MALCOLM BRADBURY writer and critic


  • Contemporary American Fiction
  • Dangerous Pilgrimages
  • The Modern American Novel
  • The Modern British Novel
  • Modernism
  • From Puritanism to Postmodernism
  • The Modern World


My topic in this essay is the presence of a certain powerful and interesting spirit of anti-Utopian irony in American literary culture – a culture that, ever since the classical, the medieval and the Renaissance mind of Europe invented an idea of America, and then sent out its discovers, explorers and settlers to populate it, has been very characteristically suspended in the space between the ideal and the real.  My theme here has some place in a larger enterprise:  a book-length study of the great traffic in fictions that has passed back and forth between Europe and America, from the fantasies that existed long before discovery and settlement to the myths of our own age of frequent flying.  That larger exploration – my own transatlantic fiction – is now in print.1  And it and this present piece owe a very great deal to a (for me) seminal little essay, "Europe and America:  Transatlantic Images," written at the start of the 1960s by Marcus Cunliffe, who was my thesis-supervisor and friend.2

Written at a time when a postwar, cold war Europe, redefining its own history, was politically engaged with various forms of pro- and anti-Americanism, Cunliffe's concise article explored the power of the images of America that have so variously teased the mind of Europeans:  the idea of America as Earthly Paradise, as the land of the Noble Savage, the land of Liberty, Europe's Promised Future, and so on.  Each of these images, he pointed out, possessed an archetypal or mythic quality, a power to live far beyond their immediate political, philosophical circumstances or their historical season.  In Plato and More, Shakespeare and Marvell, Diderot and Raynal, Coleridge and Hegel, and so on to the present, in political theory, art, fantasy and fiction, the dream was enriched.  But American dreams were also American nightmares, and each myth, as Cunliffe says, generated its counter-version, a villainous image, a reverse proposition.  The Earthly Paradise was, for less approving minds, the Paradise of Fools, or Lubberland, or Cockaigne.  The Noble Savage had his mythic opposite in the Ignoble Savage, the soul-less brute or simply the cultureless and historyless tourist leaving the New World to spread ignorance in the Old.  The idea of the Land of Liberty found its menacing reverse in the idea of the Land of Licence:  a continent of mob-rule, vulgarity, crime and false dreams.  The notion of America as Europe's Promised Future – Hegel's 'land of the future, where, in the ages that lie before us, the burden of the world's history shall reveal itself' – was counterbalanced by those who saw it as the great warning, Europe's Threatened Fate.  Cunliffe then went on to explore the large amount of fictionality that was engaged in the whole affair.  As he said, for most Europeans America had never existed as a complete reality, but as a hypothesis, a metaphor:  'Instead of being a "real" place, it has served as an image:  a theorem, a symbol, a Never-Never Land.'  He went on to note that this also became an aspect of American experience and American thought, not least because so many discoverers and migrants crossed the Atlantic in quest of the American dream.  As a result, he concluded, 'America has never been a 'real,' finite place to Americans themselves.'

Cunliffe was reflecting on those mental maps that, with their vast political consequences, make a difference to how we continue to view the world.  They have been increasingly studied – and not least by Edward W. Said in his influential study Orientalism, which looked at mythic traffic in an opposite direction.3  Said emphasizes that what he's exploring is not simply an imaginary geography, but an imaginative geography in which real people live, and where social power and hegemony is exercised on a massive scale inside the gridwork of such myths.  The myths that were directed from the West at the Orient – which Said sees as repressive and silencing – did not, though, function in quite the same way for those many Europeans who settled, possessed, stayed on the American continent, imposing a language, a geography, a hegemony on its existing peoples, the random wilderness, the seemingly unwritten spaces.  As old and modern maps of the North American continent show us, they carried their imaginative geography into the naming, describing and writing of the New World they came to territorialize as their own.  This Adamic and world-historical mythology was wished onto the American continent even before the first European settlers arrived.  It was tested, elaborated and partly disconfirmed over 150 years of colonial settlement, much of it by Calvinist minds who shared many of the first mythic promises and expected to live out in or beyond history its grand Biblical prophecies.  It was a myth of return to innocence, nature, pre-history, the promised land or arcadia, through the defeat of secular history, the apocalyptic overthrow of Satan, the purging of sin and the resurrection of the Sacramental Word.  And that invigorating mythology, drawn not just from the Bible and other Christian sources but from classical, renaissance and Enlightenment secular desire and speculation, shaped a good part of what was to be written, and dreamt, about America.

Like most myths, it directed action and justified many deeds, not just on the soil of the north American continent but in the world arena.  The invention of America was also the invasion of America.  And, as with most forms of millenarianism and utopianism, it was never hard to find evidence that the signs and prophecies it read in history and nature were in process of being fulfilled.  Like all such myths, it also generated its own subtle literature of scepticism.  It's been often been noted that those who sailed in search of American dreams soon encountered American realities, that fantasy and actuality were in constant dialogue – and that this has been one of the lasting themes of American tales.  It's in the space between ideal myths and their fulfillment or disconfirmation, between the imaginary and the actual, the fictive and the factual, the heroic and the villainous, the hope and that outcome, the proposal and the counter-case, that one of the most profound and thoughtful tropes of literature – irony – are composed.  It's here we find many of the fundamental ambiguities of human aspiration, the self-deceptions and hypocrisies of human nature, the contradictions of culture.  Those tense, dialogic spaces have an important part in the play of writing, and reflect the instinct deep in serious literature to amend its own mythologizing powers and utopian dreams at the behest of the critical or contradictory intelligence.

The presumption of this present essay is that the Utopian myth that is so powerful in American culture has persistently and variously suggested to American writers, from the Romantic period onward, a sense of contradiction and conflict, and that this has been expressed (among other forms) by forms of irony, which in fact forms a significant and fascinating literary tradition.  Of course there is nothing particularly American about an ironic vision of life, or an ironic mode in art – quite the reverse, in fact.  Romantic irony was, as Friedrich Schlegel and Novalis saw it, an endless contrast between ideal and real, a dialogue and a dispute with the transcendental ego, a balancing of engagement and disenchantment.  As it happens, perhaps because of a perverted upbringing, or because scepticism seems to me among the most eminent of human virtues, I am a devotee of irony myself (and a practitioner of it, when casting off the cloak of critic, I become, as I do, another kind of writer).  I find it hard to hear a social or political myth affirmed without casting it against its opposite, difficult to listen to a belief without wondering why it has been necessary to construct it, or to any assertion of virtue without being curious about its underlying vice.  I possess an innate distrust of all comprehensive, totalistic or totalitarian explanations, all perfectabilitarian creeds or utopian promises, the discourse of all fundamentalist ayotallahs and reality instructors.  I like my faiths properly scoured by doubt, my oceanic dreams taunted by the spirit of nightmare, my Edenic gardens to contain a snake of distrust.  Such is romantic irony.  As the fool of a nephew says, in Denis Diderot's classic of dialogic irony Rameau's Nephew:  'Nothing is as dull a series of perfect musical chords.  There has to be something that pricks, separates the clusters and scatters the rays.'  And as the philosopher of the same tale says:  'For every "for" there is an "against," which leads on to a new and different "for."'

Irony exists in substance in American literature, which has been of course inherently romantic.  At the end of one wonderful book, Alison Lurie's Imaginary Friends (1978), a neophyte sociologist called Roger Zimmern is reflecting on the fact that Tom McMann, a senior colleague, has pronounced himself leader and prophet of a messianic sect, the Seekers, which he is supposed to be studying professionally.  Indeed he's declared himself Ro of Varna, visiting the sect's Upper New York state utopia to bring extra-terrestrial wisdom.  'There's another question that troubles me;' Zimmern notes, 'How many people have to have a common delusion before it stops being a delusion and becomes a religion?... Now suppose a couple of thousand people, the great majority of those who know him, believe a certain individual to be a religious leader called "Ro of Varna";  and that he spends most of his waking life playing that role.  Can you still call him "insane"?... If you are going to determine social identity by time budgets and majority opinion, you will have to take this position [that he's really sane].'  All that's left to the innocent Zimmern is McMann's ultimate wisdom, delivered in the madhouse where he ends:  'Keep Calm and beware of Flying Bats.'  Imaginary Friends belongs in the anti-utopian tradition, and has many affinities to a number of nineteenth-century American novels.  It is thus a delightful and classic modern example (so is Mary McCarthy's fine story of another Utopian and communitarian adventure, The Oasis (1949)) of the irony considered here, which might be called Romantic irony – or perhaps better Transcendental irony.


It had better first be acknowledged that irony can be seen as a major aspect of much modern literary art, closely connected to many of its essential impulses:  toward dialogism, scepticism, parody, and the dismantling or deconstruction of myth.  This is evident enough in many of its characteristic qualities:  the Romantic irony of Schlegel and Novalis, the sceptical discourse of Realism, the parodic and demythologizing aspects of Modernism, the pastiche and intertextuality of Postmodernism.  In his still invaluable Anatomy of Criticism (1957), Northrop Frye depicts the ironic mode of literary development onward from realism:  'Irony descends from the low mimetic;  it begins in realism and dispassionate observation.  But as it does so, it moves steadily toward myth...'.4  By this Frye means that it turns into a new extension of tragedy, where the power of fate or tragic inevitability is replaced by fresh sources of catastrophe that come from a world seen as futile, blank or meaningless, fallen beyond purpose, order or progressive sense.  Irony, he suggests, distrusts the transcendent organicism and the confident mythic aspects of pure romanticism and of classical tragedy, but also the direct mimesis of realism.  And, though he stresses the mythic or tragic dimensions of irony, he also relates it to a panoply of comic, sceptical or self-reflexive forms, like satire, parody, pastiche and intertextuality, which have all been essential to the twentieth century arts.  Thus irony can be seen not just as central to the vision of much modern art, but as part of its view of art itself, as fictive, self-conscious creation.  The centrality of irony in modern literature has been both observed and analysed by many leading witnesses.  One, famously, is Thomas Mann, who, in his preface to the German edition of Conrad's The Secret Agent, rightly takes that drily wonderful, hero-less book as one of the great works of modern irony.  He remarks on the power of the ironic mode in contemporary writing, and adds:  'I feel that, broadly and essentially, the achievement of modern art is that it has ceased to recognize the categories of tragic and comic, or the dramatic classifications tragedy and comedy, and views life as tragi-comedy.'

My concern here is with an ironic mood that belongs to an earlier day, and a different stage in the evolution of literary values.  It belongs to the high moment of American Romanticism – the time when Utopian optimism seemed at its fullest, and the idea of the innocent American Eden was coming to a peak of literary expression:  in Emerson's essays, Thoreau's thinking walks with nature at Walden Pond, and in a multiplicity of lectures, sermons, proverbs, essays, journals, poems and – just a little to the margin – novels.  It was the time when the Oversoul called on America, and Concord filled up with Great Thinkers, Great Expecters.  This was the moment of Emerson's 'Build therefore your own world,' and the time we have come to call, ever since F.O. Matthiessen's book of 1941, 'the American Renaissance' – more accurately a naissance, since it was the subsequently much-celebrated birth-time for much of American writing and American self-consciousness.  That was already how Emerson saw it in his 1837 essay 'The American Scholar,' with its call for a declaration of literary independence from the courtly muses of Europe, and his announcement of an era of startling and universe-discovering originality.  This of course was neither first nor last of such declarations;  declaring literary independence was always to be a recurrent event of American culture.  But on this occasion the prophecy was particularly efficacious – not because of the literature that had gone before, but because of what was to follow.  From around this date to the beginning of the Civil War in 1861, an event closely connected with these rising radical energies in New England, there came an extraordinary period of personalities, sensibilities, possibilities, an extraordinary roll-call of creativity, discovery, intellectual energy, poetic expression, confident cultural transformation.   The flow of ideas, religious and political arguments, books, readings, sermons, proud associations of natural creativity and poetic subjectivity which came to be seen as fundamental expressions of Americanness produced – as we familiarly know – an atmosphere and an output that was unprecedented in previous American writing, and has rarely been matched since.

Through the 1840s, and fuelled above all by Boston and Concord, this stir of excitement intensified.  It was fed by a new spirit that was religious as much as literary, political as much as poetical, and transformed not just American writing but the direction and destiny of nineteenth-century American life.  Its origins can be broadly traced to a Calvinistic spirit which had by now largely purged itself of those doctrines of sin and damnation that had tempered New England so heavily, but no less to the development of a holistic, affirmative unitarian spirit which owed much to German and English Romanticism, and to the investment of that re-spirited vision in the exotically expanding natural spaces of the northern American continent, and its contemporary residents.  By an endless process of reinterpretation, the ministerial classes who had so much to do with what was coming to be called Transcendentalism had translated a doctrine of election and original sin into something far more oceanic, organicist, naturalistic, innocent, imbued with the spirit of national optimism.  Here in the making was a grand metaphysics that might express what William Henry Channing was calling 'a vague yet exalting conception of the godlike nature of the human spirit.'  As the great poet-philosopher who was at the heart of it all, Ralph Waldo Emerson, pronounced:  'God is, not was.'  He described the famous climate in later life:  'Every one for himself;  driven to find all his resources, hopes, rewards, society and deity in himself.'  Calvinism as sifted through Romanticism had found a new discourse and philosophy.  It was, as Emerson said, the 'age of the first person singular.'

Emerson, who had his own great tweak of irony, doubtless intended the joke inside the phrase.  Certainly many singular first persons, many Transcendental I's, many egotistical sublimes, walked the landscape of New England, especially around Boston and Concord, in the 1840s.  As W.H. Channing observed, 'leaving ecclesiastical organizations, political parties, and familiar circles, which to them were brown with drought, they sought in covert nooks of friendship for running waters, and fruit from the tree of life.'  They met together, formed a variety of different kinds of club, school and collectivity, talked socialism and abolition and feminism, even hoed turnips together.  They formed the 1836 Transcendentalist Club for 'fine conversations' (like 'going to heaven in a swing," said one member), and by 1840 the great magazine The Dial, initially edited by Margaret Fuller, that great conductor of 'conversations' ('What is Life?,' etc.).  Priest became philosopher, poet, critic.  Emerson, who was all those things, lived largely by lecturing.  Resettled in Concord after the death of his first wife, at the house he called Coolidge Castle, he was a man who knew the need to be 'alone with the Alone,' but still willingly gathered around himself a community of like-minded friends, many of whom moved to Concord only to be near him.  Appropriately, Carlos Baker has seen the necessary book about this as a broad portrait of a community of thinkers gathered around a hub, Emerson himself, and which he has studied stage by stage, friendship by friendship, marriage by marriage, quarrel by quarrel.5  The group were 'eccentrics,' that is, grainily individualistic:  Bronson Alcott, former peddlar, educator, Orphic sayer, whose impoverished wife tended Irish immigrants in Boston while he thought;  Margaret Fuller, feminist and emotionally importunate bluestocking, who tried to draw Emerson to the heaving bosom of nature, which closely resembled her own;  Ellery Channing, who married Fuller's sister;  Henry David Thoreau, with his self-build hut on Emerson's land at Walden Pond.

All this was Transcendentalism – a term with which Emerson himself was constantly uneasy.  His poetical clarity, his fascination both with spirit and human foible, the force of his reflections, the bounce of his prose, largely held them together.  So did his generosity in editing, financing, talking up, generally promoting the surrounding band.  Transcendentalism may at first been a speculative enterprise largely spread by talk, journals, letters, and through pulpits, political meetings, lyceums and lecture halls, an enterprise in which it was enough to be an Orphic voice, saying 'I unsettle all things.  No facts are sacred to me, none are profane.  I simply experiment, an endless seeker, with no past at my back.'  But by the time he wrote his essay 'The Transcendentalist,' Emerson could describe it as 'Idealism as it appears in 1842.'  Its spreading climate soon generated major writings, especially after 1840 – when there came Emerson's major essays and poems, Hawthorne's Mosses from an Old Manse, Poe's Eureka and Annabel Lee, Melville's Omoo and Typee, Thoreau's Civil Disobedience.  Not all were works of the Transcendentalist spirit, but they were certainly related to its creative fervour.  When the century reached its midpoint, the achievement peaked, in a wave of writing that gives us our justification for returning, again and again, to the Transcendentalist spirit.  1850 saw Emerson's Representative Men, Melville's White-Jacket, Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter.  1851 brought Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables and perhaps the greatest book of them all, Melville's Moby-Dick.  1852 saw Hawthorne's The Blithedale Romance, Melville's highly obscure Pierre, Harriet Beecher Stowe's very explicit Uncle Tom's Cabin.  1854 saw Thoreau's Walden, and in 1855 an anonymous bohemian in an over-large hat produced A Song of Myself.  He sent it to Emerson, who hailed the coming of the great career.

For this was not only a remarkable dawn;  it gladly celebrated itself as such.  Melville looked to Hawthorne as the great originator, the Western Shakespeare, and dedicated Moby-Dick to him 'in token of my admiration of his genius.'  As Melville affirmed Hawthorne, as Emerson affirmed Whitman and his first Song of Myself  (there would be more) at the beginning of the great career, Whitman in turn affirmed Emerson ('America in the future, in her long train of poets and writers, while knowing more vehement and luxurious ones, will, I think, acknowledge nothing nearer this man, the actual beginner of the whole procession').  Certainly these writers forged a dominant if very varied aspect of American literature for something like a quarter of a century, until the Optative culture began to expire in the chaos of the Civil War.  It was not simply that bitter conflict which dissolved it, nor the fact that what looked like moral law was soon superseded by pure economic and territorial growth.  Romanticism itself had begun to dissolve right across Western culture, into the more critical temperament of Realism – as writers responded to the age of machinery, the spread of cities, the multiplication of mechanical powers.  To a degree it was now, with Dickens and Eliot, Dostoevsky and Gogol, Balzac and Flaubert, that the novel became dominant, as the genre most capable of reaching out to the realism and the grotesquerie of a new, urbanized, secularizing, mass society in an age of tentacular growth.  It was a time when the romantic imagination itself was (as the history of the novel internationally attests) compelled to begin its adjustment to the march of modernity, and a new post-romantic spirit carried the arts onward and forward to the age of modernity and modernism.

But was American literature now different?  Certainly, partly because of the great fissure of the Civil War, the Transcendentalist mood was largely swept away.  The world before the conflict came, as such times do, to seem a time of innocence – a childhood time for the Tom Sawyers and Huck Finns, when the great river ran deep and nature stood as virtue against 'sivilization.'  To some degree the War seemed to displace the American Renaissance and the Optative Mood alike from cultural centrality and cultural memory.  Fuller, Poe, Thoreau, Hawthorne were now dead;  Emerson, turned warlike by war, lived on until the age of 79, memory failing sadly.  Melville, the one writer comparable with Dickens or Dostoevsky, was overlooked, neglected, forgotten till he died obscure in the 1890s.  Only Whitman seemed to carry on the Transcendentalist spirit, to become its postwar embodiment, a form of egotistical manifest destiny, seeking new passages across the continent.  But essentially it was another Boston, the spirit of the Genteel Tradition, that lasted – first in the lineage of Bryant and Whittier, Longfellow and Lowell, and then in its capacity to ingest even the once-errant Twain and the solemnly midwestern Howells to the apostolic succession.  One of the greatest ironists of all in American writing, Henry Adams, reflected on his own early Transcendentalist enthusiasms:  'Concord, in the dark days of 1856, glowed with pure light.  Adams approached it in much the same spirit as he would have entered a Gothic cathedral... He never reached Concord, and to Concord Church he, like the rest of mankind who accepted a material universe, remained always an insect, or something much lower – a man.'6

It was really the twentieth century, and the Moderns, that began the great return toward Transcendentalism.  For the writers of what Ezra Pound called 'the American Risorgimento' the writers of that earlier renaissance began to look ever more like a usable past, a tradition.  Pound made a grudging 'pact' with Whitman, having detested him long enough.  Emily Dickinson was recovered from a deeper obscurity.  The largely forgotten Melville was re-remembered, Billy Budd posthumously published.  It was an Englishman, D.H. Lawrence, who gave one canonical account:  "The furthest frenzies of French modernism or futurism have not yet reached the pitch of extreme consciousness that Poe, Melville, Hawthorne, Whitman reached.  The Europeans were just trying to be extreme.  The great Americans I mention just were it.'7  A key word here is 'modern,' a condition of extremity.  It is not the contemplative, religious, Emersonian aspect of Transcendental times Lawrence is praising.  Indeed he notes that 'all those gorgeous inrushes of exaltation and spiritual energy which made Emerson a great man, now make us sick.'  Emerson would take a little longer.  It was not really until Matthiessen's study of 1941 attempted to look back 100 years and reconstruct an American past from its literary present that the Transcendentalist hub began to be fully recovered.  Matthiessen devoted his book to the age of 'Emerson and Whitman,' and opened with a quotation from Emerson's 'The Transcendentalist' ('Our American literature and spiritual history are, we confess, in the optative mood').8

Yet the optative mood that perhaps particularly suited the spirit of America in wartime was itself to be challenged in the grimmer postwar world, when the 'new liberalism' flourished, and existentialist anxiety and a Parisian dread became a familiar sensibility in the wake of the Holocaust and the sombre mood of the Cold War and the nuclear age.  It was the darker side of the American Renaissance that seemed to speak with the greater truth and have the greater sense of contradiction and depravity.  The New Liberalism was companion to the New Criticism, and for most of its critics Emerson and Whitman were hardly at the center.  As Harry Levin put it in his book of this title, the power of blackness that Melville secreted into Moby-Dick, the symbolist allusiveness, the dark fractures and romantic agony of 'our cousin Mr Poe,' and the ambiguity and strange, withdrawn alusiveness of Hawthorne that dominated interpretation.  'It is no secret how we achieved our modern Hawthorne, our dark poet, charged with chthonic knowledge, whose utterances are as ambiguous as any ancient riddling oracle,' Lionel Trilling wrote in his essay 'Hawthorne In Our Time.'  Trilling acknowledges that 'our' Hawthorne is born at the behest of current intentions, and he contrasts him with Henry James' Hawthorne of his book of 1879, where he appeared as the innocent provincial, the sunny writer of whimsical ironies.  'Our' Hawthorne is no Jamesian precursor:  'Everyone perceives a certain likeness between Hawthorne and Kafka,' Trilling says.  And, yes, James had called Hawthorne 'ironical,' but by that we mean his playfulness.  James does not, says Trilling, use the word in its modern sense (nor even in the way he employs it as method in his own finely ironical Washington Square) – as a word 'which is cognate with "ambiguous" and suggests a source of emotional power.'  As Trilling makes clear, what the New Criticism can find in Hawthorne is the New Irony – a spirit that amends romanticism with realism, romance with the novel, oceanic dream with a proper and critical scepticism.9

Canonical revision never stops, particularly in the matter of American literature.  The years since Trilling's essay have understandably seen many major reconstructions of Emerson, Thoreau, Fuller and the wider Transcendentalist circle, and fresh theoretical challenges to them.  In a new form of the old battle, key writers like Saul Bellow have been inclined to assert Transcendentalist credentials, and summon from chaos, dismay or sheer materialism a new version of the Optative mood.  Many leading critics have been explicit in their Emersonianism.  Alfred Kazin's An American Procession (1984), an interesting and capacious interpretation of American literature from 1830 to 1930, places Emerson where Whitman had him, at the head of the whole procession.  His spirit and influence, for Kazan, has been essential throughout, not least to American modernism.  He even incorporates the grand ironist, Henry Adams (the man who turned his own first person singular into third), into the Emersonian tradition.  Richard Poirier's The Renewal of Literature (1987) – subtitled 'Emersonian Reflections' – no less uses Emerson, his mythos and his poetic to pass beyond the latter-day dismantlings of Structuralism and Deconstruction:  reaching for the Emersonian concept of creativity and genius, and for 'spermatic, prophesying, man-making words.'  He looks to Emerson for the recovery of the sign from slippage, for a real self-presence, and to find 'a crucial alternative to the dominant modernist and so-called postmodernist way of thinking,' a perfectly useful modern enterprise.10

When the contention is done with, a broader fact remains, which Carlos Baker's recent book on Emerson and his circle honours.  It is that somehow, around Boston and Concord, there was constructed a thing of moment:  a working literary and intellectual culture ('the American Weimar,' Henry James called it), which was shaded by its own hopes and its own misfortunes, casualties and despairs, quarrels and contradictions, disparate personalities.  By now it has become the familiar site for examining the spirit and potential of an American poet, an American creativity, an American mythography, an American hope, or despair.  Certainly there lie within it at least two potentially very different versions of the American imagination:  one which is eternally turned toward the optimistic and optative, the other toward the sceptical, the self-doubting, even the despairing.  In Marcus Cunliffe's essay, mentioned earlier, he suggested that this was the price America had to pay for being both a real and an imaginary country.  As his ex-pupil, I should not perhaps be doing fair service to him if I failed to dwell on the doubleness and the duplicity, the insistent dialogue that already existed within the American Renaissance itself between the optative and the ironical mode.  This is itself intimate, I think, with the way American literature has since constructed itself, and what in American writing has become of the Adamic and transcendental expectation.  It's therefore down the path of Transcendentalism and the counter-ironies it provoked that I now wish to go.


In a famous letter of October 1840 to Thomas Carlyle, his mentor in England, Emerson wrote from Concord about the Transcendental enterprise:

We are all a little wild here with numberless projects of social reform.  Not a           reading man but has a draft of a new community in his pocket.  I am gently mad myself, and am resolved to live cleanly.  George Ripley is talking up a colony of agriculturalists and scholars, whom he threatened to take to the field and the book.  One man renounces the use of animal food; and another of coin;  and       another of domestic hired service;  and another of the State;  and on the whole we have a commendable share of reason and hope.

Evidently not just in matters of self but in community too the Transcendentalist spirit was soaring, entering a season of Utopian idealism, with which, after all, the nation had been so much associated.  Communities, colonies, phalanxeries in this form or that – Fourierist and Owenite, religious and secular, socialist or schismatic – spread along the banks of the Susquehanna, the Ohio, the Mississippi.  It was a time when the American imagination seemed reborn according to the highest principles.  In this optative mood, two novelists of the generation of hope set out, completely independent of one another, on voyages to Utopia – voyages that became greatly involved with the mythological character of the United States.  One was American, a writer in his mid-30s who had travelled little and not yet written one word he was satisfied with.  He was author of a Gothic novel, Fanshawe (1828), which he had withdrawn from publication, even having the plates recalled and destroyed, and he called himself the most obscure author in the country.  A single book of tales, written over 12 years of solitude in a 'haunted chamber' in his mother's house in Salem, was his one claim to obscure fame.  The other was British, still under 30, and as famous as the other was obscure; indeed he was probably the most famous author of the day.  He was a universal traveller, and in Britain today it seems hard to find an inn he failed to stay in.  He too had used anonymity, writing once as 'Boz.'  By now he had five huge novels that had swept the USA just as they had Britain.  Now famous and feted, he was about to make his first visit to an Adamic New World that had long fascinated his liberal imagination.

Nathaniel Hawthorne and Charles Dickens are more often contrasted than they are compared.  In many respects they really are polar opposites.  Dickens represented the new British novel of the expansive Victorian age at its fullest and its most populous, writing books that spread over an enormous social spread, penetrating the heart and spirit of the world's biggest and most modern city, London.  The strange mysteries of cities, the unexpected crossings of lives, the rattle of travel and motion, were essential to his panoramic, ever inventive imagination.  Hawthorne by contrast wrote a fiction consciously born of solitude, created in imaginative uncertainty, and set at odds with the actual.  Such was his conscious use of the fantastic, the improbable and the invented that he preferred to call his books 'romances' rather than 'novels,' explaining:  'When a writer calls his work a Romance, it need hardly be observed that he wishes to claim a certain latitude, both as to its fashion and material, which he would not have felt himself entitled to assume, had he professed to be writing a novel.'  Yet we must not forget they more or less shared a generation in common, and a fair number of cultural assumptions.  Both belonged to an age in which romantic, organicist ideals were coming face to face with an age of mechanism.  Dickens' novels are imbued with much of the spirit of the romance;  Hawthorne's romances are drawn in the direction of the novel.  Both were fascinated by the new philosophical, social and philanthropic notions of a time, and were struggling to find new forms to express the striking, fanciful ideas of an age that was concerned with a new economy of consciousness and perception – and which included mesmerism, spiritualism, phrenology, and electro-magnetism.  Both were concerned with the difficult relation of selfhood and society, and the difference between an ideal compassionate community and the iron order of the social system.  Both set off, within a year of each other, on journeys to Utopia, the benign pastoral order especially associated with the Edenic promise of the United States.

It was in late January 1842 that Dickens first set foot in America, in fulfillment of an old romantic and Chartist dream.  'I am still haunted by visions of America, night and day,' he wrote his friend John Forster just before he sailed.  Clearly the old romantic dreams of a Pantisocracy on the banks of the Susquehanna that Coleridge, Southey and Wordsworth had talked of were not far from his mind.  True, he also had the lesson of Mrs Frances Trollope, whose sojourn in 1827 at the inter-racial slave emancipation colony of Nashoba, on the Mississippi near Memphis, had been a widely-reported disaster.  Still, Dickens was determined that his should not be yet another condescending tour by a British writer, and wrote Washington Irving to announce his coming to 'the soil I have trodden in my day-dreams many times and whose sons (and daughters) I yearn to know and be among.'  The first stage of his visit, to Boston and New England, went well; he admired prisons, penology, the asylums, the courts, Harvard University, the Lowell factory system.  Carlyle had steered his attention toward Transcendentalism.  He looks at Emerson's essays, remarks on their vagueness and vagaries, but also their attack on cant, and confesses:  'if I were a Bostonian, I think I would be a Transcendentalist.'  Yet before his tour had gone on much longer, dismay and then depression began to sink in.  He was well aware he was visiting a land of social experiment;  he declared himself firmly prejudiced in its favour.  Utopia, though, seemed not as he felt it might have been.  He wrote home celebrating American virtues – Americans are 'friendly, earnest, hospitable, kind, frank, very often accomplished, fare less prejudiced than you would suppose, warm-hearted, fervent, and enthusiastic...' – only to add 'I think it impossible, utterly impossible, for any Englishman to live here, and be happy.'  He admired many Americans, many of the American cities, but his journey toward the frontier down the Ohio River only increased his dismay.  Around Cairo there were rotting settlements, images of false promises and failed dreams.  When he reached the Mississippi, the great brown god of a river where Mark Twain was already growing up, he found it simply 'hideous,' not the heartland but the swirling depths of the American dream.11

Just what went wrong on Dickens' first American tour has never been quite satisfactorily explained.  Certainly he was socially and physically overused, like any celebrity on a great and much publicized tour, and seen as carnival entertainment by some, not least by the less than attractive American press.  These were investment-bubble times, with the severe depression of 1837 followed by commercial adventuring; in America, with its new national dollar, money seemed to prevail over all else.  He was also caught up in several political controversies over Anglo-American relations.  There was always the bitter issue of international copyright, which meant his books could be pirated in the States (a disadvantage not just to British but American writers), for his stand on which a salacious press vilified him.  'I can do nothing that I want to do, go nowhere I want to go, and see nothing that he want to see,' he complained in one letter.  In another he said:  'I am sick to death of the life I have been living here -- worn out in mind and body – and quite weary and distressed.'  Then there was the issue of slavery, of moment to British radicals who had lately seen the slave trade and the plantation system abolished at home.  Dickens' disappointment was more than that of an oppressive tour.  It became fundamental, a radical disillusion with what had happened to democracy.  'This is not the republic I came to see;  this is not the republic of my imagination,' he wrote to his friend the actor Macready, 'In everything of which it has made a boast – excepting its education of the people and its care for poor children – it sinks immeasurably below the level I had placed it upon... A man who comes to this country a Radical and goes home with his opinions unchanged must be a Radical on reason, sympathy and reflection, and one who has so well considered the subject that he has no chance of wavering.'  He was not;  as Peter Ackroyd says, in going to America he had discovered his essential Englishness.  His fundamental opinions had been challenged by the contradictions he observed:  Americans spoke of equality but practised slavery, spoke of brotherhood but lived by entrepreneurialism, saw man as a hero of nature but made him a creature of the machine.12

If Dickens had ever thought of writing a Utopian novel about America, he changed his mind.  His American visit in fact led to a new, darker phase in his writing, which complicated his vision of society and changed his view of human character.  His awareness of cant, selfishness and self-deceit intensified.  When he got back home in 1842, he wrote his record in the polemical memoir of his travels, American Notes for General Circulation, which portrayed America as the land of the Almighty Dollar, and promptly caused great offence in the United States.  His reaction also went into his next, sixth novel, The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit, published in monthly parts in 1843-44.  The darkened mood of this book, mostly set in England, had dipped its sales, and – in part to resurrect its audience – he altered its plot, sending the young Martin on a voyage to the United States.  His journey begins, like Dickens' own, in a spirit – if a selfish one – of Utopian idealism, and the shape of his travels is a Utopian quest.  Dickens is highly familiar with its whole mythology:  the westering journey to the terrestrial paradise, to virgin land, and to the new order of community, begun anew in Eden.  The destination is a Utopian community, called, indeed, Eden, and set on the banks of his horrible river, the Mississippi, plainly at Cairo.  'What are the United States for, Sir, if not for the regeneration of man?' asks one of the various Generals, Colonels and Professors who send him on his way.  But the Americans he meets have little to distinguish them, in matters of greed, selfishness, cant and deception, from the unregenerate rogues he has left behind back home.  Eden is a flagrant piece of land speculation, miasmic rather than paradisial, an 'ugly spot.'  Disease reigns, community has failed, the cabins are sinking into the swamp, and 'the most tottering, abject and forlorn amongst them was called, with great propriety, the National Credit Office.'  In fact Eden does produce regeneration, but not in Utopian fashion.  Martin falls ill, realizes his own sins, and sees that the harsh realities outside and his inward stain of 'self, self, self' are identical.  The magnetic human chain now begins to reform, and he returns to England in changed mood, his fortunes concluding happily in one of those communitarian, benevolent new families that so often substitute for iron society in Dickens' later fiction.  Utopia ceases to be a distant place, and is found in the benign human heart;  innocence is not found in nature but recovered from dark experience.

It seems highly appropriate that, in this novel of Utopian ironies, the young Martin should, on his return journey, meet Miss Toppit and Miss Codger.  These two ladies are Transcendentalists, as they are keen to explain:  '"Mind and matter," said the lady in the wig, "glide swift into the vortex of immensity.  Howls the sublime, and softly sleeps the calm Ideal, in the whispering chambers of the Imagination."'  Dickens had evidently met the likes of those persuasive Idealists Margaret Fuller or Elizabeth Peabody, and formed his own conclusions about those who eternally looked 'a little beyond.'  His fiction itself moved into that middle ground of empiricism that is the basis of social and moral realism, and no less into that darkened, critical and often radical humanism which was to be the essential stuff of his greatness and maturity.  In this Dickens exemplified what was happening to the novel in many of its greatest European manifestations – in Dostoevsky or Tolstoy or Balzac.  It dealt with the bitter life of cities, the spread of utilitarian values, the birth of the machine, the triumph of banking and greed.  Dickens found just these phenomena in American life too, as Martin Chuzzlewit – fascinated by the clanking railroads, the banks, the businessmen, the schemers, the swindles – makes clear.  And so, duly, would some of the newer American novelists:  Melville, in his later novels and stories;  Mark Twain, when he looked across from the Mississippi Valley to the gilded age.  And so would Nathaniel Hawthorne – who, just a year earlier than Dickens, had had his own difficult adventure with a Transcendentalist Utopia.




It was in April 1841 that Hawthorne, at the age of 37, set off from Boston on his own Utopian journey.  It did not take him very far:  to West Roxbury, along the Charles River, where George Ripley and others had set up one of those communities of agriculturalists and scholars that Boston had ever in mind.  Brook Farm was shaped on Fourierist principles, and it was Transcendentalist in spirit; indeed was advertised in the pages of the Dial.  On the other hand Emerson was not a supporter (the spirit, he said, 'draws up no Articles of a a Society') and preferred to see the thinkers and scholars gather in Concord.  Nor, as many noted at the time, was Nathaniel Hawthorne a natural man for colonies, or residence in Eden.  Born to an old Salem family that went back to the Puritan ministry and the Witch Trials, he had a gloomy, Gothic, Calvinist sense of evil and sin.  Since that family was now fatherless, poor and declining, he had a sense of displacement and of his own obscurity.  Since leaving Bowdoin he had spent most of his time writing in an attic room of his mother's rented Salem house, in his 'haunted chamber.'  Nonetheless, during the 1830s, he had made a fair part of that journey that had taken Calvinistic New England (which Dickens still sensed in Boston) toward Unitarianism and then toward the subjective idealism of the Transcendentalist 'awakening.'  All this – the conflict of old Calvinism and new romanticism, dark Puritan past and lighter idealist present, an archetypal sense of sin and evil and an inner feeling for a potential romantic redemption in nature – fed his writing.  So did a guilt about his own withdrawal into the imagination and the imaginary and the pressing, communitarian claims of the real.  By the end of the 1830s he was, in several different ways, emerging from withdrawal and obscurity.  He published Twice-Told Tales (1837) under his own name, and won some reputation (though not with Emerson, who felt he could not write dialogue).  He had taken work as the measurer of coal and salt at the Boston Custom House, only to find that the work made him into a 'business-machine.'  He had begun his courtship of the semi-invalid Sophia Peabody, who was sister of Elizabeth Peabody, the bookseller 'godmother of Boston,' who was herself one of the founders of the Transcendentalist Club, and a close friend of Emerson.

It was Elizabeth Peabody who wrote the prospectus for Brook Farm in the Dial, saying that its aim was to create 'leisure to live in all the faculties of the soul' – just the type of fashionable accommodation that, in 1841, many young Bostonian idealists were seeking.  Emerson was not an enthusiast, preferring his own distinctive community at Concord.  But Hawthorne, guilty about his own withdrawn obscurity, concerned that his Custom House employment was killing the traffic of the imagination and leaving him in a world of vacant reality, and in search of a new home for his married life, was drawn to the project.  He invested much into it, not least financially, putting in $1,500 of his hardwon income, and, with a band of the best of Boston, set off for Utopia amid an unseasonable snowstorm in April 1841.  Like Dickens', his journey was dressed in arcadian and Edenic associations.  'Here I am in a polar Paradise!' he jotted in the well-kept notebook that he maintained over the next eight months, and would provide the chief source for the remarkable novel that, ten years later, he would write about the project, The Blithedale Romance (1852).  For, as he confessed, he carried with him an 'involuntary reserve' which was a cause for personal dismay but which, nonetheless, 'has given a certain objectivity to my writings.'  This would be much in evidence in what followed.  'Alas, what a difference between the ideal and the real!' he was soon noting when May Day proved equally chilly.  Hawthorne lived with a sense of contradiction which Brook Farm readily satisfied.  There was, for instance, the problem of getting milk from Margaret Fuller's 'transcendentalist heifer' ('She is not an amiable cow; but she has a very intelligent face, and seems to be of a reflective cast of character,' he noted, writing of course of the heifer).

It was a problem of the original Adam that, though delved while Eve span, he did not publish, and never got tenure.  Hawthorne was beginning to realize why;  it was difficult to reconcile digging potatoes with the higher thought.  Ripley praised him as 'very athletic and able-bodied in the barnyard and field';  Hawthorne in turn noted that Ripley 'perceives, or imagines, a more intimate connection between our present farming operations and our ultimate enterprise than is visible to my perceptions.'  He was soon observing that 'this present life of mine gives me an antipathy to pen and ink, even more than my Custom House experience did.'  His stay at the Farm lasted some eight months, though thanks to his involutary reserve he spent a fair part of the time up a white pine tree, looking for the solitude and point of objective observation that was plainly missing from communal life.  In September the Brook Farmers held a masquerade picnic, dressed as gypsies, Indians, witches and devils; Hawthorne appears to have watched from behind a tree.  Emerson and Margaret Fuller, a busily irregular participant in the farm, attended, and this is probably when Hawthorne and Emerson met for the first time.  Hawthorne filled his notebooks with observations on nature, and the various crazes – for 'magnetic miracles' and other forms of mesmerism, spiritualism and guruism – among the faithful (California was by no means there first).  Eight months in paradise proved enough.  In October he withdrew from the farm, vastly poorer in pocket (he would later sue for his money back), deciding he could 'best attain the higher ends of life by retaining my ordinary relation to society.'  He married Sophia, and through her friendship with Emerson they rented the Old Manse at Concord, where Emerson had written Nature.  They arrived to take up residence in a thunderstorm in July 1842, in the summer of Dickens' visit;  and Hawthorne's taste for writing gratifyingly returned.

Of course Transcendentalism throve here too, as nowhere else – like 'a beacon burning on a hilltop,' as Hawthorne explained in his introduction to Mosses from an Old Manse (1846), the product of his three honeymoon years in this Emerson-haunted house.  Emerson dominated the community of his forefathers, and proved to be a collector of odd and often burdensome geniuses:  Thoreau, Ellery Channing, Elizabeth Hoar, Bronson Alcott and various occasional mystics.  He also lacked much admiration for Hawthorne's talent, saying 'his reputation as a writer is a very pleasing fact, because his writing is not good for anything, and this is a tribute to the man.'  Still a sort of friendship prospered, if between two very different and opposite sensibilities.  Hawthorne retained his withdrawn and sceptical disposition, while Emerson was ever optative and engaged – and in his journal analyzed and berated the suicidal sin of scepticism, probably in reaction to his encounters with Hawthorne.  In the preface to Mosses from an Old Manse, recalling these three years, Hawthorne observes how Emerson's thought and presence had 'in the brains of some of people, wrought a singular giddiness – new truth being as heady as new wine.'  But Hawthorne, as he acknowledges, sipped only cautiously, as was his nature:  'For myself, there have been epochs in my life when I too might have asked of this prophet the master word that should solve me the riddle of the universe; but now, being happy, I felt as if there were no questions to be put, and therefore admired Emerson as a poet of deep beauty and austere tenderness, but sought nothing from him as a philosopher.'  There was more to be had from Thoreau, who had moved the frontier to Walden Pond, beside the new railroad tracks, and whom Hawthorne celebrated as 'a keen and delicate observer of nature – a genuine observer, which... is almost as rare a character as even an original poet.'

Hawthorne did make a sceptic's spikey pact with Transcendentalism;  but the real point was spotted by a very different and younger observer, Herman Melville, who noted in his famous anonymous essay 'Hawthorne and His Mosses' that a work that contained such stories as 'Young Goodman Brown' and 'Rapaccini's Daughter' was hardly the work of a Transcendentalist:  'Certain it is that this great power of blackness in him derives its force from its appeals to that Calvinistic sense of Innate Depravity and Original Sin, from whose visitations, in some shape or another, no thinking mind is always and wholly free.'  From Melville's essay onward, readers and critics have generally considered there was a double Hawthorne:  in part the sunny romance writer of the heart's consecrations, but more familiarly the tragic imaginer of a world pained and stained by sin, requiring not the Optative mood but the power to say (as Melville put it) 'no in thunder.'  Except it was not quite thunder that Hawthorne spoke in, but critical irony.  And the place where he settled the matter was in his third novel, his tale of Transcendentalism and Brook Farm, The Blithedale Romance.


For, just as Martin Chuzzlewit was Dickens' story of an encounter with Utopia and the Edenic view of America, so, for Hawthorne, was The Blithedale Romance.  Born of his 1841 experience at Brook Farm, it came ten years later, when a good deal had changed.  Brook Farm had now been dissolved.  The Phalanstery – Fourier's name for the social centre of the communitarian phalanx – had burned in 1846, there had been smallpox, and Hawthorne had failed to have his investment returned:  "Let it sink,' he noted, "It has long since ceased to have any sympathy from me, though individually I wish well to all concerned.'  The Community closed in 1847, and there had also been other abortive ventures, like Alcott's Fruitlands.  Margaret Fuller had drowned, with her Italian revolutionary husband, the Marquis Ossoli, her child and her manuscript of the great book on the Italian Risorgimento, as she returned to America in 1850.  Hawthorne had found new friends, above all after meeting Melville in another spot favoured by the Transcendentalists, Lenox in the Berkshires.  Utopia had by now become a matter of reminiscence and bitter controversy.  All this went into the reviews and reactions the book received.  Emerson called it 'that disagreeable story,' but Orestes Brownson advised that it could be 'read by our Protestant community with great advantage, and perhaps nothing has been written among us better calculated to bring modern philanthropists into deserved disrepute, and to cure the young of their socialistic tendencies and dreams of world reform.'  Robert Browning thought it quite the best book Hawthorne had written.  William Dean Howells celebrated it because 'it is more nearly a novel, and more realistic than the others.'13

But it was, as its title says, a romance, and a pastoral one.  Hawthorne in his preface insists on the imaginary or fantasized nature of the book, not just because it offers 'a faint and not very faithful shadowing of Brook Farm' (he thus clearly acknowledges the connection) but because, he says, it explores the most romantic episode in his own life.  Unlike his other romances, though, it is set entirely in the near-present, and in a clearly defined and recognizable world.  For all its fantastic elements, it remains his most realistic book, dealing with many contemporary social issues – not least the contrast between pastoral Blithedale and the encroachment of the modern city of Boston, the machine, utilitarianism and materialism.  Bringing these issues into the realm of the idealist agricultural community, it is true pastoral.  Indeed it firmly falls into the tradition of pastoralized fictions that leads onward to such books as Imaginary Friends (and cunning critics might even find here an early version of something that has its present life in what is called 'the campus novel').  For pastoral provides a stage-set for an oblique commentary on the modern world – which endlessly intrudes upon, interrupts, and finally dissolves its timeless and Utopian space.

There are several similarities (indeed probably direct intertextual links) between Martin Chuzzlewit and Hawthorne's ironic pastoral romance.  Like Dickens' Eden, Blithedale is an Arcadian experiment designed for the regeneration of man, and the central character – not Martin Chuzzlewit, but Miles Coverdale – leaves the surreal and corrupt city behind him in order to find 'Paradise anew.'  His quest for regeneration and 'the better life' is soon surrounded by ironic contradictions that bring home to him the paradoxical nature of Utopian dreams.  Hawthorne had already explored some of these in his tale of an earlier Puritan Utopia, The Scarlet Letter:  'The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have inevitably recognized it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison.'  Puritan Boston itself becomes an iron-bound city, based on church, state and scaffold;  Blithedale, though, seeks to be a sinless Utopia, a regeneration of the divine human spirit, founded on visionary dreams.  'If ever men might lawfully dream awake, and give utterance to their wildest visions without dread of laughter or scorn on the part of their audience – yes, and speak of earthly happiness, for themselves and mankind, as an object to be hopefully striven for, and probably maintained, – we who made that little semicircle around the blazing fire were those very men,' he tells us.  Blithedale lies beyond the 'rusty, iron framework of society,' seeks an enlightened new community won from within:  'We had stepped down from the pulpit;  we had flung aside the pen;  we had shut down the ledger.'  The snowstorm that accompanied his own arrival at Brook Farm prefigures the problem, becoming 'a symbol of the cold, desolate, distrustful phantoms that inevitably haunt the mind, on the eve of an adventurous enterprise, to warm us back within the boundaries of ordinary life' – a clear warning that this Eden will have its share of serpents.

These distrustful phantoms are the stuff of the comic irony that pervades the book.  For if The Scarlet Letter is a tragedy of guilt and our incapacity to be fully free of sin, The Blithedale Romance is a comedy of pastoral innocence.  Margaret Fuller, in the full flush of Transcendentalist excitement, had asserted that mankind could become 'more divine – destroying sin in principle, we attain to absolute freedom, we return to God, conscious like himself, and, as his friends, giving, as well as receiving, felicity forevermore.  In short, we become gods...'.  The colonists do not become gods.  This dream of innocence proposes we can break free from the 'common evil,' and all social, historical, economic, sexual and lapsarian taint.  But in more than one respect the snowstorm compromises Edenic innocence.  'As for the garb of Eden,' says Zenobia, the dominant female figure in the story, based on Fuller, 'I shall not assume it till after May-Day!'  But nakedness cannot assume a natural innocence;  Zenobia is an imperfect figure of purity, and our narrator Coverdale is also flawed in the matter.  'I have been exposed to a great deal of eye-shot in the few years of my mixing in the world, but never, I think, to precisely such glances as you are in the habit of favoring me with,' she is soon complaining to Coverdale.  Her counterpart is the Veiled Lady, with her ambiguous prophecies, and a variety of hidden secrets;  soon one veiled lady is unveiling another.  Behind the display of innocence is the hidden.  In fact the communitarians are soon caught up in all the serpentine problems of those who wish to return to Genesis.  They can never make themselves free of the economic world beyond their own fields, and are quickly forced into competitive strive in the marketplace, fighting, with imperfect resources, since they are largely intellectuals and writers, 'the outside barbarians in their old field of labor.'  Gradually romance, pastoral, and innocent dream become what they so often are:  a fiction, a poetic artifice, a deception, a theatre of confusions and disguises, 'a masquerade,... a counterfeit Arcadia.'

As metaphysical ambiguities grow, and Hawthorne invents a variety of strange concealments and secrets that lie behind the apparent benignity of nature and community, the links with Martin Chuzzlewit grow more apparent.  The colony is surrounded by mesmerists and charlatans.  Professor Westervelt appears, bearing his symbol of fallen humankind, his serpent stick.  Hollingsworth, a false prophet of philanthropy, challenges the colony's Fourierist principles, not just disputing the enlightened Frenchman's claim that when the world arrives at perfection the oceans will turn to lemonade, but his belief that selfishness will be the motor of communitarian progress ('I will never believe this fellow!  He has committed the unpardonable sin').  But if selfishness is the unpardonable sin, it is soon apparent in Hollingsworth himself.  Degenerated by regeneration, he becomes the key figure, corrupted by his own philanthropic will.  Caught in the web of his own crime, he is forced to conduct his own punishment.  The philanthropic, communitarian dream finally breaks.  'I am awake, disenchanted, disenthralled,' cries Zenobia, reaching the same discovery that Martin comes to in his Mississippi Eden, pronounced in the same words:  the crime is "Self, self, self!'  The book ends on the traditional grim lesson of pastoral:  Et in Arcadia ego.  Zenobia drowns (the allusion to Fuller is obvious), and her body is brought from the water in a fixed double pose of struggle and prayer.  The farm acquires the need for a burial ground, becomes the soil of her grave.  The book ends on a variety of ambiguities and half-disclosed concealments, some of them left totally unresolved.  The ironic vision Coverdale has cast over the world he describes is finally cast by this narrator over himself, in the form of his strange final confession.

Coverdale – who may fairly be seen as a cunning self-representation by Hawthorne – is among the strangest of nineteenth century narrators.  He shares Hawthorne's 'involuntary reserve,' and seeks to be always the detached witness, even climbing high into the 'hermitage' of a white-pine tree to be the non-participant observer of the Edenic events and 'masquerades.'  It becomes a secret grotto which 'symbolized my individuality, and aided me in keeping it inviolate,' but also his voyeur's paradise, his observatory 'not for starry investigations, but for those sublunary matters in which lay a lore as infinite of that of the planets.'  He means spying, an activity he engages in through much of the book.  As there are veiled ladies, there are also veiled windows, especially when he returns to Boston to investigate some of the mysteries of the story.  The fronts of houses, he reflects, are a concealment;  "Realities keep in the rear.'  The spy is also the detective.  But now the watched know they are watched, and themselves become watchers.  Revealing and concealing, observing and being observed, are essential themes of the story.  He justifies himself against the charge of being the vulgar spy:  'Zenobia should have known me better than to suppose it.  She should have been able to appreciate that quality of the intellect and the heart, which impelled me (often against my own will, and to the detriment of my own comfort) to live in other lives, and to endeavor – by generous sympathies, by delicate intuitions, by taking note of things too slight to record, and by bringing my human spirit into manifold accordance with the companions whom God assigned me – to learn the secret which was hidden even from themselves.'  This of course is the final aspect, self-irony.  Coverdale finally reveals himself as a poor figure, an insufficient, imperfect and unreliable witness, whose own love is wrapped up and hidden, one who has given up on his own creativity and who knows his excess of scepticism has made his life 'all an emptiness.'  Coverdale is that figure beloved of the critics, the unreliable narrator;  but he is also the Transcendental ironist, impelled to unveil the secret, yet robbed of the fulfillment or understanding of his own love.  Irony is a complex emotional secret in itself – which, along with other secrets, this ever-baffling, self-deconstructing tale has still only half-uncovered.14


Hawthorne had one just more novel to come, The Marble Faun (1860), written and set in Europe after he had been appointed American consul to Liverpool by the Democrat President Franklin Pierce, the former schoolmate whose campaign biography he had written.  In that same year the book appeared, he returned to the United States and Concord, just as the Civil War – which Pierce resisted, and Transcendentalism supported – was brewing.  Seven years of consular experience, public speaking, writing in Italy had not dissolved his 'involuntary reserve.'  He attended the meetings of the Saturday Club at the Parker House in Boston – where Henry James, Sr., that eminent Swedenborgian, reported on him to Emerson, saying he was not a 'clubbable man,' and had in fact the look 'of a rogue who suddenly finds himself in a company of detectives.'  The analogy, like so many of those among this group of shrewd human observers, is so striking as to deserve further word.  For the detective was a fairly recent figure in the general imagination.  Poe's analytic and withdrawn C. Auguste Dupin ('He is fond of enigmas, of conundrums, of hieroglyphics;  exhibiting in his solutions of each a degree of acumen which appears to the ordinary apprehension preternatural...  He boasted... that most men, in respect to himself, wore windows in their bosoms...') had been unveiled in 'The Murders of the Rue Morgue' in 1841, and Eugene Sue's Mysteries of Paris appeared with great popularity in 1842.  And, even while Dickens was in America, London's recent Metropolitan police had established an independent detective department at Scotland Yard.  Dickens, fascinated, was soon to be keeping their company and reporting their deeds ("Any of the Detective men will do anything for me').  Using Poe's own analogy, he called detection 'a game of chess, played with live pieces.'  The result was the first police detective in fiction, Inspector Bucket in Bleak House (1852-3), which appeared just as Hawthorne was publishing The Blithedale Romance.  Bucket possesses 'an unlimited number of eyes,' pervades 'a vast number of houses, and strolls an infinity of streets' – much like the novelist himself.  'Time and place cannot bind Mr Bucket.  Like man in the abstract, he is here today and gone tomorrow – but, very unlike man indeed, he is here again the next day.'  Soon detectives would be everywhere, especially in fiction, stalking the murk of the modern cities, and solving their unusual crimes.

Thinking of the James Senior's cleverly observant phrase about the Saturday Club gatherings, we might perhaps wonder for a moment just who was the rogue, and who the detectives.  The Transcendentalists, indeed, sought to detect all that was hidden:  the great unspoken, enciphered meanings of the universe, the messages of the Oversoul, the natural signs and symbols that disclosed themselves to the Great Thinkers and Great Expecters of the American Weimar.  But Hawthorne himself had quietly spent a good deal of his time in Boston, Roxbury and Concord observantly and silently detecting the detectives.  In this he was much like his own Miles Coverdale, whose careful self-concealment, and 'cold tendency, between instinct and intellect, which made me pry with a speculative interest into people's passions and impulses,' indicates that he has the true spirit of the modern criminal investigator.  And indeed there are crimes to solve in Eden.  At Blithedale, there is such complex two-way traffic between 'rogues' and 'detectives' – and between the narrator and the narrated – that it is postmodernly hard to tell which from which.

As for Hawthorne, his ambiguous, reserved position toward Transcendentalism (and the war itself, which he thought could have been avoided) lasted to his death in 1864, at the age of 60.  He died suddenly while travelling with former president Franklin Pierce (a friendship Emerson deplored), and was buried in Sleepy Hollow cemetery.  Many of the surviving Transcendentalists were present at the graveside, including the long-lived Emerson.  He found a 'tragic element' in the event, which he confided to his journal.  It lay 'in the painful solitude of the man, which, I suppose, could no longer be endured, and he died of it... It would have been a happiness, doubtless to both of us, to have come into habits of unreserved intercourse.  It was easy to talk with him – there were no barriers;  only, he said so little, that I talked too much.'  Hawthorne to the end was the rogue among detectives – or wasn't it the detective among the idealist rogues?  And in that posture he became one of the profoundest and also the most comic, or ironic, of the great nineteenth-century American novelists, still a pleasure to read.


Dickens and Hawthorne – Martin Chuzzlewit and Miles Coverdale – are amongst the most profound and cunning observers of that pastoralizing, regenerating American myth so important to Idealism in 1842, and indeed to American literature.  We can, of course, find numerous antecedents for them in the history of pastoral, and no less a close link with their successors.  Henry James, Jr., was much concerned with the nature of American innocence and its relation to the testing landscapes of experience, and he touches a number of times on the Transcendentalist aspect (not least in The Bostonians, which has its clear debts to Hawthorne).   For Henry Adams the journey from Concord church to the ironizing forces of the dynamo age and the modern multiverse is the great theme he sets out to explore in The Education.  Leo Marx, in his fine study The Machine in the Garden (1967), usefully considers what he calls 'complex pastoral' – where the arcadian myth and method is amended in the light of industrialism, materialism, determinism, Naturalism, or scepticism.  As he notes, in the more modern versions (Hemingway's and Faulkner's stories, Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby), pastoralism survives as a key trope but is incapable of resolution.  As he says, the writer can still pay the great homage to virgin land and the green arcadia, but the result 'is likely to be ironic and bitter.'15

The Utopian myth has never really lost its power in American literature;  but we still find many fine modern instances of its counterpart, Transcendentalist irony.  Alison Lurie, learned in the matter, explores the theme not just in Imaginary Friends but in the related Real People, set in a modern version of the intellectual and idealist Arcadia:  a writers' colony.  Mary McCarthy's The Oasis  (1949) is set in a modern Utopian colony, where, as the epigraph from Rousseau explains:  'In fact, it must be confessed that, both in this world and the next, the wicked are always a source of considerable embarrassment.'  In The Groves of Academe (1952), she returns to the theme in another appropriate location, the campus of an American liberal arts college, where a rogue instructor protects himself from dismissal by falsely pretending to campus liberals he has been a member of the Communist Party.  Saul Bellow's wry Herzog, in his novel of that title (1964), is surrounded by "Reality-Instructors' for whom the great realities are transcendental.  Cyra McFadden's The Serial (1976) is set in the homeland of millenarian psycho-babble, self-Utopianizing New Age California.  So it goes on.

The theme has also been subject to further transatlantic variations – to some of which, as a novelist, I have myself been party.  That helps explain this essay and my interest.  As we all know, the places of progressive dream, the idealist and liberal Utopias, can possess a very great virtue, and they are a key part of the millennial expectation that, for the post-Enlightenment liberal, is part of our nature, and part of America.  And yet, even in liberalism, there has always been a sense of the countervailing opposite, which has been essential to fictional art and its moral perspective.  The 'involuntary reserve,' the sense of ambiguity, the dialogic principle, the uncertain revelation in the sign, the no in thunder (or in a quieter irony), the opposing self, even a deep self-mockery will be always needed to unlock the falsities of prophecy, the flaws in idealism, the deceptive nature of the great ciphers the Romantic spirit is often too ready to read and reveal.  In short, we need those literary rogues who cannot help being reserved and ill-at-ease when they are confronted with the world's rich supply of Utopian detectives – and who have, like Rameau's nephew, no greater opposite than themselves.  Indeed the novel, especially in America, would surely be a smaller thing without them.


Malcolm Bradbury, CBE, is Emeritus Professor of American Studies at the University of East Anglia, Norwich, England, and a former student of Marcus Cunliffe.  He is author of The Social Context of Modern English Literature (1971), Possibilities:  Essays on the State of the Novel (1973), The Modern American Novel (1983), No, Not Bloomsbury:  Essays (1987), The Modern World:  Ten Great Writers (1988), From Puritanism to Postmodernism:  A History of American Literature (with Richard Ruland, 1992) and The Modern British Novel (1993).  His most recent critical books are Dangerous Pilgrimages:  Trans-Atlantic Mythologies and the Novel (1995), and The Atlas of Literature (1996).  He has written critical studies of Evelyn Waugh (1962) and Saul Bellow (1982), and edited or co-edited The Penguin Companion to Literature, Vol. 3:  United States and Latin American Literature (1971), Modernism (1976;  rev. ed., 1991), The Novel Today (1977), An Introduction to American Studies (1981;  rev. ed., 1997), and The Penguin Book of Modern British Short Stories (1987).  His seven novels include Eating People Is Wrong (1959), Stepping Westward (1965), The History Man (1975), Rates of Exchange (1982, shortlisted for the Booker Prize), and Doctor Criminale (1992).  He has written many television and film screenplays, including adaptations of work by John Fowles, Alison Lurie, Kingsley Amis and Stella Gibbons (Cold Comfort Farm, film directed by John Schlesinger, 1996).  He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and holds honorary doctorates from Leicester, Birmingham, Hull, and Nottingham Universities.  He has recently been Wells Professor at Indiana University.

1  See Malcolm Bradbury, Dangerous Pilgrimages:  Trans-Atlantic Mythologies and the Novel (London:  Secker and Warburg;  New York:  Viking, 1995).  Also see my preface to Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Blithedale Romance (London:  Everyman, Dent, 1994).

2  Marcus Cunliffe, 'Europe and America:  Transatlantic Images, 1,' Encounter, December 1961.  This and a parallel essay by Melvin Lasky were reprinted as Encounter Pamplet No. 7 (London, Encounter, 1962).

3  Edward W. Said, Orientalism (Harmondsworth:  Penguin, 1985).

4  Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism:  Four Essays (New York:  Atheneum, 1966), p. 42.

5  Carlos Baker, Emerson Among the Eccentrics:  A Group Portrait (New York and London:  Viking, 1996).

6  Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams:  An Autobiography  (Boston and New York:  Houghton Mifflin, 1927), p. 62.

7  D.H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature (New York:  Doubleday Anchor, 1953), p. 8.

8  F.O. Matthiessen, American Renaissance:  Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman (New York and London:  Oxford University Press, 1941).

9  Lionel Trilling, 'Hawthorne in Our Time,' in Beyond Culture:  Essays on Literature and Learning (Harmondsworth:  Penguin, 1967), pp. 159-82.

10  Alfred Kazin, An American Procession (New York, Knopf, 1984);  Richard Poirier, The Renewal of Literature:  Emersonian Reflections (New York:  Random House, 1987).

11  See Arnold Goldman and John Whitley (eds.), Charles Dickens, American Notes for General Circulation  (Harmondsworth:  Penguin, 1972).  This edition contains valuable material on Dickens' 1842 American visit, and contains most of the materials quoted.

12  See Peter Ackroyd, Dickens (London:  Minerva, 1991).  Dickens' American visit is explored in detail in Chapter 13.

13  Reviews are collected in J. Donald Crowley (ed.), Hawthorne:  The Critical Heritage (London:  Routledge;  New York:  Barnes and Noble, 1979).

14  For a fuller account of this version of the novel, see my introduction to the Everyman edition of The Blithedale Romance, cited above.

15  Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden:  Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America  (New York:  Oxford University Press, 1967), p. 364.