Thursday, April 23, 2020

Blithedale Postponement

As I mentioned in the context of my loopy reading, The Blithedale Romance, by Nathaniel Hawthorne was up next, after Little Women (fiction) and American Bloomsbury (nonfiction) and the not-quite coincidence of all that genius in Concord, Massachusetts in the 1800s. (Ralph Waldo Emerson brought a bunch of smart people together.) It’s always good to read (or re-read) the right book at the right time. As I started re-reading The Blithedale Romance in mid-April, shortly after some unwelcome mid-April snow, I encountered an unwelcome mid-April snowstorm in fiction as Miles Coverdale travels to Blithedale to join an idealistic, intentional, back-to-the-land community, based on the actual Brook Farm that Hawthorne himself had visited for a time with high hopes. 

Then Coverdale gets laid up for two weeks with a rhinovirus! (common cold) in near isolation, tended by main characters Hollingsworth (driven by a single idea) and Zenobia (a beautiful woman and feminist). “Zenobia” is her writer/public figure name; she has a real name in the fiction and is probably based on feminist Margaret Fuller, who is named in the fiction, as if to separate the two, perhaps a courtesy.

Here are some more coincidences that surprised me:

--One of the entertainments in their little set-apart community is “tableaux vivants,” or dressing up as works of art. You may be aware that the Getty Museum challenge, etc. has inspired a lot of that in our current shelter-in-place situations.

--It shouldn’t have surprised me, as some summaries call Hollingsworth a misogynist, but he really is, and Coverdale, the narrator, calls him out on it, saying, “Hollingsworth had boldly uttered what he, and millions of despots like him, really felt.” Which was, basically, that woman is only a helpmeet at man’s side and must support him fully in his endeavors, blah, blah, blah. I guess the main surprise was Hawthorne outing “millions of despots.”

--Zenobia, complicatedly pissed off by this, retorts, “Let man be but manly and god-like, and woman is only too ready to become to him what you say!” Meaning, of course, that man isn’t.

--Earlier, Zenobia has said, in the context of supporting women’s rights, “Thus far, no woman in the world has ever once spoken out her whole heart and her whole mind.” It reminded me of Muriel Rukeyser, who said in a poem, “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? / The world would split open”

--Hawthorne sounds like a closet feminist himself, speaking through the character closest to himself in life, Coverdale, defending a broken-hearted woman:

It was nonsense, and a miserable wrong,—the result, like so many others, of masculine egotism,—that the success or failure of women’s existence should be made to depend wholly on the affections, and on one species of affection, while man has such a multitude of other chances, that this seems but an incident. For its own sake, if it will do no more, the world should throw open all its avenues to the passport of a woman’s bleeding heart.

Now, Coverdale sounds like a pretty feeling guy there above, but Arlin Turner in the introduction sees him as rather cold, aloof from fellow humans, and almost the worst villain of the piece, while I saw him as more the observer, as a writer necessarily is—Coverdale is a poet. Sigh… 

But, plot-wise, he had the power, probably, to act, and did not, and that’s what counts, alas. Even if you can’t achieve a utopia on earth, you’ve got to act in human sympathy where you can. I guess I forgave him for being human, flawed, imperfect, and a poet…

And I do think he’s right in opposing Hollingsworth, who cares not a fig for the utopian community, but only for his own one central idea, pushed relentlessly upon the innocent and unsuspecting, respecting only his will, not theirs. Coverdale thinks we are meant to tend to our own lives as best we can and “insensibly influence other hearts and other lives to the same blessed end,” not force our “philanthropy” on others or be subsumed by one overarching theory or dream.

Looping back, I should mention that the cold snap in Blithedale caused the residents to postpone their May Day celebration until later, when the weather would be nicer. Likewise, our shelter in place has been extended, postponing many things, but rightly so, as our governor, listening to the advice of experts, is thinking of the general good of all, not pressing his personal will upon us. (And that makes it a Thor's Day in the blog!)

1 comment:

Kathleen said...

Another surprise I forgot to mention: Coverdale visits a bar and remarks on how the youth favor new cocktails rather than straight liquor!