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« Hawthorne and the Transcendentalists | Main | Rupert Brooke and THIS SIDE OF PARADISE »
Tuesday
Sep112012

Hawthorne Among the Shakers

A daguerrotype of Hawthorne, 1848By 1851, Nathaniel Hawthorne had fulfilled his dream: he was one of the most well-known writers in the United States. He was still financially insecure, but his career had skyrocketed with the publication of THE SCARLET LETTER in 1850, followed closely by THE HOUSE OF THE SEVEN GABLES a year later. He could still complain of being more discussed than read, but he was nonetheless front and center of the new national consciousness for a literature that was distinctly American, not dependent on European forms and themes.

With the publication of THE SCARLET LETTER, Hawthorne moved out to the hinterlands, to what he knew as Lenox, Massachusetts, renting a small house on the southern edge of what is now the Tanglewood property. (We now know from surveys that his house actually stood in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, not Lenox, but the niceties of boundary lines were less observed in 1850.) He was in financial straits--as always--and was looking both to reduce his expenses and to find a quiet place to write.

Instead, he found an active community of like-minded writers, including one Herman Melville, flush with success from the publication of his sea adventures, but bored with being a best-selling author who published novels about half-naked Polynesian women.

It is here, in the wilds of Massachusetts, that Hawthorne wrote THE HOUSE OF THE SEVEN GABLES--and began writing THE BLITHEDALE ROMANCE.

But all was not well in the wilds. He hated the isolation, although he also craved it. He despised the winters--those in Salem were temperate by comparison. And he found the company pinched, full of wide-eyed Transcendentalists who believed that God lay under every leaf, every rock, every rill.

In the middle of writing THE BLITHEDALE ROMANCE, remembering his own time among the utopians at Brook Farm a decade earlier, Hawthorne decided he'd had enough of the country life and decamped with his family back to Salem.

There were many good-byes to be said, particularly to Melville who had become Hawthorne's good friend. After all, Melville had dedicated his masterpiece--and financial Waterloo--MOBY-DICK to Hawthorne that same year.

Hawthorne and Melville were known to ramble the countryside, often taking long trips by carriage to out-of-the-way destinations, Melville notorious for risking life and limb to scramble over high rocks and jump across chasms.

But for one of their last trips, they set out for a closer site: the Hancock Shaker Village, already falling into disrepair.

They were ushered through the main house by the sober elders, tramping on the well-oiled floors. The Shakers were a utopian community of their own--except without any free love. In fact, the Shakers were not "given in marriage," to use the Biblical phrase.

The Hancock Shaker VillageHawthorne was repelled when he glanced into the same-sex dorms. He saw the narrow beds where two men or two women slept together every night. For warmth, yes. But also?

"The Shakers are and must needs be a filthy set," Hawthorne wrote later that day in his journal. "And then their utter and systematic lack of privacy; the close conjunction of man with man, and supervision of one man over another--it is hateful and disgusting to think of; and the sooner the sect is extinct, the better."

Hawthorne left the Shaker Village, went home, packed up, moved to Salem--and finished THE BLITHEDALE ROMANCE, his tale of another utopian community where gender lines were not always so clear.

 

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