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Skating on Happy Valley Pond

Well, I’m wrapping up a comics-free weekend, and it’s been a good one. I’ve just returned from a ceili in which I actually danced and didn’t play music at all. (Aside to those not in the know, a ceili is an Irish set dancing party, basically extreme square dancing. And I’m awful.) I always manage to forget how good it feels to exercise, but I remember right now and it does feel good. This perhaps goes hand-in-hand with my other major adventure this weekend, naps!

In between all that exciting activity - not to mention laundry! - I managed to finish Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance, obviously inspired by David Fiore, who has managed to build a life around it. This is one weird little novel! I think it would benefit greatly from being read aloud, but that might make it funny when it’s supposed to be serious. The trouble is that it’s hard to take it seriously when it’s about a bunch of self-absorbed artists and mystics and dreamers and philanthropists trying to make a go of a Utopian farming community. Dave, if you push me, I could explain how it’s like Joan of Arcadia, like any narrative of adolescent enthusiasm. But I think what really matters is that it’s about a poet who scorns mystics and mesmerists yet finds himself wishing he’d noticed portents at the time. It’s about a feminist who has all the womanly flaws imaginable, in addition to rare beauty. And there’s enough discourse on poverty and revelations of shocking family histories to put Dickens to shame. Miles Coverdale, the narrator, gives the book a clear, consistent voice, though a quirky one. It’s a story about the disjunction between who people want to be and who they are and the longings that arise because of this. Perhaps the unexamined life is the only livable option.

I’m most intrigued by what sort of needlework Priscilla used to make her cunning little silk purses (and any pig-related insights are unwelcome) but I’m assuming that Hawthorne may have been ignorant of needlecraft and didn’t elaborate for that reason. I was rooting for more knitting scenes! Of more general interest is the problem with philanthropy. I was a bit surprised to find that a group of idealistic artists would be opposed to systems for rehabilitating criminals. I was never able to figure out exactly what it was about this idea that made it so abhorrent to Coverdale, who admired (and idealized) honest poverty. I thought at first it was a sort of moralistic position that people needed to pay for their mistakes rather than get help, but by the end I wasn’t sure if it was more that the people with the power/wealth/influence to be philanthropists can’t even save themselves and shouldn’t be attempting to save others.

There were striking insights and lovely quotes on almost every page, but more will have to wait for another day when I’ve adjusted to the time change and gotten some rest.


  1. David Fiore says:

    Hey Rose!

    I’m so glad you seem not to have hated the book! I agree with you that it’s difficult to figure out whether to laugh at it or take it seriously–on about the fifth reading, I finally gave up and decided to do both! There’s a decent essay in the June 1988 issue of American Transcendental Quarterly (by the insanely-named Barton L. St.-Armand!!) called “The Love Song of Miles Coverdale: Intimations of Eliot’s ‘Prufrock’ in Hawthorne’s Blithedale Romance” which comes to a similar conclusion…

    I would love to hear your thoughts on this novel & Joan–please give them to us!!


    — 5 April 2004 at 6:18 am (Permalink)

  2. Rose says:


    I was partly joking about Joan, but not entirely. The whole book makes more sense if you imagine it being about adolescents, where it’s common to see these kinds of ideological passions. Or maybe that’s not a fair statement; I didn’t have visions of My So-Called Coverdale, but I mean that it was hard to imagine thse people as functioning adults.

    Of course, one of the most perceptive statements Coverdale has is in noticing that while he toils alongside laborers they are not really doing the same work because he has the option to get up and go back to Boston and live in a nice hotel. I suppose having a certain amount of money and power can make it easier to avoid being mature and self-sufficient. Most people without money or power manage that just fine!

    At any rate, I didn’t hate it at all. It was fun in both its own right and a so-bad-it’s-good way (remember that I love Swinburne, too, who’s far, far worse than Hawthorne) and I look forward to reading it again, though I think my mom wants a chance first.

    — 5 April 2004 at 1:05 pm (Permalink)

  3. Bruce Baugh says:

    Okay, now I’m curious, so I just snagged it in e-book form from Fictionwise. A review or at least comments will follow when I’ve had a chance to read it.

    — 5 April 2004 at 5:43 pm (Permalink)

  4. Rose says:

    Uh oh, peer pressure! I don’t know what more to say about it. It’s a huge, overwrought character-driven story but a quick read, and I’m really interested to hear what you think of it.

    — 5 April 2004 at 6:08 pm (Permalink)

  5. Bruce Baugh says:

    Well, I generally like Hawthorne, and more so as I get older, so we’ll see.

    — 5 April 2004 at 8:49 pm (Permalink)