Nathaniel Hawthorne and the Transcendentalist Movement
America’s impulse to redefine human existence and to therefore recreate the human conscience away from the materialistic urge of a burgeoning Industrial Revolution has been glamorized since its conception in the middle of the 19th century. Scholars and writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau encouraged Americans to leave behind frivolous possessions to embrace a more naturalistic existence nature. A manifestation of repressed New England idealism, the Transcendental Movement appears to be a flash-in-the-pan moment of American history; an event occurring only in and rarely venturing beyond the state lines of New England. This emotional plea to return to normalcy, Thoreau’s call of “simplicity, simplicity, simplicity,” was not universally accepted; few scholars and writers who found such a call-to-no-arms as groundless and unjustifiable. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s writings reflect a stricter vision of moral conduct and spiritual definition. To Hawthorne, Emerson’s plea to “revise the whole of our social structure, the state, the school, religion, marriage, trade, science, and explore their foundations in our own nature” (Fogarty 386) betrayed Hawthorne’s conservative values; he desired to retreat from new thought and definitions of a fruitful and already successful human existence.
Hawthorne used his colleagues’ vision of a new mankind and inserted it as fodder into his most poignant stories and novels. Emersonian values and visions gave Hawthorne enough resources to create his most-telling and interesting works. Hawthorne’s “The Celestial Railroad,” “Earth’s Holocaust,” and the novel The Blithedale Romance focused the writer’s attention on the errors of the Transcendental Movement and concludes his superiority over a potential utopian movement.
Hawthorne appears, early in his career, to have been accepted within academic circles to be a part of the Transcendental Movement. Referred to as a “half-transcendentalist” (Capper 525), “The Celestial Railroad” was viewed as Hawthorne’s separation from a Utopian vision of American. Hawthorne appears to be a reluctant member of Transcendentalism; “The Celestial Railroad’s” sharp-tongued attack on the movement held no obfuscated opinions of the movement, yet Transcendentalists treated the text as allegory. The Hawthorne’s pilgrim travels to The Celestial City and revisits the places and people created in John Bunyan morality tale. Hawthorne’s protagonist carries the 19th century sins on his back proving to be much lighter than the early traveler’s. Upon finding the cavern once populated by Pope and Pagan who battled over the souls of passing pilgrims, the traveler discovers one being: Giant Transcendentalist. Hawthorne describes the beast as “German by birth… but as to his form, his features, his substance, and his nature generally, it is the chief peculiarity of this huge miscreant, that neither he for himself, nor anybody for him, as ever been able to describe them” (“The Celestial Railroad” 138). Hawthorne, known for his own ambiguity and reluctance to be so forward as to state his opinion, sees Transcendentalism as a vague beast moving through shadow and fog, un-seeable and not clearly defined: “An ill-proportioned figure, but more considerably like a heap of fog and duskiness” (Hawthorne’s Tales 138).
While Transcendentalists viewed materialism to be rooted in evil, Hawthorne saw a lack of definition: a formless and shapeless creature lost in shadow that beckons to the wary spiritual searcher in the same manner as Paganism and Catholicism did during Bunyan’s writing. Hawthorne downplays the significance of Transcendentalism as a pop-culture religion similar to modern interpretations of Scientology; Hawthorne accepts Transcendentalism as a viable force of thought, yet equates it to easing the burden of the wandering pilgrimage from the trials of a true spiritual quest and religious redemption as does the versatile railroad relieves the burden of walking to The Celestial City.
Ironically enough, Hawthorne’s loathing of the locomotive in “The Celestial Railroad” as a means to downplay the suffering necessary or religious rebirth was shared by Thoreau. Thoreau’s peace and tranquility during his stay in Walden was interrupted by the distant thunder of the train as it stormed its way to far off locations and represented the evils of materialism; misconceptions that Thoreau and Hawthorne shared views of human morality and purity, would be quelled with a reading of Hawthorne’s “Earth’s Holocaust.” Thoreau urged readers of Walden to leave behind the modern world and to descend into nature’s purity in his Pastoral memoir. Hawthorne, who shared technophobic ideals as depicted in “The Celestial Railroad,” views such purging of all things material as over-indulgent and threatening to humanity. In “Earth’s Holocaust” the people of a town create a large fire and throw to the flames anything material which could possibly lead to damnation of the human soul: in agreement with Thoreau. However, the fervor to cleanse humanity of all things endangering proves to be an addiction and becomes reminiscent of the Salem Witch Trials: the populace is not saved by destroying one evil, it only leads to another. Hawthorne’s depiction of societal rejection of materialism is encouraged by a darker force than Thoreau’s whose is fueled by human desires of perfection. Iconoclastic acts of destruction occur in Hawthorne’s tale when religious emblems and robes are tossed into the blaze, the flames and embers roar out of control and fall upon the crowd. Hawthorne’s narrator cries, “’Has it not consumed everything? Has it not swallowed up, or melted down, every human or divine appendage of our mortal state, that had substance enough to acted on by a fire? Will there be anything left us, tomorrow morning, better or worse than a heap of embers and ashes?’” (Hawthorne’s Tales 157).
Hawthorne’s destruction of physical possessions in order to achieve oneness with nature and the self comes with great consequences, to him, a far darker visage carries the responsibility of encouraging the masses to destroy all temptations of materialism: a “dark-complexioned personage… his eyes glowed with a redder light than that of the bonfire” (Hawthorne’s Tales 158). This evil character calls upon the revelers to throw the human heart itself into the flames, saying:
“…unless they hit upon some method of purifying that foul cavern, forth from it will re-issue all the shapes of wrong and misery – the same old shapes, or worse ones – which they have taken such a vast deal of trouble to consume to ashes. I have stood by… and laughed in my sleeve at the whole business. Oh, take my word for it, it will be the old world yet!” (Hawthorne’s Tales 158-59).
Hawthorne mocks the Transcendentalist Movement’s attitude to move away from materialistic possessions in order to cleanse the human soul of suffering and evils. Instead of relieving humanity of evil, leaving behind the materialistic world to find the natural, the effigy-of-temptations process leaves only one thing behind that bears responsibility for all of man’s sins and suffering: the human heart. Hawthorne’s “Earth’s Holocaust” belittles the Transcendental movement and declares that the only thing holding the human soul from fully transcending to a new form of being and existence, is the human condition itself.
Hawthorne’s depiction of Transcendentalism appears, at first glance, to be true rejection of the movement’s ideals and ethics. However, Hawthorne did in fact, at one point, open-mindedly divulge himself into the world of Transcendentalism. The Blithedale Romance reads as an apology to the practical world for him and his colleagues creating the movement (Fogarty 388). Hawthorne mocks the upstate New York community of Oneida who attempted an experiment similar to that depicted within The Blithedale Romance. Straying away from any satirical standing of the Brook Farm community, Hawthorne offers a perspective formed from his lifetime of observations, conversations, and general awareness of his fellow countrymen bounding to find their identity. The Blithedale Romance and the characters within depict and define Hawthorne’s generation.
The characters of the novel symbolize the spectrum of opinions both revolutionary and contemporary: from Zenobia’s empowering representation of womanhood and Priscilla’s classical stance, to Coverdale’s overzealous idealism of societal offset by the narrator’s more traditional. The “perfection of man” urged by Coverdale and the “solidarity of woman” preached by Zenobia both, from Hawthorne’s opinion expressed within the text, are destined to fail miserably because, despite the changes of the human mind and opinion, the human heart remains as it was before and will forever be. The community of Blithedale represents Hawthorne’s society as whole, contemplating life and the human place within it.
It is easy to recognize Hawthorne’s dissatisfaction with his peers; the Transcendentalist Movement appears to be flighty, naïve, and especially self-centered. White mankind searching for freedom from urban slavery and a sense of self-identity and oneness with nature at a time in American history when African men, women, and children were chained together and forced to toil in slave labor comes across as cruel, egocentric, and insensitive. Although Hawthorne does not recognize the plight of the African American of the 19th century, the frustration and mis-prioritization value system of the time is directly addressed and brings perspective to Hawthorne’s chiding impressions of Transcendentalism. Where “The Celestial Railroad” and “Earth’s Holocaust” were unapologetic attacks on the Transcendentalist Movement, The Blithedale Romance reads as a plea of reasoning with his contemporaries. All three works portray the frustrations of a young man just as lost as the people he criticizes, but searches for oneness through a different lens – a more traditional stance rather than one untested and undefined
Capper, Charles. “A Little Beyond: The Problem of the Transcendentalist Movement in American History.” The Journal of American History, 85.2. (Sep. 1998): pp. 502-539.
Fogarty, Robert S., “The Utopian Literary Canon” The New England Quarterly, 38.3. (Sept 1965): pp. 386-391.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “The Celestial Railroad.” Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Tales: A Norton Critical Edition. W.W. Norton & Company: New York, New York, (1987): pp.131-144.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “Earth’s Holocaust.” Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Tales: A Norton Critical Edition. W.W. Norton & Company: New York, New York, 1987.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Blithedale Romance: A Norton Critical Edition. W.W. Norton & Company. New York, New York, 1987.