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.

He says:

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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Comments 22 comments

Paradise7 profile image

Paradise7 5 years ago from Upstate New York Author

Thank you so much for those kind words.


ahorseback profile image

ahorseback 5 years ago

Ah dont worry Paradise , most people look back at the past with the the eyes of today and can't begin to "get real" with the mentality of "Then" , they judge everything by the ideals of today. Your writing is amazing. I haven't paid enough attention to it!:-} Thank you.


Paradise7 profile image

Paradise7 5 years ago from Upstate New York Author

Thanks, ahorseback, for the endorsement!!! Most of the people seemed to believe differently. I don't know why.


ahorseback profile image

ahorseback 5 years ago

Wow Paradise you have found a nerve here , I have often though ,in the last few years, that we could return to a much less soul starving lifestyle , This brook farm is so interesting I wonder though , could we? Excellent post.!


Paradise7 profile image

Paradise7 6 years ago from Upstate New York Author

Thank you, Dave.


DavePrice profile image

DavePrice 6 years ago from Sugar Grove, Ill

"We began in America with the idea that people are created equal" - the founding fathers began there intellectually, yet were slave owners. I think if we ever truly put into practice what we claim to believe, this nation and its people will truly be blessed. Awesome hub, love the way you write.


Paradise7 profile image

Paradise7 6 years ago from Upstate New York Author

Thank you so much, Carolina! You know whaat--I LOVE your hubs.. I hope you get a few visitors from this response to your comment...


carolina muscle profile image

carolina muscle 6 years ago from Charlotte, North Carolina

The communities at Brook Farm and Oneida always fascinated me... idealism is so difficult to put into practice!

Wonderful hub!


Paradise7 profile image

Paradise7 7 years ago from Upstate New York Author

Thank you, rmcrayne. I'm getting a more positive reaction than I expected. Thank you all for the generous congratulations.


rmcrayne profile image

rmcrayne 7 years ago from San Antonio Texas

There will always be those that consider themselves "more equal" than the rest of us.

Congrats on HN nomination.


Paradise7 profile image

Paradise7 7 years ago from Upstate New York Author

Thanks for reading, Duchess. I was hoping you would & am glad you liked it.


Duchess OBlunt 7 years ago

Paradise7. A sign of a good article (to me at least) is when you get responses on both sides of the argument. Looks like yours is a good one! I enjoyed the information you provided and the comments.

Congratulations on the HubNugget Wannabe nomination.


Catherine R profile image

Catherine R 7 years ago from Melbourne, Australia

Congratulations on your nomination! I was so pleased to see you there too - I love that we started this little journey at the same time and have been following each others hubs from the word go. Your writing is great and you subject choices always interesting.


Paradise7 profile image

Paradise7 7 years ago from Upstate New York Author

Thank you all for your comments. I'm glad for the feedback. I'm also very flattered and pleased to find out about the hubnugget wannabe selection. Thank you all again.


ripplemaker profile image

ripplemaker 7 years ago from Cebu, Philippines

Paradise: While hubbers have reflective and varied responses to your thought provoking hub, I'd like to pop in here to say "You are a Hubnugget Wannabe!" Cool!!! Do read, vote and promote your hub. The Hubnugget Festivities is happening right here. Click this link to read all about it:http://hubpages.com/hubnuggets10/hub/hubnuggets-09...

Congratulations from ripplemaker & the Hubnuggets Team


IslandVoice profile image

IslandVoice 7 years ago from Hawaii

A wonderful read, on the subject of social equality, that we wished we had more answers than questions.


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 7 years ago from The Ozarks

Paradise, you do a very good job in this hub of reporting on conditions in America at the time of the Brook Farm experiment. You also describe Hawthorne's take on it in the Blithedale Romance in a very straightforward way. I enjoyed that very much. But the end of your hub left me wondering: did you learn nothing from reading the Blithedale Romance about the perils of equating an egalitarian outcome with true equality of opportunity?


Jerilee Wei profile image

Jerilee Wei 7 years ago from United States

Very thought provoking but having spent a good bit of time out of this country, I've very jaded on the American dream because its looking a whole lot like a myth a whole lot of people have been programmed to believe. I hope I'm wrong.


ralwus 7 years ago

Very interesting stuff here that I never knew. Thanks. Good luck with your ideals and where I am most people still are materialistic and trying to over come Jones himself. peace, CC and congrats on being a hubnugget nominee.


Paradise7 profile image

Paradise7 7 years ago from Upstate New York Author

dohn and Catherine, thank you so much for your comments. Thank you so much for feedback. It makes all the difference, to get others' points of view.

Maybe an ideal can't be realized, quite, human beings being what we are--but I think society is improved by trying. I think we ARE all equal--each soul, each heart, each mind of a human being has a value equal to my own, and I believe, or hope, or think, that's what America is all about.

Take away the "aristocracy of wealth" idea as a good thing and the American dream of excessive conspicuous consumption; wealth and fame as goals; and we do have a great chance here to establish social equity.


Catherine R profile image

Catherine R 7 years ago from Melbourne, Australia

I found this really interesting. I have heard of Brook Farm before but don't know much about it. We had a similar commune started up by artists to the northeast of Melbourne which you have inspired me to look into further. It is good to think that people may be coming less materialistic over on your side. Down here I think the same is true although Australia really didn't feel the global recession much at all. But there is a definite trend towards recycling, home growing, crafting etc etc. All good. Can an ideal society be realized? I am inclined to think like Hawthorne that no it can't. Not at the moment anyway - we are not that evolved yet sadly.


dohn121 profile image

dohn121 7 years ago from Hudson Valley, New York

I totally agree with you, Paradise7. I think that what people have to now consider is what makes them an American? What separates them from other patriots of the world? As citizens of this Republic, we have to find our own identities and see to it that we uphold our responsibilities as a free people. Thank you for sharing this with me.

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