A Social Experiment: Nathaniel Hawthorne's Experiment in Communal Farming
The Social Elite
Nathaniel Hawthorne and The Blithesdale Romance
Nathaniel Hawthorne lived from 1808 to 1864. Hawthorne was a member of the cream of society. He had independent means. Franklin Pierce and Henry Longfellow were his classmates at college. He travelled to Europe frequently and was appointed US Consul when Pierce became president.
The social system in America at that time (and we've never moved very far from this model) had an elite, educated, leisure class at the top layer. This was maybe 9-10% of the people. Nathaniel Hawthorne and his friends who started Brook Farm were all a member of this elite, educated, leisured class.
The middle class were mostly small farmers at that time. Most of America was rural. Maybe 75-80% of the people were small farmers. They were educated at a village or parish school up to about the sixth grade level. They could read and write and do arithmetic. Mostly they worked very hard with their hands and their backs to make a go of farming. Factories were just beginning to get a foothold, but the factory workers were often children or young girls from farm families, sent from the farm to supplement the actual cash on hand (farmers lived by the barter system) and to get the household through when the crops were bad two or three years in a row.
The Brook Farm social experiment pre-dates the massive shift in American population from rural to urban by only a few years. The Brook Farm social experiment began in 1841 and ended in 1847. The Irish potatoe famine drove over a million Irish from their land in 1845, and the Irish were the first of a massive influx of immigrant population, over 5 million people, to the Eastern seaboard cities of the United States, The Irish immigrant Annie Moore, at age 15, was the first person to pass through the Ellis Island processing station in 1892.
At the time of the Brook Farm experiment, there was an underbelly, the poor that are always with us, of maybe about 8-10% of the people. They were landless people without independent means who lived any way they could; they got work by the day; and mostly populated the cities.
The Blithedale Romance
The Blithedale Romance is a thinly disguised account of Hawthorne's life at Brook Farm. Brook Farm in Massachusets was a social commune; and experiment in social equality, begun by Hawthorne and his friends in 1841. Writers, poets, artist and philanthropists lived in a farmhouse and worked the land along with the farmers.
Their goal was social equity. These members of the elite literatti felt the unfairness of having all the good things in life without lifting a finger while a great many people were doomed to a life of poorly rewarded toil. They felt (and it was true) that the leisured, comfortable lifestyle of the few was maintained by the back-breaking labor of the many.
So, Hawthorne and his friends, these young idealistic people with their lily-white hands and their heads filled with romantic notions of the nobility of working the land, bought a farm and started this experiment They were willing to put their money where their mouths were. They underwrote and paid for an actual, practical working Utopia where everyone was really equal.
At first, they were exhilarated by their purpose, to give up what they had "for the sake of showing mankind the example of life governed by other than the false and cruel principles on which human society has all along been based."
One thing about Hawthorne, he does tell the truth in his writing, whether fiction or not. He still gets the truth in there when he tells a story.
After a reasonable training, the yeoman-life throve well with us. Our faces took the sunburn kindly; our chests gained in compass, and our shoulders in breadth and squareness; our great brown fists look as if they had never known kid gloves...
The peril of our new way of life was not lest we should fail in becoming practical agriculturalists, but that we should probably cease to be anything else.
...The clods of earth, which we so constantly belabored, were never etherealized into thoughts. Our thoughts, on the contrary, were fast becoming cloddish...
Remember, Hawthorne associated cities with civilization. He assicated rural areas with rusticity and a lack of the refinements of gracious living.
Hawthorne states quite bluntly that the experiment failed.
Socialism, communism, social equality, a perfect democracy in action; communal living--these experiments in social equity have been tried over and over again and have failed repeatedly.
Hawthorne implies though he does not state that a levelling influence is not always a good thing--that which is highest is lost.
He states quite clearly that while he and his fellow writers and artists had more leisure and a softer life, they had much more energy and spirit with which to create.
Hawthorne also implies that no matter what form society takes, individual members cause friction. He implies that an ideal society is unrealizable, and that no society is capable of sustaining social equity.
I'm not cynical enough to agree with that conclusion. America will always be the land of the free and the home of the brave to me; I'll always believe that we mean it when we say all people are created equal. Of course, we carry our human imperfections with us to any society or social system we can create. But that doesn't mean we should just shrug our shoulders and quit working on it, does it?
I think we're headed toward a less materialistic society in America. People are looking towards more intellectual and spiritual fulfillment. We don't need to be artificially divided into social classes based on relative wealth or education. We don't need to keep up with the Joneses anymore, and all that silly and shallow acquisitiveness that drove rampant consumerism in America is slowly fading away.
There are no spiritual class divisions. And I don't believe any true intellectual is elitist in his/her thinking.
We began in America with the idea that people are created equal. I don't see why we can't put that idea into practice, do you?
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