Miles Coverdale, the Limits of Queer Subjectivity, and Political Ambivalence in Hawthorne’s Blithedale Romance

February 12, 2019 by Essay Writer

Benjamin Scott Grossberg, in “Coverdale’s Queer Utopia,” responds to what he posits as “attempts to contain [Miles] Coverdale’s erotic desire,” attempts that consequently “lead to strange contortions of the text” (24). Other critics, according to Grossberg, portray Coverdale as a “power-hungry monster” or theorize his sexuality in a way that distorts his character’s true identity. Grossberg, however, asserts that “Coverdale’s actions and affections are best understood through his own lens, one that staunchly refuses to limit desire or gender to stable, discrete categories” (25). For the duration of this essay, I will refer to this phenomenon, in which categories and definitions of human sexuality are undermined or viewed as restrictive and limiting, as “queer subjectivity.” And while Grossberg’s response is undoubtedly an attempt to disentangle Coverdale’s rhetorical ideology from a century of misguided conservative interpretation, this reader further posits that Grossbergs’s theories complicate Hawthorne’s narrative in unexpected ways, particularly in regards to the ethical nature of the Blithedale project itself. This tension between conservative and progressive values are indicative of Hawthorne’s work, particularly in The Scarlet Letter, in which Hester Prynne’s adultery is humanized but never completely devillified. This paradox, I argue, is not so much a blight upon Hawthorne’s legacy as a testament to the psychological complexity of his work. In keeping with the postmodern idea that there is no universal set of values that govern our lives and choices, my interpretation acknowledges that both progressive and conservative questions of identity, ethics, gender, and sexuality are equally viable so long as the potential veracity of conflicting realities is equally acknowledged and respected.

Grossberg commences his article on Romance with the following question: “To what can we attribute the failure of the Blithedale experiment?” (3). He asserts that the general consensus among critics is that “Blithedale fails because of an incompatibility of vision” (4). Whereas Hollingsworth’s philanthropic enterprise and Zenobia’s feminist vision have been well discussed and analyzed, Grossberg contends that Coverdale’s utopian vision has received comparatively little attention from both readers and critics. There is a reason for this: According to Grossberg, Coverdale’s vision seems transparent because “all events of the narrative are inflected through it”; it is, he says, “the one we get most intensely because we can only judge the other two paradigms through [it]” (5). Which begs the question: What exactly is Coverdale’s utopian vision? According to Grossberg “Coverdale both explicitly and implicitly characterizes Blithedale as a utopia of sexual desire” where both sexuality and gender definition are fluid and open (6). Thus, Coverdale’s hopes for the Blithedale community are formed by his unconscious (?) longing for a queer subjectivity. To Coverdale, Blithedale becomes a potential haven for sexual emancipation, one in which even categories of heterosexuality and homosexuality, themselves just beginning to form at the time of the novel’s composition, are destabilized and erased.

Before he gets into the meat of his argument, Grossberg provides context regarding nineteenth-century attitudes towards sexuality. He states that “the latter nineteenth century saw a culmination of centuries of increasing talk about sex—and this increased talk, and the ever more rigid and specific definitions it entailed, eventually opened up spaces of power through which behavior might be manipulated” (6-7). He also points out that “definitions of homosexuality (and therefore also heterosexuality) were just becoming fixed in the period during which Hawthorne wrote” (7); as a result, suggests Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, the nineteenth century became “suffus[ed with] the stain of homo/heterosexual crisis” (qtd. in Grossberg 7). Until this time, the idea that a person’s sexual proclivities constituted a legitimate identity was both utterly foreign and deeply troubling. Consequently, Grossberg suggests that “Coverdale’s vision may be read as an attempt to cope with a society whose sexual definitions are crystallizing” (7). “Rather than succumb to the new identities ‘homosexual’ and ‘heterosexual,’” states Grossberg, “Coverdale attempts to make Blithedale a community apart from them”—“a place where the discrete categories of man, woman, heterosexual and homosexual are set up to be undermined” (7).

Coverdale, contends Grossberg, “begins disrupting stable categories as one must—by constructing them” (7). Coverdale accomplishes this disruption through Hollingsworth and Zenobia, who he sets up as “the prototypically masculine man and prototypically feminine woman” respectively, only to later undermine these characterizations (7). For example, Hawthorne has Coverdale note that Zenobia’s hands are “larger than most women would like to have, or that they could afford to have”; he also remarks: “It is one peculiarity, distinguishing Zenobia from most of her sex, that she needed for her moral well-being […] a large amount of physical exercise” (8). Likewise, Hawthorne feminizes Hollingsworth by casting him as Coverdale’s nurse when the latter becomes sick after arriving at Blithedale (9). At this moment, Coverdale muses that “[t]here was something of the woman moulded into the great, stalwart frame of Hollingsworth, nor was he ashamed of it” (qtd. in Grossberg 9). According to Grossberg, “Coverdale’s […] descriptions of Zenobia and Hollingsworth make masculinity equally defining for the ideal woman, and femininity inseparable from the ideal man, thereby dissociating gender from gender-identity” (8). Moreover, Grossberg adds that Coverdale “presents two almost genderless characters, himself and Priscilla, and shows that they evolve into traditionally gender identified types” (9). “In this way,” argues Grossberg, “masculinity and femininity are further characterized as acquired and acquirable, learned roles, rather than essentially tied to gender” (9).

Next, Grossberg asserts that “Coverdale presents his relationships with all three characters, Zenobia, Hollingsworth, and Priscilla, in terms of sexual desire […]” and “makes it clear that his desire for each is in no way discrete from his desire for any other; in this way, terms such as monogamy, homosexuality, and heterosexuality have no place in qualifying his erotic impulses” (11). Put simply, Coverdale’s “erotic desire” is for Hollingsworth, Zenobia, and Priscilla collectively; “He does not want just want each individually” states Grossberg, “he wants them all together” (14). Grossberg claims that Coverdale symbolically represents his polyamorous desire for Hollingsworth, Zenobia, and Priscilla in the image of his “hermitage,” which “function[s] as a template for his utopian vision of queer desire” (12). But “just like [the] vines knotting between trees,” says Grossberg, “Coverdale’s vision of the Blithedale connection is messy, defined by a lack of order” (13). Furthermore, Coverdale, when in his hermitage, “is largely reduced to auditor: that is, to isolation, not independence” (14).

According to Grossberg, Coverdale not only complicates his own heterosexual desire for both women by displaying a similar desire for Hollingsworth, but he also interjects himself into others’ heterosexual encounters (both real and imagined) as not simply an observer but as a partaker. Grossberg offers the example of Coverdale’s dream, where Coverdale finds himself straddled by Zenobia and Hollingsworth exchanging a “kiss of passion” (qtd. in Grossberg 15). Caught in the midst of such an intimate act while observing Priscilla dejectedly slink from the window, Coverdale’s “primary pleasure,” suggests Grossberg, “may lie with watching and identifying with all participants […] not just seeing, but also naming (and therefore experiencing) every sensation” (15). To Grossberg, Coverdale’s sexuality and sense of pleasure “stubbornly resist attempts at categorization” because he aligns with neither heterosexuality nor homosexuality, thereby reinforcing Grossberg’s interpretation of Coverdale’s “desire [as] specifically queer” (15).

For Grossberg, Coverdale’s resistance to “restricting intimacies” counters “Hollingsworth[’s demand for] exclusivity,” further queering Coverdale’s desires (16). These incompatible visions are played out in “A Crisis,” where “Hollingsworth’s homosexual desire […] is incompatible with Coverdale’s queer vision because it requires [Coverdale] to be exclusively with Hollingsworth” despite Coverdale’s passion for “all the participants” of Blithedale (17). Coverdale thus attempts to destabilize each character’s desire in an attempt to undermine “exclusive coupling” in his pursuit of openness (17). However, Grossberg maintains that Coverdale is able to sway neither Priscilla nor Zenobia to recognize and partake in his utopian vision. Both Priscilla and Zenobia’s love for Hollingsworth trumps their respective ideologies. This is especially true of Zenobia, who one moment ardently advocates a feminist vision and the next is brought to tears by Hollingsworth’s misogynistic rebuttal (18).

Coverdale continues to complicate his own vision of Blithedale “both from within and without” (18). Coverdale’s apparent reluctance to “commit himself to any community, any utopia (even his own)” exemplifies the inward struggle that identifies him as “intellectual[ly] detach[ed] and ambivale[nt] about his every project” (18). Indeed, Grossberg is quick to point out that even the other characters remark that “‘Miles Coverdale is not in earnest’” (18). Furthermore, “Coverdale’s vision is also resisted from without, by both Hollingsworth and Zenobia” (19). In Hollingsworth’s case, he rejects Coverdale’s likening to Fourier who “stands against monogamy, but […] retains gender stability and discrete desire” becoming a means through which Coverdale presents his “paradigm to Hollingsworth” (19). This idea of the utopian “‘production of pleasure”’ elicits “vehement rejection” from Hollingsworth, who declares “‘Let me hear no more of it!” (19). “Unfettered sexuality—not just dissolution of monogamy, but possibly a wholesale dissolution of stable sexual categories” has no place in Blithedale for Hollingsworth, claims Grossberg. Similarly, Hollingsworth resists Coverdale when Zenobia’s burial plot is discussed, insisting that she be buried upon the hillside that once supplied the fodder for their proposed quintessential cottage (20). For Grossberg, Hollingsworth’s location is “associated with stable heterosexual coupling […] motivated by [a] conservative view of marriage, or perhaps by an impulse to express guilt over Zenobia’s suicide” (20). Conversely, Coverdale desires Zenobia to be laid to rest at Eliot’s Pulpit, a site tied in a “‘knot of Polygamy”’ that signifies the fours’ consensual gatherings (20).

As for Zenobia, Grossberg claims that her outward resistance of Coverdale’s vision is realized more indirectly “through her devotion to Hollingsworth and therefore to stable, monogamous desire” (21). Though Coverdale denies his attraction to Zenobia, Zenobia herself speculates and wonders at Coverdale’s sexuality. Ironically, by the end of the novel Zenobia admits, “It is an endless pity […] that I had not be thought myself of winning your heart, Mr. Coverdale, instead of Hollingsworth’s. I think I should have succeeded” (qtd. in Grossberg 21). According to Grossberg, had Zenobia not “reject[ed] queer desire by closing herself off to a more complicated model of sexuality” she may have proved more compatible with Coverdale and his queer vision. Instead, Coverdale ends the novel much as he began; “a bachelor, with no very decided purpose of ever being otherwise” (22). By Grossberg’s assessment, Coverdale’s final exclamation of being in love with Priscilla then is not so much an admission of his singular love for Priscilla, but rather his “acknowledgement of [the] expansiveness [of his love]. Coverdale may not simply be saying, I was in love with Priscilla, but rather, I was in love with Priscilla, too” (25).

Grossberg’s analysis warrants reading because it helps one to understand Coverdale’s possible motivations for acting as passionately as he does towards the other characters of Blithedale. Grossberg’s use of the term “queer” to describe Coverdale’s sexuality is appropriate since his sexual proclivities defy categories such as heterosexual or homosexual or even bisexual. Were Coverdale’s desires and sexuality to identify as strictly heterosexual, we would have trouble accounting for his impassioned responses to Hollingsworth. When one thinks of sexuality as being restrictive, it often is in response to normative heterosexuality, but for Coverdale, homosexuality also assumes a similarly restrictive role. For example, if one views Hollingsworth’s declaration that “there is not the man in this wide world whom I can love as I could love [Coverdale]” (Hawthorne 133) as an admission of homosexual desire, then we could infer that the prospect of such a relationship, compounded by Hollingsworth’s own rigid and single-minded nature, would force Coverdale to forgo his heterosexual desire for Priscilla and Zenobia. Though Coverdale is desperate for intimacy and acceptance, his ideals prove stronger than his desire, and thus he cannot commit himself exclusively to Hollingsworth when he truly desires a more polyamorous arrangement. Thus, Coverdale’s desire for a “‘third choice”’ is ultimately what seems to make his utopian vision incompatible with those of his companions (qtd. in Grossberg 17).

Through this lens, one can either analyze Coverdale as sexually liberated or sexually obsessed. While a contemporary reading may be inclined to cast Coverdale in the role of sexually liberated person who crosses boundaries and arbitrary distinctions between sexuality and gender, his desperation posits him dangerously close to sexually obsession with the other members of the Blithedale community. For example, when he tries to undermine Priscilla and Zenobia’s sexual desire for Hollingsworth, we concur that it is because 1) he desires something for himself; in this case a relationship with any, or preferably, all his Blithedale companions, and 2) the potential insecurity concerning his own sexuality leads him to obsessively dismantle others’ sexuality in a narcissistic attempt to validate his own.

Thus, by concluding that Coverdale never seems in concert with his own desires throughout the novel, Grossberg’s analysis of this “queer utopia” helps us to better comprehend Coverdale’s thoughts and actions. That being said, as we observe “the failure of [Coverdale’s] queer vision” at the end of the novel, perhaps we have to ask: Does the categorization of sexuality demand limits (Grossberg 22)? Coverdale’s lack of limits certainly seems to work against him in securing a relationship in Blithedale. In this sense, Hawthorne’s novel can be read as an indictment of the progressive values championed by the Blithedale community. In the case of Blithedale, excessive freedom leads naturally to a sort of spiritual ambivalence. Categories and their definitions become so fluid and destabilized that confusion naturally ensues. In this way, it is perhaps to be expected that the Blithedale project should come to such a messy and tragic end.

In the termination of the Blithedale experiment, the conservation fetishization of rules and framework, and the anxiety that ensues when those barriers are broken down, can be observed at play. Despite this, however, the heroic and progressive vision of the Blithedale project itself is never treated as the reason for its inevitable failure; it is, instead, the human inability to reconcile an innate longing for freedom and fluidity with the need for rules and routine that ultimately leads to Blithedale’s demise. This revelation is a timely one. Blithedale was written a little over ten years before the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 effectively demolished the American institution of slavery. By 1852, the year of the novel’s publication, the first stirrings of rebellion that would eventually culminate in the Civil War were already well on their way to fruition. American intellectuals, both Northern and Southern, were grappling with the possible demise of an institution that had formed the backbone of American society and culture since the nation’s inception. The movements for women’s and workers’ rights were well underway, and while the political revolutions of the 1960s were still over a century away, the birth of Sigmund Freud, a pivotal figure in the instigation of events that would eventually lead to the Sexual Revolution, was a mere four years away. Modes of thought that were previously considered part and parcel of American life were being called into question, and anxiety over what could ensue should the changes these “radicals” desired come to pass seeped into the zeitgeist. This anxiety is at the forefront of The Blithedale Romance.

Coverdale’s longing for a subjective reality in which sexuality is not defined in terms of homosexuality and heterosexuality, of monogamy and polygamy, is an extension, perhaps somewhat farfetched at the time but perfectly viable today, of this cultural upheaval. In showing how Coverdale’s longing for queer subjectivity exacerbates the fall of Blithedale, Hawthorne unintentionally betrays his own anxieties regarding the forthcoming changes in the fabric of American life. While the noble motivations that led to the birth of Blithedale are never completely derided, Hawthorne nevertheless shows a marked cynicism toward humankind’s ability to make that vision a reality. Furthermore, it is not an unreasonable supposition to posit that Hawthorne, as a white heterosexual male of considerable standing, undoubtedly had trouble reconciling himself to the possibility of a society in which the institutions that provided him with unearned privilege were being called into question, no matter how ferociously he and others associated with him debated the ethical nature of those institutions. The ambivalence infects every inch of The Blithedale Romance, in its uneasy, half-hearted condemnation of progressive values, and perhaps most clearly in Coverdale himself. However, while many may criticize Hawthorne for his ambivalence, I continue to assert that this paradoxical attitude towards progressive values is indicative of the sheer complexity of his work and reason enough to continue to study his work in light of the recent ideological changes in the field of American literature. Furthermore, I contend that The Blithedale Romance deserves to be rescued from obscurity and given more critical attention in a milieu besieged by the same cultural and political anxieties that were prevalent at the time of the novel’s composition.

Works Cited

Grossberg, Benjamin Scott. “‘The Tender Passion Was Very Rife Among Us’: Coverdale’s Queer Utopia and The Blithedale Romance.” Studies in American Fiction 28.1 (2000): 3-25. Web. 19

September 2016. Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Blithedale Romance. 1852. Ed. Tony Tanner. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998. Print.

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