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An essay by George William Curtis

Hawthorne And Brook Farm

Title:     Hawthorne And Brook Farm
Author: George William Curtis [More Titles by Curtis]

In his preface to the Marble Faun, as before in that to The Blithedale Romance, Hawthorne complained that there was no romantic element in American life; or, as he expressed it, "There is as yet no such Faery-land so like the real world that, in a suitable remoteness, one cannot tell the difference, but with an atmosphere of strange enchantment, beheld through which the inhabitants have a propriety of their own." This he says in The Blithedale preface, and then adds that, to obviate this difficulty and supply a proper scene for his figures, "the author has ventured to make free with his old and affectionately remembered home at Brook Farm as being certainly the most romantic episode of his own life, essentially a day-dream, and yet a fact, and thus offering an available foothold between fiction and reality." Probably a genuine Brook-Farmer doubts whether Hawthorne remembered the place and his life there very affectionately, in the usual sense of that word, and although in sending the book to one of them, at least, he said that it was not to be considered a picture of actual life or character. "Do not read it as if it had anything to do with Brook Farm [which essentially it has not], but merely for its own story and characters," yet it is plain that it is a very faithful picture of the kind of impression that the enterprise made upon him.

Strangely enough, Hawthorne is likely to be the chief future authority upon "the romantic episode" of Brook Farm. Those who had it at heart more than he whose faith and hope and energy were all devoted to its development, and many of whom have every ability to make a permanent record, have never done so, and it is already so much of a thing of the past that it will probably never be done. But the memory of the place and of the time has been recently pleasantly refreshed by the lecture of Mr. Emerson and the Note-Book of Hawthorne. Mr. Emerson, whose mind and heart are ever hospitable, was one of the chief, indeed the chiefest, figure in this country of the famous intellectual "Renaissance" of twenty-five years ago, which, as is generally the case, is historically known by its nickname of "Transcendentalism," a spiritual fermentation from which some of the best modern influences of this country have proceeded.

In his late lecture upon the general subject, Mr. Emerson says that the mental excitement began to take practical form nearly thirty years ago, when Dr. Channing counselled with George Ripley upon the practicability of bringing thoughtful and cultivated people together and forming a society that should be satisfactory. "That good attempt," says Emerson, with a sly smile, "ended in an oyster supper with excellent wines." But a little later it was revived under better auspices, and as Brook Farm made a name which will not be forgotten. Mr. Emerson was never a resident, but he was sometimes a visitor and guest, and the more ardent minds of the romantic colony were always much under his influence. With his sensitively humorous eye he seizes upon some of the ludicrous aspects of the scene and reports them with arch gravity. "The ladies again," he says, "took cold on washing-days, and it was ordained that the gentlemen shepherds should hang out the clothes, which they punctually did; but a great anachronism followed in the evening, for when they began to dance the clothes-pins dropped plentifully from their pockets." And again: "One hears the frequent statement of the country members that one man was ploughing all day and another was looking out of the window all day--perhaps drawing his picture, and they both received the same wages."

In Hawthorne's just published Note-Book he records a great deal of his daily experience at Brook Farm. But he was never truly at home there. Hawthorne lived in the very centre of the Transcendental revival, and he was the friend of many of its leaders, but he was never touched by its spirit. He seems to have been as little affected by the great intellectual influences of his time as Charles Lamb in England. The Custom-house had become intolerable to him. He was obliged to do something. The enterprise at Brook Farm seemed to him to promise Arcadia. But he forgot that the kingdom of heaven is within you, and when he went to the tranquil banks of the Charles he found himself in a barn-yard shovelling manure, and not at all in Arcadia. "Before breakfast I went out to the barn and began to chop hay for the cattle, and with such 'righteous vehemence,' as Mr. Ripley says, did I labor, that in the space of ten minutes I broke the machine. Then I brought wood and replenished the fires, and finally went down to breakfast and ate up a huge mound of buckwheat cakes. After breakfast Mr. Ripley put a four-pronged instrument into my hands, which he gave me to understand was called a pitchfork, and he and Mr. Farley being armed with similar weapons, we all three commenced a gallant attack upon a heap of manure."

Hawthorne was a sturdy and resolute man, and any heap of manure that he attacked must yield; but he had not come to Arcadia to sweat and blister his hands, and his blank and amused disappointment is evident. He had a subtle and pervasive humor, but no spirits. He sees the pleasantness of the place and the beauty of the crops, having knowledge of them and a new interest in them; and he has a quiet conscience because he feels that he is really doing some of the manual work of the world; but he is always a spectator, a critic. He went to Brook Farm as he might have gone to an anchorite's cell; but the fervor that warms and adorns the cold bare rock he does not have, and the mere consciousness of well-doing is a chilly abstraction. "I do not believe that I should be patient here if I were not engaged in a righteous and heaven-blessed way of life. I fear it is time for me, sod-compelling as I am, to take the field again. Even my Custom-house experience was not such a thraldom and weariness; my mind and heart were free. Oh, labor is the curse of the world, and nobody can meddle with it without becoming proportionally brutified!" Very soon, of course, the pilgrim to Arcadia escapes from the manure-yard, and declares as he runs that it was not he, it was a spectre of him, who milked and hoed and toiled in the sun. Hawthorne remained at Brook Farm but a few months, and after he left he never returned thither, even for a visit.

The Blithedale Romance shows that he was not unmindful of its poetic aspect; but his genius was stirring in him, and he felt that he could not work hard with his hands and write also. So he went off, and never came back; and although he may have remembered certain persons kindly, his memory of the place and of his life there could not have been very affectionate. Probably there were other diaries kept at Brook Farm; certainly there were many and many letters written thence, in which still lie, and will forever lie, buried the material for its history. But it is likely to become a tradition only, and upon its finer side more and more unreal, because of such sketches as those of Hawthorne. The most comical part of the whole was its impression--that is, such impression as it made, and without exaggerating its extent or importance upon the steady old conservatism of Boston, which was of the most inflexible and antediluvian type. The enterprise was the more appalling because it seemed somehow to be a natural product of the spirit of society there. The hen of the tri-mountain had herself hatched this inexpressible duckling. Dr. Channing, indeed, was the honored intellectual chief; the culture of Boston had owed much to the liberal theology; old Dr. Beecher had battered that theology in vain; but the liberality of Boston was like the British Whiggery of the last century: it was more intelligent and more patrician than Toryism itself.

Mr. Emerson, as we said, was practically the head--or, at least, the accepted representative--of the new movement. His discourses before the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Harvard College, his address to the divinity students, and his noble Dartmouth oration, followed by his lectures in Boston and his Nature had set the barn-yard--not offensively to retain the metaphor of the hen--into the most resonant cackle, in the midst of Theodore Parker's South Boston sermon, and there was universal thunder. The pulpits which Dr. Beecher had assaulted, and which had watched him serenely, when they heard Parker thought that the very foundations of things were going. The most distinguished chanticleers went to Mr. Emerson's lectures, and when asked if they understood him, shook their stately combs and replied, with caustic superiority, "No; but our daughters do." And when the experiment began at Brook Farm there was no doubt in conservative circles that for their sins this offshoot of Bedlam was permitted in the neighborhood. What it was, what it was meant to be, was inexplicable. Are they fools, knaves, madmen, or mere sentimentalists?... Is this Coleridge and Southey again with their Pantisocracy and Susquehanna Paradise? Is it a vast nursery of infidelity; and is it true that "the abbé or religieux" sacrifices white oxen to Jupiter in the back parlor? What may not be true, since it is within Theodore Parker's parish, and his house, crammed with books, and modest under the pines, is only a mile away?

These extraordinary and vague and hostile impressions were not relieved by the appearance of such votaries of the new shrine as appeared in the staid streets and halls of the city. There is always a certain amount of oddity latent in society, which rushes into such an enterprise as a natural vent, and in youth itself there is a similar latent and boundless protest against the friction and apparent unreason of the existing order. At the time of the Brook Farm enterprise this was everywhere observable. The freedom of the anti-slavery reform and its discussions had developed the "come-outers," who bore testimony at all times and places against Church and State. Mr. Emerson mentions an apostle of the gospel of love and no money, who preached zealously, but never gathered a large church of believers. Then there were the protestants against the sin of flesh-eating, refining into curious metaphysics upon milk, eggs, and oysters. To purloin milk from the udder was to injure the maternal instincts of the cow; to eat eggs was Feejee cannibalism, and the destruction of the tender germ of life; to swallow an oyster was to mask murder. A still selecter circle denounced the chains that shackled the tongue and the false delicacy that clothed the body. Profanity, they said, is not the use of forcible and picturesque words; it is the abuse of such to express base passions and emotions. So indecency cannot be affirmed of the model of all grace, the human body. The fig-leaf is the sign of the fall. Man returning to Paradise will leave it behind. The priests of this faith, therefore, felt themselves called upon to rebuke true profanity and indecency by sitting at their front doors upon Sunday morning with no other clothes than that of the fig-leaf period, tranquilly but loudly conversing in the most stupendous oaths, by way of conversational chiaro-oscuro, while a deluded world went shuddering to church.

These were the harmless freaks and individual fantasies. But the time was like the time of witchcraft. The air magnified and multiplied every appearance, and exceptions and idiosyncrasies and ludicrous follies were regarded as the rule, and as the logical masquerade of this foul fiend Transcendentalism, which was evidently unappeasable, and was about to devour manner, morals, religion, and common-sense. If Father Lamson or Abby Folsom were borne by main force from an antislavery meeting, and the non-resistants pleaded that those protestants had as good a right to speak as anybody, and that what was called their senseless babble was probably inspired wisdom, if people were only heavenly-minded enough to understand it, it was but another sign of the impending anarchy. And what was to be said--for you could not call them old dotards--when the younger protestants of the time came walking through the sober streets of Boston and seated themselves in concert-halls and lecture-rooms with hair parted in the middle and falling to their shoulders, and clad in garments such as no human being ever wore before--garments which seemed to be a compromise between the blouse of the Paris workman and the peignoir of a possible sister? For tailoring underwent the sage revision to which the whole philosophy of life was subjected, and one ardent youth, asserting that the human form itself suggested the proper shape of its garments, caused trousers to be constructed that closely fitted the leg, and bore his testimony to the truth in coarse crash breeches.

These were the ludicrous aspects of the intellectual and moral fermentation or agitation that was called Transcendentalism. And these were foolishly accepted by many as its chief and only signs. It was supposed that the folly was complete at Brook Farm, and it was indescribably ludicrous to observe reverend doctors and other dons coming out to gaze upon the extraordinary spectacle, and going as dainty ladies hold their skirts and daintily step from stone to stone in a muddy street, lest they be soiled. The dons seemed to doubt whether the mere contact had not smirched them. But droll in itself, it was a thousandfold droller when Theodore Parker came through the woods and described it. With his head set low upon his gladiatorial shoulders, and his nasal voice in subtle and exquisite mimicry reproducing what was truly laughable, yet all with infinite bonhommie and a genuine superiority to small malice, he was as humorous as he was learned, and as excellent a mimic as he was noble and fervent and humane a preacher. On Sundays a party always went from Brook Farm to Mr. Parker's little country church. He was there just exactly what he was afterwards, when he preached to thousands of eager people at the Boston Music Hall--the same plain, simple, rustic, racy man. His congregation were his personal friends. They loved him and were proud of him; and his geniality and tender sympathy, his ample knowledge of things as well as of books, his jovial manliness and sturdy independence, drew to him all ages and sexes and conditions.

The society at Brook Farm was composed of every kind of person. There were the ripest scholars, men and women of the most æsthetic culture and accomplishment, young farmers, seamstresses, mechanics, preachers, the industrious, the lazy, the conceited, the sentimental. But they associated in such a spirit and under such conditions that, with some extravagance, the best of everybody appeared, and there was a kind of high esprit de corps--at least in the earlier or golden age of the colony. There was plenty of steady, essential, hard work, for the founding of an earthly paradise upon a New England farm is no pastime. But with the best intention, and much practical knowledge and industry and devotion, there was in the nature of the case an inevitable lack of method, and the economical failure was almost a foregone conclusion. But there were never such witty potato patches and such sparkling cornfields before or since. The weeds were scratched out of the ground to the music of Tennyson or Browning, and the nooning was an hour as gay and bright as any brilliant midnight at Ambrose's. But in the midst of it all was one figure, the practical farmer, an honest neighbor who was not drawn to the enterprise by any spiritual attraction, but was hired at good wages to superintend the work, and who always seemed to be regarding the whole affair with a most good-natured wonder as a prodigious masquerade. Indeed, the description which Hawthorne gives of him at a real masquerade of the farmers in the woods depicts his attitude towards Brook Farm itself: "And apart, with a shrewd Yankee observation of the scene, stands our friend Orange, a thick-set, sturdy figure, enjoying the fun well enough, yet rather laughing with a perception of its nonsensicalness than at all entering into the spirit of the thing." That, indeed, was very much the attitude of Hawthorne himself towards Brook Farm and many other aspects of human life.

But beneath all the glancing colors, the lights and shadows of its surface, it was a simple, honest, practical effort for wiser forms of life than those in which we find ourselves. The criticism of science, the sneer of literature, the complaint of experience is that man is a miserably half-developed being, the proof of which is the condition of human society, in which the few enjoy and the many toil. But the enjoyment cloys and disappoints, and the very want of labor poisons the enjoyment. Man is made body and soul. The health of each requires reasonable exercise. If every man did his share of the muscular work of the world no other man would be overwhelmed with it. The man who does not work imposes the necessity of harder toil upon him who does. Thereby the first steals from the last the opportunity of mental culture, and at last we reach a world of pariahs and patricians, with all the inconceivable sorrow and suffering that surround us. Bound fast by the brazen age, we can see that the way back to the age of gold lies through justice, which will substitute co-operation for competition.

That some such generous and noble thought inspired this effort at practical Christianity is most probable. The Brook-Farmers did not interpret the words, "The poor ye have always with ye" to mean, "We must keep always some of you poor." They found the practical Christian in him who said to his neighbor, "Friend, come up higher." But apart from any precise and defined intention, it was certainly a very alluring prospect: that of life in a pleasant country, taking exercise in useful toil, and surrounded with the most interesting and accomplished people. Compared with other efforts upon which time and money and industry are lavished, measured by Colorado and Nevada speculations, by California gold-washing, by oil-boring, and by the Stock Exchange, Brook Farm was certainly a very reasonable and practical enterprise, worthy of the hope and aid of generous men and women. The friendships that were formed there were enduring. The devotion to noble endeavor, the sympathy with what is most useful to men, the kind patience and constant charity that were fostered there, have been no more lost than grain dropped upon the field. It is to the Transcendentalism that seemed to so many good souls both wicked and absurd that some of the best influences of American life to-day are due. The spirit that was concentrated at Brook Farm is diffused but not lost. As an organized effort, after many downward changes, it failed; but those who remember the Hive, the Eyrie, the Cottage, when Margaret Fuller came and talked, radiant with bright humor; when Emerson and Parker and Hedge joined the circle for a night or day; when those who may not be named publicly brought beauty and wit and social sympathy to the feast; when the practical possibilities of life seemed fairer, and life and character were touched ineffaceably with good influence, cherish a pleasant vision which no fate can harm, and remember with ceaseless gratitude the blithe days at Brook Farm.

[The end]
George William Curtis's essay: Hawthorne And Brook Farm