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.