Saturday, March 15, 2008

Hawthorne’s "Man of Iron": The Leadership of Hollingsworth in THE BLITHEDALE ROMANCE

Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of The Blithedale Romance

The utopian community Brook Farm, where The Blithedale Romance takes place

The Soviet Hollingsworth, Stalin, offers a rudimentary demonstration of social engineering: the horrific enforced Ukrainian famine of the Thirties, over five million dead

Stand up and be counted: Tiananmen Square, 1989

Hawthorne’s "Man of Iron": The Leadership of Hollingsworth in The Blithedale Romance

When does a hero become a criminal? And when can a criminal become a hero? These are the questions that haunt Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance, and in George W. Bush’s America, they are questions that haunt us still.

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Chinese cops get their kicks: Tiananmen Square, 2001

Hawthorne’s "Man of Iron": The Leadership of Hollingsworth in The Blithedale Romance

Through the character of Hollingsworth in The Blithedale Romance, Nathaniel Hawthorne was warning his day of a trend that alarmed him: the rise, in a time of great confusion, of ruthless, charismatic leaders who fail to realize the consequences of their actions, resulting in social destruction.

In the novel’s plot, the warning is revealed in Hollingsworth's calculating manipulation of Zenobia, Priscilla, and Coverdale, which ends in the death of Zenobia.

Zenobia, as depicted in an illustrated edition

Hawthorne clearly indicates what he believes are the sources of Hollingsworth's conquering drive. His monomaniacal impulses are the wedding of Puritan absolutist zeal and insane moral perfectionism to mindless Transcendental egotism. Hawthorne goes out of his way to mention "the Puritanism which, however diversified with later patchwork, still gives its prevailing tint to New England character" (p. 205), and in the climactic chapter, "The Three Together," he describes Hollingsworth as a "a Puritan magistrate" judging Zenobia (pp. 220-1). Hollingsworth's unquestioning belief in himself and his mission is derived from the Transcendentalist conviction in the sovereignty of the judgment of “special” individuals, expressed in the following passage from Emerson's "Self-Reliance”:

And truly it demands something godlike in him who has cast off the common motives of humanity for a taskmaster. High be his heart, faithful his will, clear his sight, that he may in good earnest be doctrine, society, law, to himself, that a simple purpose may be to him as strong as iron necessity is to others! (1)

Ralph Waldo Emerson, the flinty "sage of Concord," has been cited as a possible model for the ruthless Hollingsworth

The power of The Blithedale Romance grows out ofHawthorne's awareness of the tremendous dangers inherent in such a supposition. Although attempts at guessing literary cross-fertilization are chancy at best, it is quite possible that in creating Hollingsworth, Hawthorne was influenced by the novel published less than half a year before (1851) by his friend Herman Melville, Moby-Dick. Certainly Hollingsworth is an exponent of Ahabism, and where Ahab takes the crew of the Pequod down with him, Hollingsworth destroys Zenobia.

Herman Melville, 1861: he and Hawthorne were best friends and neighbors, and then had a mysterious falling-out, possibly of a nautical nature; when I try to envision Hollingsworth, I see Herman

Hawthorne leaves two clues that hint at the extent to which the book is marked by Melville's influence, both of which originate from Father Mapple's sermon in Moby-Dick. The first clue: Coverdale the narrator informs us that Hollingsworth, at the end of his sermon from Eliot's Pulpit, would descend and "generally fling himself at full length on the ground, face downward" (p. 137), just as Father Mapple, at the end of his sermon, "covered his face with his hands, and so remained kneeling, till all the people had departed, and he was left alone in the place." (2)

Father Mapple, by Rockwell Kent

In both instances, the preachers, after their sermons, make dramatic gestures that symbolize their inevitable isolation as spiritual leaders. We obtain the second clue when Hollingsworth obviously fulfills the prescription for a Puritan leader made by Father Mapple in the second half of his sermon; here Melville is foreshadowing Ahab, and like Ahab, and Father Mapple, Hollingsworth believes that

Delight is to him—a far, far upward and inward delight—who against the proud gods and commodores of this earth, ever stands forth his own inexorable self. Delight is to him whose strong arms yet support him when the ship of this base treacherous world has gone down beneath him. Delight is to him, who gives no quarter in the truth, and kills, burns, and destroys all sin though he pluck it out from under the robes of Senators and Judges. (3)

Orson Welles as Father Mapple in John Huston's Moby Dick

As Charles Feidelson, Jr., comments on Father Mapple’s sermon:

Here he praises the "inexorable self" of the Puritan leader who consciously acts as the instrument of God. Toward the world, such a man is a ruthless individual, but he gains his individuality by complete submission to the divine will. (4)

Utopian educator Bronson Alcott, father to Little Women, often posited as a possible model for Hollingsworth

This is a perfect description of Hollingsworth's character. Coverdale calls it "the terrible egotism which he mistook for an angel of God" (pp. 78-9). In his discussion of fanatics like Hollingsworth, Coverdale says,

And the higher and purer the original object, and the more unselfishly it may have been taken up, the slighter is the probability that they can be led to recognize the process by which godlike benevolence has been debased into all-devouring egotism. (p. 93)

The famous "holy portrait" of L. Ron Hubbard

As a consequence, Hollingsworth sees the place of women only as functionaries in his own master plan (pp. 139-40). Coverdale has

doubts whether his strength of purpose had not been too gigantic for his integrity, impelling him to trample on considerations that should have been paramount to each other. (p. 150)

A haggard Mao after the Long March: was this when he started to lose his soul?

Coverdale is right. But since Hollingsworth feels he is the instrument of divine will, it follows for him that all of his actions and impulses, being inspired by Heaven, must also be righteous.

The great New York educational reformer Horace Mann, also a possible model for Hollingsworth

However, Hawthorne shows that Hollingsworth's blind impulses have a deeper source; he goes so far as to suggest that Hollingsworth's crusade is in the nature of an existential gratuituous act to define his existence. Hollingsworth sketches blueprints of his dream, an ideal community for the reformation of criminals, "as lovingly as another man might plan those of the projected home where he meant to be happy with his wife and children" (p. 79); because Hollingsworth has no family, his visionary ideal instead fulfills his life. He admits he would dedicate his energies with the same fanaticism to any end, when he declares: "it matters little what my outward toil may be. Were I a slave at the bottom of a mine, I should keep the same purpose, the same faith in its ultimate accomplishment, that I do now" (p. 90). It makes no real difference that he chose philanthropy. Any pursuit would be satisfying, as long as it filled his life.

The Accidental Fuehrer: A guy walks into a beer hall in 1919...

Coverdale laments Hollingsworth's lack of broadening education, which accounts for his narrow mind (p. 79). But Hollingsworth’s problems go far deeper. Formerly a blacksmith, he now seeks to mold human nature—and the destiny of those around him—as he once fashioned metal. Coverdale compares Hollingsworth's ambition to a man who strives to drive mankind like a herd of oxen. "But are we his oxen?" Coverdale asks (p. 119). "And what right has he to be the driver?"

Andy Warhol does Mao, 1972

Hollingsworth may have no right, but he is certainly filling a vacuum in his society with his evangelistic zeal. Coverdale and Zenobia may make light-hearted comments asking why he doesn't concern himself with a better class of people than criminals; but the fact remains, no one else—in the book, at least—cares about the fate of his fellow man. Zenobia may make ringing speeches about the equality of woman, but she still treats Priscilla as a maid-servant. Coverdale lacks the emotional dedication to make a moral commitment to any undertaking. Priscilla is at the mercy of these people.

One of Stalin's Ukrainian victims

And the times are hungering for Hollingsworths. "It needs a wild steersman when we voyage through chaos!" cries Zenobia (p. 137); and when Coverdale peruses the leading Romantic works produced by the deaths of ancien regimes around the world, while recovering from his illness (pp. 73-4), we can see that from the shambles of dying worlds will emerge men like Hollingsworths as leaders. In Boston, Coverdale can see, from his hotel window, homes that all look alike (p. 164), and from this newly-created mass society is seething alienation, manifested in the alcoholism Coverdale notes in the town taverns (p. 188). In the midst of this despair, even the normally mild Coverdale voices apocalyptic longings. "I began to long for a catastrophe.... Let it all come!" (5) (p. 170).

"Except in love, or the attachments of kindred, or other very long and habitual affection, we really have no tenderness," Coverdale remarks (p. 66), and his observation about American society is bolstered by the abundance of broken homes, marriages, and hearts that populate the book. It is a testament to Coverdale's lack of perception that when the "pale man in blue spectacles" at the lyceum exactly describes the Fuehrers that are to emerge from this cultural and emotional wreckage, Coverdale fails to recognize Hollingsworth:

He cited instances of the miraculous power of one human being over the will and passions of another.... Human character was but soft wax in his hands; and guilt, or virtue, only the forms into which he should see fit to mold it. The religious enthusiasm was a flame which he could blow up with his breath, or a spark which he could utterly extinguish. It is unutterable, the horror and disgust with which I listened, and saw that, if these things were to be believed, the individual soul was virtually annihilated, and all that is sweet and pure in our present life debased, and that the idea of man's eternal responsibility was made ridiculous, and immortality rendered at once impossible, and not worth acceptance. But I would have perished on the spot, sooner than believe it. (pp. 206-7)

I love Big Brother

If hubris is Hollingsworth’s transgression, his most serious offense in Hawthorne’s eyes is his arrogance in his personal relationships, when he cynically manipulates Zenobia, Priscilla, and to a lesser extent Coverdale to attain his dream of a temple to rehabilitation. Here Hollingsworth commits what for Hawthorne's Puritan sensibilities is the unforgivable sin of the spirit, the crime of Roger Chillingsworth in The Scarlet Letter, whose gravity far transcends the understandable sin of the flesh of Hester and Dimmesdale; like Chillingsworth, Hollingsworth seeks "to delve into the secrets of the human heart." He is exploiting the emotional vulnerabilities of others, getting that person to confide in him nakedly, and then coldly manipulating them for viciously destructive ends. In contemporary slang, he is fucking with people's heads. Think Scientology.

What if a failed science fiction writer created a fake religion in Southern California to make a million bucks, and then blackmailed celebrities by taping them secretly while they made confessions in "therapy"... Nah, too far-fetched. Already done in Farewell My Lovely.

L. Ron Hubbard, after a long day of battling Thetans

At the root, Hollingsworth's flaw is that although he crusades to eradicate the stain of sin from the souls of others, he cannot perceive that all men—himself, especially—are born with moral flaws. As a Romantic and an enshriner of the individual, he has lost sight of the doctrine of Original Sin. In seeking to create a new world, he shares the blindness of self-righteousness that afflicts all radical reformers, most memorably, in the context of the novel, the Puritans who founded America. He wants to establish absolutes in the face of bewildering uncertainties; and frustrated with the sloppy and stupid morals that men use to conduct their existence, he strives to realize perfection.

The young Darth Vader: Stalin, 1894

Ukrainian children

His failure is inevitable, it is inherent in his scheme; despite all attempts at social engineering, man the flawed will never found a flawless society. All such attempts are insane, and doomed to violent failure. Of the construction of the Tower of Babel, Genesis 11:3 says, "And slime had they for mortar," and so the Tower, a symbol of man setting civilization as its own end, toppled.

Dore, Confusion of Tongues

Only at the end of the book, after her dreams have been destroyed, after she has been crushed, does Zenobia admit to Coverdale, "Of all the varieties of mock-life, we have surely blundered into the very emptiest mockery, in our effort to establish the one true system" (p. 232). But her realization has arrived too late, and after her breakdown (which Coverdale witnessed on pp. 227-9), Zenobia, schooled in a society based on absolutist dreams of perfection, cannot adjust, and drowns herself. Although there is some consolation that from this Hollingsworth learns his lesson and decides to reform himself before he cures the rest of humanity, still, the damage has been done—Zenobia and all of her beautiful bright promise are dead.

Women's rights pioneer Margaret Fuller has been cited as the probable basis for Zenobia

More disquieting is the less obvious fact that Coverdale feels no responsibility for her death, although he might have saved her by disclosing his suspicions, learned from Westervelt, that Hollingsworth was using her; the thought never even enters Coverdale's mind.

A young Nathaniel Hawthorne, who in the novel is clearly Miles Coverdale

Hawthorne's tragic vision was broad enough to include the reality that American society would continue to produce Hollingsworths, who would in turn devastate Zenobias; their stories would be recorded by obtuse narrators like Coverdale, and the process would repeat itself until, as Hawthorne's historical perspective discerned in The Marble Faun, America went the way of Rome, all with the help of self-righteous crusaders after perfection like Hollingsworth.

Jenna, thanks for enlisting

Fascinatingly enough, the story of The Blithedale Romance is clearly rooted in fact. According to the February 2008 Wikipedia entry on The Blithedale Romance:

The Blithedale Romance is a work of fiction based on Hawthorne's recollections of Brook Farm,[1] a short-lived agricultural and educational commune where Hawthorne lived from April to November 1841. In the novel's preface, Hawthorne describes his memories of this temporary home as "essentially a daydream, and yet a fact" which he employs as "an available foothold between fiction and reality." His feelings of affectionate scepticism toward the commune are reflected not only in the novel, but also in his journal entries and in the numerous letters he wrote from Brook Farm to Sophia Peabody, his future wife.

Sophia Peabody Hawthorne: on meeting her future husband, she described him as "a young Byron"

A younger Hawthorne

Hawthorne's claim that the novel's characters are "entirely fictitious" has been widely questioned. The character of Zenobia, for example, is said to have been modelled upon Margaret Fuller, an acquaintance of Hawthorne and a frequent guest at Brook Farm. The circumstances of Zenobia's death, however, were not inspired by the shipwreck that ended Fuller's life but by the suicide of a certain Miss Hunt, a refined but melancholy young woman who drowned herself in a river on the morning of July 9, 1845. Hawthorne helped to search for the body that night, and later recorded the incident at considerable length in his journal.[2] Suggested prototypes for Hollingsworth include Bronson Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Horace Mann[3], while the narrator is often supposed to be none other than Hawthorne himself.[4]

Brook Farm

Brook Farm was a utopian community founded on the principles of the idealistic French socialist Charles Fourier; it was one of a series of notable utopian communities that flourished in pre-Civil War America, such as Oneida and New Harmony. Think of the hippie communes that sprang up in the Sixties, and you’ll get an idea of social idealists, disillusioned by the dead-end life offered by the Establishment, striving to create a new society.

The shrine in the sacred grove: the grave of Karl Marx in Germany

As we found in the Sixties, there was also another side of the communes. The worst was the Weatherman nightmare, where in order to destroy “reactionary individualism,” compulsory bisexuality was enforced, and the leaders chose which same-sex member you’d spent tonight with. (For some reason, however, Weatherman chieftain Bernadine Dohrn chose not to engage in lesbian relationships. Lucky her.) Few things are as horrifying as being pressured to engage in a form of sexual behavior that’s not intrinsically in your nature. That’s rape. This is a matter that Hawthorne would have been especially sensitive to, and rightfully horrified by (see Chillingsworth’s demonic psychological manipulation of the Reverend Dimmesdale in The Scarlet Letter). Talk about fucking with your head.

The beautiful Bernadine Dohrn, 1969: some animals are more equal than others

Of course, what the Weathermen indulged in the early Seventies was kid stuff compared to the horrors of twentieth-century totalitarian mind control. If the Weathermen ended up running a Maoist kindergarten, Mao turned China into a nightmare of social mind control, to the point that in during the Red Guard upheaval of 1966-68, the gleeful citizens of Guangzhou (the former Canton) were making soup out of their conquered political enemies and enjoying it heartily. Jesus Christ, even the fucking Nazis didn’t do that in Auschwitz, and that’s saying something.

Joseph Stalin, a real-life James Bond villain: he dropped lighted matches on Party leaders, knowing they could never protest or object, and then joked, "I just sent your wife and family to Siberia." And sometimes he carried through on the joke, sometimes not.

Speaking of Hollingsworth, the history of Communism in the twentieth century is, without question, a tragic story of a utopian dream gone horribly wrong, because absolute power was given to flawed individuals who were unable to perceive their own fallenness, and because there were no checks and balances. To find an apt historical parallel to Hollingsworth we need look no farther than Karl Marx—and Lenin, Stalin (“the Man of Steel” to Hollingsworth’s “Man of Iron”), and the infallible Mao. They did all the wrong things for all the right reasons.

He murdered fifty million of his fellow countrymen to stay in power

As for America in Hawthorne’s day, perhaps we can see traces of Hollingsworth even in well-meaning Civil War civilian leaders like Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis and the military “killer angels” like Ulysses Grant, Robert E. Lee, and William Tecumseh Sherman.

The gravestone of Puritan worthy William Hollingsworth of Salem, Mass.: it's speculated that Hawthorne may have picked up the name of his character in a cemetery ramble

In post-Civil War America, it’s not hard to find other parallels to Hollingsworth. Christian fundamentalist crazies come immediately to mind. Elmer Gantry is their apotheosis, but there’s also the Reverend Billy James Hargis of the Christian Anti-Communist Crusade, who was outed in the Seventies when two young members of his choir learned on their wedding night that the good Reverend has deflowered them both. In the Eighties there were the escapades of Jim and Tammy Faye Baker and Jimmy Swaggart, and more recently the ultraconservative Rev. Ted Haggard, who in private danced the night away with a male hustler with a little help from crystal meth. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!

The Rev. Ted: bringing the two Americas together

Of course, we have another Hollingsworth right before us—born-again ex-cokehead and maybe not-so-ex-alcoholic President George W. Bush, who has led us into the dark valley under the guise of righteousness.

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Nathaniel Hawthorne's House of the Seven Gables in Salem, Mass.


  1. Ralph Waldo Emerson. "Self-Reliance," The Selected Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson (New York, 1950), p. 161.

  1. Herman Melville, Moby-Dick, ed. Charles Feidelson, Jr. (New York, 1964), p. 81.

  1. Ibid.

  1. Charles Feidelson, Jr., editor, Moby-Dick by Herman Melville (New York, 1964). p. 81n.

  1. It is fascinating to note that in his third novel, The Deer Park, Norman Mailer has Marion Faye, a bisexual Hipster psychopath, make exactly the same declaration while parked in the Nevada desert waiting for the sun to rise and hoping it will be an atomic fireball. "So let it come, Faye thought, let this explosion come, and then another, and all the others, until the Sun God burned the earth. Let it come, he thought, looking into the east at Mecca where the bombs ticked while he stood on a tiny rise of ground trying to see one hundred, two hundred, three hundred miles across the desert. Let it come, Faye begged, like a man praying for rain, let it come and clear the rot and the stench and the stink, let it come for all of everywhere, just so it comes and the world stands clear in the dead white dawn." Norman Mailer, The Deer Park (New York, 1955), p. 139. The apparent influence of The Blithedale Romance on Mailer becomes even more intriguing when one learns that in his second novel, Barbary Shore (1951), he named a major character, a sinister FBI agent, Hollingsworth.
Rip Torn, who played Marion Faye onstage in a dramatic adaptation of The Deer Park by Mailer, 1967; Mailer and Torn were such good friends, they tried to kill each other on the set of Maidstone (1968)

It wasn't in the script

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A first edition


Emerson, Ralph Waldo. "Self-Reliance," The Selected Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson (New York, 1950).

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Blithedale Romance. New York, 1970.

Mailer, Norman. Barbary Shore. New York, 1951.

Mailer, Norman. The Deer Park. New York, 1955.

Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick. ed. Charles Feidelson, Jr. New York, 1964.

This article is based on an American Studies paper I wrote in January 1976 while an undergraduate at Princeton. According to the father's side of my family, I'm alleged to be a direct descendant of Nathaniel Hawthorne.