Blithedale Romance Essay Topics

The self-conscious ironical tone of The Blithedale Romance is one of the first things that strikes the reader, and this tone is set by the first-person narrator, Miles Coverdale, an independently wealthy poet. In spite of his expressed desire to participate in the experimental paradise of Blithedale, Coverdale’s implicit attitude is that of a dilettante, someone who loves his creature comforts but who, through boredom, is pursuing an idealistic alternative to his privileged artificial life. If Coverdale typifies those who, like Hawthorne, participated in the Brook Farm experiment of 1841, the reader can understand why the project failed.

Coverdale is essentially an observer of life. He is able to situate the socialistic experiment of Blithedale historically: It is a successor of the Puritan attempt to make one’s principles the foundation of daily living. Coverdale notes that group living requires a sacrifice of individual development, and the prime leaders—Hollingsworth and Zenobia—are individualists incapable of such a sacrifice. Perhaps because of the first-person narrative mode, none of the three main characters described by Coverdale ever comes to life on the page.

Hollingsworth is the type of the single-minded philanthropist who has channeled all of his considerable energy into founding an institute for the reformation of criminals. This apparently selfless devotion endears him to the two female protagonists: the dark and sensual Zenobia and the pale and spiritual Priscilla.

Like true romantic heroines, Zenobia and Priscilla are initially shrouded in mystery. The proud, wealthy Zenobia chafes at the restrictions society places on her sex. Priscilla, on the other hand, a seamstress before coming to Blithedale, possesses an essentially dependent character, devoting herself first to Zenobia and later to Hollingsworth. According to their father, the impoverished Old Moodie, his daughter Zenobia represents the wealth and power that her father abused and lost through some unnamed crime, while Priscilla is the child of his poverty, a reclusive person who fills her imagination with her father’s stories. Zenobia possesses many social qualities; Priscilla is rumored to be psychic.

Irony dominates the narration of The Blithedale Romance. For example, the judgmental narrator Coverdale...

(The entire section is 964 words.)

Almost all Western governments now exhibit certain common, antinomian traits. They pontificate ceaselessly. They are averse to standing custom and local habit; they mistrust free transactions and lie in wait for opportunities to interfere in commerce and free trade. Judaism and Christianity irritate them and they seek to repress the symbols of those faiths while making common cause with dubious faiths hostile to Judaism and Christianity.


“No sagacious man will long retain his sagacity, if he live exclusively among reformers and progressive people, without periodically returning into the settled system of things, to correct himself by a new observation from that old standpoint.”

So says Miles Coverdale, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s more or less autobiographical first-person narrator in The Blithedale Romance (1852), a novelistic critique of Transcendentalism and socialism rooted in the author’s participation in George Ripley’s ill-starred Brook Farm experiment of the 1840s. Coverdale comes by his opinion two-thirds of the way through the novel – or idyll, or romance – after a revelation concerning his fellow utopians. Critics charge Coverdale with being what they call an “unreliable narrator,” but this should not deter readers from inferring truth on the basis of his testimony. Coverdale is reliably unreliable. He is at least as reliable as the other characters, whose egos and idiosyncrasies do manage to insinuate themselves through Coverdale’s account of events. But the genius of The Blithedale Romance lies paradoxically in its portrait of characters without character, self-forfeiting persons who have sacrificed themselves (not only metaphorically) on the altar of ideological true belief. The Blithedale Romance is one of the earliest fictional critiques of socialism, which Hawthorne clairvoyantly perceives as a heretical strain of Gospel Christianity, but it amounts beyond that to an early critique of ideology, as generally conceived. The Blithedale Romance, like Dostoyevsky’s Devils or Conrad’s Under Western Eyes, is a novel apposite in its significance to our own crisis-fraught situation.

Hawthorne’s narrative opens with Coverdale recounting his last night as an ordinary bourgeois person before presenting himself at what will acquire the moniker of “Blithedale” to enroll in its Charles Fourier-inspired experiment in militant reformist collectivism. Dostoyevsky and Conrad would have recognized Hawthorne’s gaggle of early Nineteenth Century intelligentsia, beginning right away with Coverdale, a dandy and poetaster who fancies that he is a member of the socio-political avant-garde. A rootless young man of independent means, more or less educated, and with his knack for verse, Coverdale has up until the moment lived a life of drifting voyeurism, hotel-residency, and nightly theater going. He gravitates to the endeavor of Fourier-type socialism by a purely natural, unreflective tendency, feeling vaguely resentful towards the world, vaguely guilty in his listlessness, and vaguely hopeful of finding actual status through the pending demonstration of radical audacity. Significantly, in the second paragraph of Chapter One, Hawthorne imbues his carefully observed Transcendentalist-socialist milieu with the hazy afflatus of early-Nineteenth Century spirit rapping and mysticism.

A certain “Veiled Lady” has made a stir recently on the Athenaeum circuit, whom – in her mundane guise, as the consummately ordinary Priscilla, an insipid seventeen-year-old – Hawthorne will place at the symbolic empty center, and focal point of all insipid fantasies, of Blithedale. Of the “Veiled Lady,” Coverdale divulges 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.”

The “humbug” comment, which Coverdale makes in retrospect, fifteen years after the events, conveys his delayed judgment that the enthusiasm of his Blithedale comrades for creating “A Modern Arcadia” corresponded, in its moment, not with anything modern or new but rather with something old, historically recurrent, and rather less than admirable. The references to mesmerism suggest furthermore that the Blithedale utopianism had entailed the surrender of personality and judgment to a dream-existence strongly at variance with reality. A dreamy atmosphere, veering into the nightmarish, does indeed pervade the project, once Coverdale arrives on site and begins to meet and mingle with the other participants. Dominating the others in their common milieu are Zenobia, a feminist and socialist whose persona borrows certain traits from Margaret Fuller, and Hollingsworth, blacksmith by trade and social reformer by vocation, who schemes to hijack Blithedale’s resources for his own radical, but related program. Interestingly, my American Literature students, who can be fairly obtuse about such things, have a strong instinctive aversion to all the characters of The Blithedale Romance, whose narcissism and hypocrisy remain in view even when Hawthorne puts into their mouths flowery, politically correct oratory that, in other contexts, the same students would, either by cynicism or conviction, endorse.

Coverdale arrives at Blithedale after dark in the midst of a snowstorm, shivering and soaked to his skin. Greeting him, Zenobia offers empty flattery and invites the same in return. She then remarks that because of the lingering snow, “we shall find some difficulty in adopting the Paradisiacal system for at least a month to come,” but she has reckoned only with the recalcitrance of nature, failing to take account of human nature. At every step, Hawthorne depicts his radicals as pitting themselves against nature and the self-regulating social order, which they regard as arbitrary, inconvenient, and pliable under any idea, no matter how much it might vary from the state of being. The only person present who demonstrates his contact with reality is the farm-supervisor and factotum Silas Foster, a crusty New Englander the dart of whose scorn regularly bursts the over-inflated balloon of dilettantish earnestness.

One incident is telling because it concerns the relation of utopianism to the market. When the utopians try to make a start on agriculture, the question of raising “early vegetables for the market” comes up. “We shall never make any hand at market-gardening,” says Foster, “unless the women folks will undertake to do all the weeding.” Foster reasons that: “We haven’t team enough for that and regular farm-work, reckoning three of you city folks as worth one common field-hand. No, no; I tell you, we should have to get up a little too early in the morning, to compete with the market-gardeners around Boston.”

Coverdale now wrestles with a deep-seated reflex provoked by Foster’s invocation of competition and the market: “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 our getting the advantage over the outside barbarians in their own field of labor.” Hawthorne has struck at an essential element of all ideologies that unites the socialism of the French Révolutionnaires with victim-cult in contemporary North American politics: profound resentment against the self-motivated industry of free people whose un-coerced negotiations with one another result in the constant general increase of total wealth and in its fair distribution among the willing participants in the system. Fourier himself (1772-1837) equated what he sarcastically called “the noble art of lying” with “the art of selling.” He recorded how once, as a child, he “swore eternal hatred of commerce.”

Hawthorne understands the rebarbative style and the dualistic tendency in such thinking. Coverdale remembers that, in response to Foster’s remark, he swiftly, “became sensible that, as regarded society at large, we stood in a position of new hostility, rather than new brotherhood.” In that thought, remarks Coverdale, he recovered from his disequilibrium of the moment, reminding himself that until such time as “the bigger and better half of society should range itself on our side,” the utopians would remain “estranged from the rest of mankind in pretty fair proportion with the strictness of our mutual bond.” Estrangement, hostility… The New Arcadians see themselves as a community of the morally pure, who must avoid contamination by the wicked external society. Culturally, if not politically, such a Puritanical vision of existence can fairly lay claim to being the founding vision of North American settlement, and probably more for worse than for better. One might hazard the hypothesis, indeed, that the social history of the United States consists in the regular recrudescence of an original Puritanism, which the rational politics of the Founding Fathers could never fully assimilate or suppress.

Protecting the pristine unanimity of the saintly in-group from the miasmatic hypocrisy of the devilish out-group and designing to extend theocratic dominion provide recurrent themes in Puritan homiletics, as Hawthorne, who was also the author of The Scarlet Letter, well knew. Hawthorne arranges for a number of conversations in The Blithedale Romance to occur in the vicinity of a rocky outcrop that Coverdale and Zenobia dub “Eliot’s Pulpit.” Coverdale refers to his co-denizens on the farm as “descendants of the Pilgrims, whose high enterprise, we sometimes flattered ourselves, we had taken up.”

The followers of Fourier sought, like the Puritans, radically to demarcate themselves, under the positive notion of “Harmonie,” from the surrounding degenerate world, for which they used the term, entirely negative for them, “Civilisation.” Fourier famously predicted that as his new dispensation gained adherents, the oceans themselves would cease to be salt and would become lemonade. Vacillating somewhat from his previous sense of solidarity with the Blithedale scheme, Coverdale shows himself in mildly skeptical mood by chiding Hollingsworth about the fantastic tenor of so much utopian speculation, Fourier’s eschatological limonade à cédre serving as case in point: “Just imagine the city docks filled, every day, with a floodtide of this delectable beverage.” Coverdale assumes that his compatriot must share the vetted judgments of the Blithedale circle. Hollingsworth tells Coverdale that he puts no faith in any scheme of social redemption save his own. In Hollingsworth, Hawthorne has bodied forth the Satanic logic of puritanical doctrines, hence also of ideology, in simple. The existing radicalism always appears to someone among its late-arriving devotees as insufficiently radical; and its Puritanism appears as insufficiently pure.

Nothing strikes one prophet as more unsatisfactory or vile than his most conspicuous precursor-prophet. So it is with Hollingsworth, whose image or idea of effective social reform, to which I shall come, reveals the social pathology of all political fantasies that begin in resentment of the market.

First, however, it will be profitable to give some consideration to Hawthorne’s careful representation of Hollingsworth’s psychology. Fourier, who preached against selfishness, is for Hollingsworth nothing less than a selfish swindler: “I will never forgive this fellow… He has committed the unpardonable sin; for what more monstrous iniquity could the devil himself contrive than to choose the selfish principle, – the principle of all human wrong, the very blackness of man’s heart, the portion of ourselves which we shudder at, and which it is the whole aim of spiritual discipline to eradicate, – to choose it as the master-workman of his system?” But it is a case of plus Fourieriste que Fourier. Coverdale guesses that Hollingsworth represents a Christian notion of charity severed from the Gospel morality as a whole and concentrated into a mental “idol”: “Hollingsworth had a closer friend than ever you could be; and this friend was the cold, spectral monster which he himself had conjured up, and on which he was wasting all the warmth of his heart, and of which, – as these men of a mighty purpose do, – he had grown to be the bond-slave. It was his philanthropic theory.” In this grim man, Coverdale finally discerns “a stern and dreadful peculiarity,” something “not altogether human,” which it “is not cowardice, but wisdom, to avoid.”

The retributive obsession of Hollingsworth-types “grows incorporate with all they think and feel, and finally converts them into little else save that one principle.” Like a Jonathan Edwards sermonizing about the Angry God, Hollingsworth is wont to “ascend Eliot’s pulpit” to preach to his “disciples.”

Yet this glowering evangelist of fierce reform ultimately finds himself derailed in his grim business by his adolescent attraction to the slip of a girl, Priscilla. Hawthorne has revealed that Priscilla is, or rather has been, the fabled “Veiled Lady” of recent renown, whose oracular declamations from the hypnotist’s stage supposedly betoken the breaking-in on mundane reality of Transcendental powers, but in the mantic exertions of whose performance Coverdale belatedly perceives only so much “humbug at the bottom” indicating that “the soul of man is descending to a lower point than it has ever reached.” Perceiving Hollingsworth’s preference for the vapid girl as a betrayal, which it is, Zenobia drowns herself. Hollingsworth, in an access of guilt, becomes a broken man, but he is at least delivered from his former monstrosity. The scandal reveals the pathos of the human-all-too-human on every part.

What is the image of Hollingsworth’s fanaticism – and of the human betrayal inherent, not merely to Blithedale or Brook Farm, but to all ideological schemes? “His specific object,” says Coverdale, “was to obtain funds for the construction of an edifice, with a sort of collegiate endowment.” Within the confines of this building, Hollingsworth’s “visionary edifice” and “castle in the air,” its imaginer “purposed to devote himself and a few disciples to the reform and mental culture of our criminal brethren.” The reformatory “was the material type in which his philanthropic dream strove to embody itself; and he made the scheme more definite, and caught hold of it the more strongly, and kept his clutch the more pertinaciously, by rendering it visible to the bodily eye” in innumerable sketches, projections, and drawings. The prototype of Hollingsworth’s reformatory, Fourier’s Phalanstery, suggests that Hawthorne’s perverse “philanthropist” would cast his net far beyond any nucleus of mere criminals. Later the idea becomes “a scheme for reformation of the wicked by methods moral, intellectual, and industrial, by the sympathy of pure, humble, and yet exalted minds, and by opening to his pupils the possibility of a worthier life than that which had become their fate.” And, naturally, everyone but the philanthropist qualifies as “wicked.”

To such bloodless yet bloody Mumbo-Jumbos, the schemers invariably “consecrate themselves high-priest, and deem it holy work to offer sacrifices of whatever is most precious.” They “never once seem to suspect… that this false deity, in whose iron features, immitigable to all the rest of mankind, they see only benignity and love, is but a spectrum of the priest himself, projected upon the surrounding darkness.” The ideologue’s ultimate conceit is that he is a better god than God; that to redeem men he requires absolute power over them; and that the system of redemption can only function in the form of an iron-walled prison, purged of all dissent, embracing the world.


The mid-Twentieth Century novelist Philip K. Dick (1928-1982) never figures in the literary histories as a successor to Nathaniel Hawthorne. Yet Dick’s late-in-life novel VALIS (1981) has, on consideration, a good deal in common with The Blithedale Romance, not least that it belongs, like Hawthorne’s novel, to the generics of romance – the fantastic tale, or the tale of someone’s involvement with the fantastic, the grotesque, the curious, and the distorted. More than this, The Blithedale Romance and VALIS share a central symbol, which in both contexts powerfully connotes the collective delusion and sacrificial character of ideological enthusiasm. Hollingsworth’s Phalanstery in The Blithedale Romance becomes the sinister “Black Iron Prison” of Dick’s story about schizophrenia, paranoia, group-delusion, and the abject misery caused by pathological resentment masquerading as an avatar of Christian charity.

Hawthorne’s setting is ante-bellum New England, still charged with the urgencies of the Puritan theocracy, but disturbed and confused also by a newer, vaguer mysticism of table-rapping on the one hand and socialist, anti-market enthusiasm on the other. For Hawthorne, the two are ontologically inseparable even when they are analytically distinguishable.

Dick’s setting is California, north and south, during the heyday of 1960s counterculture: Berkeley, constantly riled by academic radicalism and a politicized vision of existence, and Orange County, home to Birch-Society suspicion, and afflicted by the incipient drugs-sex-and-rock-and-roll indulgences of the late and unlamented 1970s. As Dick’s narrator says (he is the author himself, more or less), the combination of Leftwing moral stridency and ubiquitous narcotics made of thematically antinomian life in this milieu something “totally f----d.” In this beatnik formulation Dick restates bluntly Miles Coverdale’s discovery that, “no sagacious man will long retain his sagacity, if he live exclusively among reformers and progressive people, without periodically returning into the settled system of things, to correct himself by a new observation from that old standpoint.”

As in The Blithedale Romance, so too in VALIS, a perversion of philanthropy mucks up Bay-Area and Los-Angeles-Basin life and, more than that, kills people. Female suicide is another shared motif of the two narratives. Dick’s protagonist, a second version of himself named “Horselover Fat,” needs to do two things, namely “get off dope (which he hadn’t done) and stop trying to help people (he still tried to help people).”

Because Dick could call on a full additional century and more of historical experience unavailable to Hawthorne – the two world wars and the rise of the totalitarian empires, for example – he evidences a sense of ideological toxicity unsurprisingly more acute and alarmist than Hawthorne’s. Dick has observed what Eric Voegelin observed in The New Science of Politics (1952): That ideological enthusiasm, or what the ideologues themselves call commitment or engagement, requires the construction of a second reality to be imposed coercively on the actual reality. The construction of the second reality poses many problems for the constructor because the actual reality must, through its recalcitrance, prove scandalous and threatening and so constitute itself an object of ever increasing hatred and denial. Dick cannily casts an atmosphere of pervasive hysteria over the events of VALIS; the characters live in continuous reality-denial, self-denial, logical contradiction, and debilitating paranoia and rage.

The split between “Phil Dick,” more or less sane, and “Horselover Fat,” Dick’s clinically depressed, suicidal alter ego, serves for the primary symbol of the dissociation. “Dick” must pay his rent, buy groceries, and live, as best he can, in the world; “Fat,” parasitizes “Dick” by delegating to him these adult errands while he, “Fat,” dwells childlike in a resentment-driven fantasy to the sustenance of which any number of other parasites collaborate. The tendency of this fantasy is nihilistic.

Consider the two women, with whom Fat becomes involved, disastrously – Gloria Knudson and Sherri Solvig. Gloria, like Fat, is listless, disaffected, filled with silent rage against the non-negotiable demands of reality; she brings to her miserable life the attitude that it has cheated on an endowment that it owed her, as though happiness and wellbeing entailed no responsibility or effort on the part of the subject. Dick diagnoses Gloria as “rationally insane.” The descriptor means that Gloria has come to attribute her failure at social integration to a non-specifiable “they,” a magical blocking-agency, and that she has elaborated her petulance into “a panorama of relentless madness, lapidary in construction.” Fat judges it to be “rationality at the service of… nonbeing.” Gloria’s suicide, in which she has involved Fat cynically if indirectly, is what tips Fat himself into psychosis. Gloria must share her delusion with others because she suspects that it is a delusion. From Fat, she can obtain not only the extra Nembutal tablets that she wants in order to kill herself (as it happens she jumps from a window), but also the verbal support that, in empty words, ritually sustains her willful dissociation.

Gloria stands for the 1960s counterculture, of which Dick writes that, “it possessed a whole book of phrases which bordered on meaning nothing,” which Fat habitually “used to string… together” in pointless disquisitions. In using such phrases, a person’s judgment would “drop to a new nadir of acuity.”

Sherri is Gloria rediviva. Another failure of social integration, she fixates on death, ultimately willing her own fatality in a recurrence of remitted lymphoma. As Dick writes, “she like Gloria planned to take as many people into misery with her as possible.” Sherri’s hold on Fat consists in Fat’s screwy notion of philanthropy. Freshly discharged from a mental ward himself, he refuses to see in Sherri a pathological case, who “expressed fury and hatred, constantly, at the doctors who had saved her” by bringing about her renewed illness. As Dick puts it, in the apocalyptic, Platonic-Christian vocabulary of VALIS, “Fat had decided to bind himself to the Antichrist,” and he had done so “out of the highest motives: out of love, gratitude, and a desire to help.” Dick says, “If you did something for Sherri she felt she should feel gratitude – which she did not – and this she interpreted as a burden, a despised obligation.” Obligation is another word for reciprocity; and reciprocity is the fundamental moral principle of the market. When she finds an apartment for which the state pays the rent, she rancorously moves out of Fat’s digs, where she has been staying.

That Sherri is a putative Catholic and dotes on “Larry,” her priest, only sharpens Dick’s analysis of the second reality in which his neurotics exist, for, like Hawthorne, he sees formulaic shared delusion as a degenerate form of religiosity.

The shifting ad hoc social groupings, in which Fat participates, function as does the sodality at Blithedale, always conceiving itself as enlightened and pure and under siege by the surrounding deviltry. Hawthorne says that Hollingsworth’s obsession diminished the value to him of everything else, including love. Dick says something similar about Sherri: “Everything else, all people, objects and processes had become reduced to the status of shadows.” Worse yet, “when she contemplated other people she contemplated the injustice of the universe.” Anyone whom Sherri conceives as better off than she betokens to her the great unfairness of existence and so justifies her in her hatred of reality. Lawrence Sutin’s biography of Dick makes it clear that much of Dick’s fiction is rooted in autobiography, which VALIS affirms by its inclusion of Dick (more or less) as a character under his own name. Dick understands the seduction of resentment and the masochistic allure of psychosis because, experiencing both, he managed to fight his way back to something like an appreciation of reality.

Fat follows a similar death-and-rebirth and ends up assimilated once more to Dick, so that the split reality is healed. It is during Fat’s deepest psychosis that a symbol emerges in the novel, which sums up, in its adamant image, Dick’s “take” on ideological delusions. This is the symbol of the Black Iron Prison.

What Dick as narrator calls Gloria’s “lapidary” paranoia foreshadows the Black Iron Prison. Gloria’s persecution-fantasy and hatred of existence have taken on the militancy of a masonry bulwark designed to keep the unreal picture of existence protected from its contradiction by real experience. It is the fate of every second reality to become ever more complex and baroque in the attempt to save its counterintuitive version of the appearances. As Fat tries to justify his own denial of reality, he comes to believe that he has been the subject of a new Revelation, supplementary to the Gospel. Dick himself had such a psychotic episode, managing eventually to integrate it. In Fat’s gnosis, too, there is a gist that permits the subject’s reintegration in life. Fat claims to have discovered that the great tension in history is the tension between the true vision of reality, and of individual dignity and responsibility, as granted by the Gospel, and the false vision of reality, rooted in fear, that abhors freedom and execrates the fruits thereof because it secretly considers itself inadequate to the requirements of existence.

The false vision insists that reality itself suffers from a flaw and that the true believers can reconstruct reality after their own, more perfect plan for it.

Whenever the true believers gain power over others, as they sometimes do in cults and even in states, or when they establish themselves as the elites in a society, they act imperiously to suppress any articulation of the actual reality and they propagandize inveterately to impose their second reality. The term ideology refers to this simultaneous war on reality and campaign for unreality. Aware that ideology demands the surrender of common sense, of genuine subject-hood, and of one’s right to traffic in values and opinions as one sees fit, Dick has Fat sum up the nihilistic trend in the trope of the Black Iron Prison, whose other name is “Empire.” The Prison traps the individual in the system of lies, willingly adopted, that shields the frightened subject from the openness and unpredictability of existence. In the falsehood, not in reality, originates “entropy, undeserved suffering, chaos and death”; falsehood entails “the aborting of… proper growth and health.” In its character, falsehood is “deranged… tormented, humiliated” and its functions are “blind, mechanical, purposeless… processes.” Ideology is Ananke, dictatorial command, and its opposite principle is Logos, reason, openness, and love of truth for its own sake.


At the end of The Blithedale Romance, Coverdale admits his own sin. He had loved Priscilla and had timorously and foolishly not acted on the impulse. He denied truth. He has carried the guilt ever since, but his offering the narrative as interesting to an audience indicates that he had discovered some small compensation, at least, in participating in the writerly trade. His salvation, in fact, is his reintegration, however modestly, in the market. In the epilogue of VALIS, once the characters have fought their way clear of collective delusions, they, too, take jobs, seek girlfriends, and live, according to their talents, in the unstructured structure of the spontaneously self-organizing human world. Fourier, who, like Comte and Marx, hated the unstructured structure of the spontaneously self-organizing human world, wanted to replace Civilisation with his Phalanstery. In Nicholas Riasanovsky’s summary: “All members of a phalanx were to live in one huge building known as the Phalanstery, which served both as their residence and as the locale for most of their indoor activities. In fact, except for the Phalanstery itself, Fourier’s plans provided for only a few supplementary constructions, such as stables, storehouses, and certain workshops, located in a regular and symmetric pattern in its immediate vicinity.”

According to Riasanovsky, “correct building called for a huge Phalanstery, some six stories high, with a long main body and two wings.” In Fourier’s totalizing vision, every human being on the planet would eventually be incorporated into one of innumerable, identical Phalansteries. At Brook Farm, the basis of Blithedale, Ripley undertook the construction of a Phalanstery, which providentially burned down before completion.

Fourier hated the market, as much as he hated the Jews, whom he identified with commerce, and as much as he hated – or saw himself as a rival of – Christians and Christianity. The Western Continuum exhibits a curious split, which Hawthorne and Dick have noted. From Plato, the Prophets, and the Gospel, it has inherited its acknowledgment of reality and aversion to ritual, coercion, and resentment. The market, which depends on truth as much as it depends on reciprocity, is an outgrowth of these things. This compounded “reality principle” seems to have inspired, from its beginning, an opposite “unreality principle” devoted to the cherishing, finally, of nothing, but rather to vilifying what its devotees see as the Trinity of Oppression – Philosophy, Judeo-Christian Ethics, and the Market. In the late Twentieth Century and in the incipient Twenty-First century, the characterless advocates of unreality have captured and perverted the institutions. They are now using the institutions to insist that we share their delusions.

Almost all Western governments now exhibit certain common, antinomian traits. They pontificate ceaselessly. They are averse to standing custom and local habit; they mistrust free transactions and lie in wait for opportunities to interfere in commerce and free trade. Judaism and Christianity irritate them and they seek to repress the symbols of those faiths while making common cause with dubious faiths hostile to Judaism and Christianity. Barack Obama recently asked the administrators of Georgetown University, nominally a Catholic institution, to conceal the image of Jesus in the campus venue where he spoke. What would Hawthorne or Dick make of that? The Fourier-like anti-market pejoratives in The Blithedale Romance meanwhile take renewed life daily in the admonitory rhetoric of American and European liberals, whose shared conceit, that they know more than the mass of people in its agreeable traffic does, drives their current schedule of urgent restructuring – that is to say, of destroying – wealth and civic society. Modern Western governments, like old-style Marxist and contemporary Third-World governments, which they are coming to resemble, repress the observation and reporting of reality under a system of censorship called political correctness.

An old teacher of mine used to say that modernity is a nightmare through which we are doomed to pass. It is so. Hawthorne and Dick foresaw the nightmare.


Thomas F. Bertonneau teaches English at SUNY Oswego.

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