.
        So it looks like the city bureaucracy is making it very clear to her constituency that she has zero power downtown.
        I don’t care, since she’s pretty much indistinguishable from the average SF lefty pol, but it looks like someone does.

    5. “They say the city is trying to concentrate poverty in a neighborhood that’s already overburdened.”

      Uh huh. So SF proggies invited the homeless to come to their city thinking they were poor unlucky souls exploited and then discarded by the evil capitalist system. They discovered that they are really pathetic, mentally ill, and very unpleasant to deal with, so now they are trying to hide them away.

      1. There’s an old story about a peacock that escaped from a zoo. It wasn’t found for days, until a woman called the zoo and reported that it was in her backyard. “I keep feeding it and feeding it, but it won’t go away!”

        Which is San Francisco’s strategy for dealing with homelessness.

  12. In November, the Board of Supervisors authorized a $978,000 forgivable loan from the state for the project.

    I…I mean, what?

    1. Is this like a loan from your grandma?

      “Just pay it back when you can, Sweetie!”

    2. “I…I mean, what?”

      They gave them 1M dollars courtesy of the taxpayer and called it something else.

  13. So, is Boulder, CO a planned location for fracking? Because there sure are a lot of people wandering around trying to get petitions signed to “regulate fracking”.

    1. They’re showing how much they care. About stopping poor people from making money off their land.

      The only acceptable way to make money is through Hollywood or political graft.

      1. I just told them I don’t vote. Then I gave them an “over the head” super-wedgie.

    2. They mean fucking. They want the government to regulate fucking. Cause no one needs more than 3 positions.

      1. In a city that regularly places in Playboy’s top ten party colleges? I highly doubt it.

    3. I remember there being oil wells all over the foothills. Maybe they’re fracking for natural gas as well.

    4. Yeah, they’ve been all over Pearl Street lately. I even went to a going away party for a friend, and some woman there was going around asking for signatures.

      I don’t think they’re planning on fracking within the city limits, but it might be a state-wide petition and they’re focusing on the areas where they’ll get the most signatures.

      I know they’ll definitely fracking in the open spaces and smaller towns between Boulder and Denver.

      Also, Boulder in particular is very involved with the energy companies out here. Xcel spent a lot of money putting up wind turbines, at no cost to the tax payer, and running lines from the turbines to Boulder so that a few hippies can get a warm fuzzy feeling when they turn their lights on. Now, Boulder wants to stop using Xcel to supply energy to the city and Xcel is suing the city because they put so much money into those wind turbines.

  14. The poor attempt to lampoon white people. Seriously; “you guys make a lot of money” is supposed to be offensive?

    1. His eyes need to be blue.

      I can see wearing one, though. It could be a full-on Archie Bunker they created.

    2. This one is really frightening…

      http://gopthedailydose.com/wp-…..go-610.png

    3. For the record, I’m a local and a fan of the team.

      So, the name of the team isn’t meant to honor shit. It’s like reading old texts that refer to black people as Negroes or when someone calls Asians “Orientals”. It’s not quite offensive per se, but it’s like mildly embarrassing.

      Charles Krauthammer put it very well here. My favorite line: “Proof? You wouldn’t even use the word in private, where being harassed for political incorrectness is not an issue.” So, if you’re asking me, I say yeah, Dan should do the right thing for once and change the name.

      With that said, I truly don’t give a shit, and nobody else does either, really. My wife comes from a deeply Progressive family and has come very far, but still charges at red capes like this from time to time. As a way of trying to meet her in the middle I’ve tried to get riled up about this, even a little bit, and just can’t. On the list of…hell, not even all the problems in the world, but just my own problems, this doesn’t even enter the top 50.

      I mean, this is below my regretting not buying a larger tub of Frog Lube. I spend more time thinking about what my first tattoo will be or whether or not I should fix my beater Chevy pickup or just donate it and buy another later on. At the end of the day it’s a private business with a slightly cringe-inducing name that affects me and mine not in the slightest.

      At least it keeps the regulators busy, though.

      1. the name of the team isn’t meant to honor shit

        Nonsense. Teams are often named after admired warriors. “Redskins” was not just a neutral term, it was one used by Native Americans themselves: “Oklahoma” is Choctaw for “red people.”

        Does the name seem old-fashioned, “slightly cringe-inducing”? Perhaps, but maybe that means people should stop being hypersensitive about it.

        1. Yes, it’s never offensive to use a term that a minority group often uses to refer to each other.

        2. Teams are often named after admired warriors. “Redskins” was not just a neutral term, it was one used by Native Americans themselves: “Oklahoma” is Choctaw for “red people.”

          If Snyder really wanted to troll the NFL, he’d change the team’s name to “Warriors” or “Renegades” and keep the logos the same.

      2. It’s not meant to honor anything? Really?

      3. Your frog is squeaky?

        I coach in an Indian-themed football club, and we have not only Redskins, but Navajo (the ‘Hos), Blackfeet, Sioux, Apache, & probably some others I’m forgetting. And Ramblers…but no Studebakers.

    4. “The grinning “Caucasians” logo on the T-shirt by Cleveland, Ohio-based Shelf Life Clothing Co. has become a hot item recently at Ontario First Nations reserves in Canada, according to a report by the Toronto Star.”

      That’s a funny shirt; I’ll bet it would sell in a lot of places.
      Remember “The Fighting Honkies”? I think they sold out.

      1. What’s hilarious is that the group was trying to show how making an ethnic group a mascot was hurtful, and they used a caricature of a well-dressed, well-groomed man as their logo.

        I mean really, only in the intellectually inbred cesspool that is academia would portraying a white man as successful and well-groomed be considered an insult.

    5. Apparently they’re of “European dissent”.

  15. The gov’t is proposing a 100-bed shelter smack in the middle of one of the few remaining industrial areas of the city

    “Them bums will kill my property values!”

    1. At one time, I owned a business with a location in Hunter’s Point, and I can understand the bizz peoples’ gripes.
      You’re going to come in in the morning and spend the first half-hour getting the window repaired and the graffiti off the walls.

  16. So, is Boulder, CO a planned location for fracking? Because there sure are a lot of people wandering around trying to get petitions signed to “regulate fracking”.

    Some crazy bastard in Gunnison might get the idea to set up a drilling rig where it can be seen by people on their way to Crested Butte. Not fair, Dude. They want their mountains pristine.

  17. Well, I have to say, this is a promising line to start with (the narrator talking about the communal farm):

    “…it may not be amiss to mention, for the benefit of such of my readers as are unacquainted with her now forgotten celebrity, that she was a phenomenon in the mesmeric line; one of the earliest that had indicated the birth of a new science, or the revival of an old humbug.” (my emphasis)

    Too bad Hawthorne could see in the 1850’s what so many couldn’t in the 20th century.

  18. Nick is showing off his English PhD again. Hey, Jacket! Quit parsing Beowulf and Samson Agonistes and go back to re-reading the only true classic, Atlas Shrugged.

    1. Or The Outsiders.

  19. “If you’re looking for a summer beach read”

    I don’t read on the beach. Too busy looking at fine asses.

    Plus I read like the rest of the normal, sane world – on the toilet bowl.

    1. Aren’t you busy with the fine asses on the toilet bowl, too?

      1. Now you’re just being gross.

        1. I retract my snide comment, Rufus.

          Enjoy your quiet time!

  20. English majors may fondly recall novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne for enthralling works like The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables.

    Nick’s age is showing. English majors from the 1990s forward are subjected to little more than endless pomo drama and postcolonial (poco?) literature with the occasional perfunctory course on Shakespeare. Nothing snuffs out youthful love of art–worthwhile when it focuses on the Dostoyevskys and Shakespeares, not so much the Joe Ortons–faster than getting a degree in English.

  21. And I move that we correct the phrase “intentional community” to “centrally planned community.” Communities always stem from intentional human action, but unlike the commie/Skinnerian/religious camps that doesn’t entail some unifying ethos outside of a common respect for private property.

    1. No, “intentional” is correct in that it describes the founders’ intention to form a community. Other communities form out of people’s intentions, but not their intention to form a community per se. “Deliberate” might be slightly better, but when you consider the time frames, “intentional” is about as good. The community itself is not intentional if it’s a byproduct of other intentional human actions.

      “Centrally planned” isn’t always accurate for intentional communities, because even if they start that way, they may remain intentional communities even after they cease to follow the plan. “Centrally maintained”, maybe.

  22. “he novel is also a commentary on the messianic and utopian urges that periodically plague everyone from left-wing radicals to neoconservatives.”

    When are those right and left wing goofballs ever going to learn?

    Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to working on the barge that I’m going to turn into a ocean-going libertarian city.

  23. I guess I better read this because of what I’m involved in:

    http://vrilology.org/ALF.html

    The founder with his own money has recently bought a triple plot in a land development ass’n (which you could say is also a type of intentional community, like a condo or co-op) in Pike Co. and is soon breaking ground for a home for himself on one of the plots, and he’d like to get me to move into the vicinity. I’ll seriously consider it if I can save money and have more opp’ty to test rockets & fireworks and coach children’s football.

  24. Sounds like some serious business dude.

    http://www.TotalAnon.tk

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