Tuesday, November 2, 2010

A book with a sort of sluggish flow - an exhibition of a mechanical diorama - The Blithedale Romance, not a novel

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novels can be so frustrating, mainly because they are not novels.  Not quite.  The Scarlet Letter is subtitled “A Romance,” and so is The Marble Faun.  The Blithedale Romance puts the word in the title.  Hawthorne is not exactly hiding the fact that he is writing something other than this new-fangled “novel” contraption, that he is looking back at earlier models of prose fiction, and that his books have as much in common with The Fairie Queen or Malory’s Morte d’Arthur as with Charles Dickens or Jane Austen.

I haven’t read The Marble Faun yet, but now that I have read the results of Hawthorne’s most amazing burst of creativity, the one that produced The Scarlet Letter (1850), The House of Seven Gables (1851), and The Blithedale Romance (1852), as well as the two children’s books I mentioned yesterday (and also, come to think of it, the 1851 summer journal that is Twenty Days with Julian & Little Bunny by Papa), my conclusion is that Hawthorne is at his best when he is least novelistic, that the weakest parts of his books are the most novel-like.

His characters, the few he uses, are static and emblematic, and his setting or frame is constrained – tiny, even.  The books consist of a small number of grand scenes, often fantastic pieces of writing that leave me a bit awestruck, held together my more ordinary writing that is little more than novelistic adhesive.  In The Scarlet Letter, the big scenes seem huge, and the connective tissue minimal, while the later novels feel more gristly.

Reading The Blithedale Romance finally helped me see the theatricality of Hawthorne’s novels.  The Blithedale Romance is particularly packed with performances and costumes.  The utopian community at the center of the novel is itself like a play, with the poets and intellectuals playing the role of farmer.  I wonder where Hawthorne gets this.  From Shakespeare, maybe?  In his notebooks, I don’t remember much interest in the actual theater.

It’s not that the great scenes are themselves like something from the stage (although the center of The Scarlet Letter, the Dimmesdale’s vigil in Chapter 12, actually takes place on a stage).  The extraordinary “Governor Pyncheon” chapter from The House of Seven Gables depends on a particular sense of the passage of time that would be impossible to imitate in a play.  What might be my favorite scene in The Blithedale Romance has a similar static structure.

It’s Chapter 17, “The Hotel.”  The narrator has left the utopian farm and is sitting in a hotel room, where, for an entire chapter, he does nothing.  Or close to it – “The gradual waste of my cigar accomplished itself with an easy and gentle expenditure of breath.”  He also fails to read a novel, a book which was “of the dullest, yet had a sort of sluggish flow, like that of a stream in which your boat is as often aground as afloat.”  I don’t think he’s describing his own book.  Otherwise, the narrator sits, looks out the window, and listens, pausing to “enjoy the moral sillabub until quite dissolved away.”*

He hears the guests and the kitchen clatter and clocks and fire bells.  “A company of the city soldiery, with a full military band, marched in front of the hotel, invisible to me, but stirringly audible both by its foot-tramp and the clangor of its instruments.”  And, most weirdly:

In some public hall, not a great way off, there seemed to be an exhibition of a mechanical diorama; for three times during the day occurred a repetition of obstreperous music, winding up with the rattle of imitative cannon and musketry, and a huge final explosion.  Then ensued the applause of the spectators, with clap of hands and thump of sticks, and the energetic pounding of their heels.

Hawthorne’s own stories often remind me of the exhibition of a mechanical diorama.  In “The Artist of the Beautiful” (1844), the culmination of the artist’s life is the creation of a delicate mechanical butterfly.  I’m not sure that the novel is really meant to contain mechanical butterflies, and I fear I sometimes crush them between the pages.  But Hawthorne’s novels are not really novels, so it’s all right.

* Maybe I’ll make sillabub for Thanksgiving.  Or syllabub, or sabayon, or zabaglione – lemon sillabub, probably, rather than moral sillabub.


  1. Hi AR, can you say something more about the the pre-novel models at work in H? If H isn't telling a longish story with characters and plot, what is it? And how is it a different beast than what is typically understood by a novel? Many cheers, Kevin

  2. Do you think that maybe Blithedale isn't very novelistic because it is based on real life and possibly meant to be more satire than actual novel?

  3. I can answer Stefanie with confidence. The Blithedale Romance is not based on real life. It is not satirical. No more or less so than his other work, at least.

    I suppose there must be people who read it that way, as satire about Brook Farm. How dreary! One passage about Fourier is baldly satirical, a clear dig at anyone who actually believes in Fourierism.

    Kevin, your definition of the novel has its uses, and I sometimes use it myself, but it's no good if I want to separate out Sidney's Arcadia and Le Morte d'Arthur and Utopia and The Tale of the Tub and so on, just to stick with English literature I have read.* Those are all longish stories etc. If we call them novels, it's because we've defined the term to swallow them. Their authors didn't think they were writing novels.

    I could go on and on (and on) about this, and did today, at great length while getting nowhere, although the bit of Hawthorne I quote is hilarious, so there's that.

    * I know. I'm including Utopia as, I guess, honorary English literature.

  4. Why do you say the book isn't based on Brook Farm? Or am I misunderstanding you? Hawthorne did stay there for a little while and even in my own copy of the book the introduction remarks on Hawthorne's recollections. I don't think it makes it dreary at all. I found bits of it to be rather funny and I thought it made some good points that farmwork does not help one produce art nor is it "romantic" but hard, dirty work.

  5. Sure, it's setting is drawn from Hawthorne's experiences at Brook Farm. Trivial. Every novel is set somewhere, and based on something drawn from "real life".

    If it's just a satire on Brook Farm, how is it any more than a period piece? I agree with you about the "bits" and "some good points." Now, what do we do with the rest of the book, the love pentangle and on-stage oracle and an entire chapter about the narrator sitting in a hotel room? Or the character, the one with gold teeth, who is the devil?

  6. Okay. I think I get it. But I have questions, not quite on the same line as Stefanie's, but not so far apart either.

    I don't mind a little biographical reading, as you know. I think that Stefanie's first question isn't quite right, and your approach and answer are the right one. Blithedale isn't very novelistic because Hawthorne wasn't really writing novels. He was doing something else.

    But where she's right is that there are some relatively obvious inspirations. Brook Farm is an inspiration but yes, it's not interesting at all to read the book as a version of Brook Farm. Hawthorne just used Brook Farm and the utopian impulse behind to create a setting for one of his romances.

    And it doesn't get you very far to think of Zenobia as Margaret Fuller either. It does, however, get interesting when you think about Hawthorne spinning off of Margaret Fuller to describe a relationship that is very similar to his own emotional life and experience with Elizabeth and Sophia Peabody.

    But from a guy who just spent time going through Moby-Dick and Clarel, etc., I'm curious about the inspiration for the Coverdale-Hollingsworth relationship in Hawthorne and Melville's approach to each other and literature.

    I love the idea that you're holding the three novels from the creative burst in your head now--are they not really novels in part because he wrote them all so quickly--, and I wish I could say the same for myself.

    The reminders that I would note here are that The Bostonians was directly based on Blithedale (I read them in reverse order), and at the time I didn't know Henry James' little book on Hawthorne, which might be interesting along this path.

    And lastly, I know it's out of your standard way, but I thought that Megan Marshall's Peabody Sisters book was an amazing way to approach Hawthorne and this material, and I think she might be getting close to finishing her book on Hawthorne's mysterious sister.

  7. Ah, veiled Hawthorne-Melville. That's amusing. Hadn't thought of that. Not sure where it gets me. I mean, Melville wrote Moby-Dick and so on. Hollingsworth ends up accomplishing nothing, although he does get the girl.

    I haven't read much James. I'm not surprised that he takes a run at Hawthorne - but surely The Bostonians is a James novel, through and through? You're talking about the relationship between the women, right, not something stylistic?

    I definitely don't think the nature of these books has anything to do with speed. Hawthorne wrote Hawthorne novels, and was never going to write anything else.

    So what does knowing about the Peabody sisters get me? How does it help me understand Hawthorne-the-writer, or his books?

    An honest question, not a dismissal. I don't know the answer.

  8. Never mind - or, do mind, and correct, enlarge, etc. I;ve retruned from Zhiv On The Internet (specifically) and see how this can work.

    We've got Public Blithedale, a novel-like book to be read and interpreted by one and all. But there may also be a Private Blithedale, with certain mysteries that are simply inexplicable without the biographical context. Private BR and Public BR might even work at cross purposes sometimes. Plausible and promising.