Published Humanitas, Volume XXIII, Nos. 1 and 2, 2010

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1852 novel, The Blithedale Romance, has been overshadowed for many years by The Scarlett Letter and The House of the Seven Gables. Perhaps its unsparing analysis of the psychology of utopian reformers still strikes a little too close to home for it to make its way onto reading lists at most schools and colleges. Perhaps it still tells us something too true about who we are. It ought to be better known if for no other reason than for Hawthorne’s sophisticated handling of America’s public and private face in the mid-nineteenth century—an insight perhaps unique in the nation’s literary canon. In a meditative chapter simply called “The Hotel,” Hawthorne’s narrator, Miles Coverdale, takes up temporary residence in town, having left behind the utopian community of Blithedale (a stand-in for the real Brook Farm). From his back room on the hotel’s third floor, away from the noise and bustle of the street, Coverdale, seated comfortably in a rocking chair, with a pipe in one hand and a boring book in the other, looks out his window onto one “little portion of the backside of the universe.” We could think of him as Jimmy Stewart in a nineteenth-century version of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window.

Walter McDougall quotes from this passage about a third of the way through Throes of Democracy: The American Civil War Era, 1829-1877, his recent tour de force of the unmaking of the United States in the fifty years surrounding the Civil War. He praises the sonorities of Hawthorne’s prose. And it is indeed a beautifully rendered passage. Coverdale can see the backs of new, fashionable houses. He notices a few fruit trees, kept alive in the bitter New England climate only through human ingenuity, and some busy birds and a cat with murderous intent.

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