Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
is available for $16.00 from FootHills Publishing, P.O. Box 68, Kanona NY 14856 or see www.foothillspublishing.com.

Tourist Snapshots is available for $8.95 from Randy Fingland, CC Marimbo, P.O. Box 933, Berkeley CA 94701 or see www.ccmarimbo.com.

Dada Poetry: An Introduction was published by Nirala Publications. It may be ordered on Amazon.com for $25 plus shipping. American buyers may order a copy from me for $23 including shipping.

The other books are also available from the author William Seaton. Write seaton@frontiernet.net.


A categorized index of all work that has appeared on this site is available by looking under the current month in the Blog Archive section and selecting Index.

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Tuesday, July 1, 2014

On the Proper Ends of Literary Study


I would hardly pretend to objectivity while commenting on my brother’s book, my older brother who with grace and love taught me so much about literature and life. Still, the situation to which he responds and his own position should be of interest to everyone who cares about higher education and the humanities. I refer to him as I would any other author by his surname in spite of the fact that it is identical to my own.

Literary Criticism from Plato to Postmodernism: the Humanistic Alternative, James Seaton, Cambridge University Press.

We can only welcome the grand synthesizers who are willing to survey the greater range of a topic and audacious enough to draw conclusions from a bigger mass of data than any individual could fully digest. For without such ambition we would lack Gibbon, Vico, Marx, Frazer and Spengler. In Literary Criticism from Plato to Postmodernism: the Humanistic Alternative, Seaton considers the entire history of literary criticism in English as well as its sources in Greek antiquity. He proposes a new analysis and argues passionately and cogently for his own approach to literature. In doing so, he reminds those of us outside the halls of academia of the current state of the discipline in our better universities.

Apart from the grand scope of his project and his style -- clear, readable, learned, often passionate or drily witty -- Seaton is to be applauded for fighting the good fight on behalf of literature itself, though by his account he is engaged in something of a rearguard action. Those outside the profession as practiced in major research universities are likely to be unaware of the extent to which contemporary literary studies are dominated what is called “cultural criticism” and other forms of “Theory.” Seaton devastatingly demonstrates the derangement produced by the rise of this vogue, now perhaps just past its crest, in his analysis of two books presently used as college texts, but his savage indictment is better understood once one is acquainted with his idea of the proper uses of literature, what he calls “the humanistic alternative.”

According to Seaton literary critics fall into one of three schools: Platonists, neoplatonists, and Aristotelians. For him the last of these options is the most fruitful and correct, the one he also calls “humanistic.” Other analysts have divided the world into Platonists and Aristotelians, but here these terms are redefined . For Seaton a Platonist is one who, like Plato in the Republic, is suspicious of the appeal of literature because stories and poetry may encourage erroneous ideas. While for Plato, correct ideas are those derived from philosophic reflection and discussion, other “Platonists” in this sense might look to other sources of truth such as religious revelation or some variety of Marxist doctrine.

A neoplatonist, in this framework, is any reader who regards the author (most commonly, a poet) as the purveyor of truth due to privileged access to some higher reality. The idea Socrates articulates in the Ion that a poet is given divine inspiration reappears powerfully among the Romantics and more modern aesthetic cultists. Whereas for the Platonist literary truth was undependable, the neoplatonist regards the poet as a prophet indeed whose words arrive from some higher realm, be it the divine, the unconscious, or simply the imagination. [1]

The third alternative, labeled humanistic by Seaton is based on the comment in Aristotle’s Poetics that literature can teach how a certain sort of person is likely to behave. In other words, literature teaches us about other people in terms not of certainties, but of probabilities. “The humanistic tradition in literary criticism remains Aristotelian both in its view of literature as a source of insight about human life and in its willingness to judge grand theory by the norms of common sense.” (73) In its simpler forms, this is likely to seem familiar to most students including university graduates in majors other than English. After all, most often classroom discussion is largely centered on thematics, the text’s relation to lived experience, whether the characters behave in ways that illuminate life outside the page. Furthermore, though “the humanist tradition . . .turns to works of literature for insight into human life” (176), its exposition is always tentative, conditional, subject to qualification and change, part of a continuing reflection on human life by humans, each with a limited view.

According to Seaton’s account this apparently unexceptionable approach to literature is very nearly passĂ©, barely represented in the academic discussions of today in which a variety of poststructuralists and cultural critics now possess all but hegemonic power. I can myself recall from decades in the past research papers by soi-disant Derrideans who exercised prodigious ingenuity before pulling the predictable rabbit from the hat and demonstrating that the author was in fact saying the opposite of what seemed to be the point. One might learn something from a subtle exercise of this sort, but, like any inquiry which leads always to an identical result, its charms wear rapidly thin. Seaton most directly engages this sort of shallow “Theory” in his devastating analysis of the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism and a casebook on Austen’s Emma.

I will leave readers to savor Seaton’s assault on the NATC in full and will summarize only his treatment of the second of these books. Alistair Duckworth’s edition of Emma provides ten essays to accompany the novel: five commenting on Austen’s book itself as well as an essay on each of the approaches included. These are Gender criticism, Marxist criticism, cultural criticism, New Historicism, and Feminist Criticism. The gender critic criticizes the ideal of manhood represented in the novel, praising it for rejecting the contemporary fashion, but condemning it for reverting to an old-fashioned formula in its place, presumably in this way failing to anticipate the critic’s own ideal. In a similarly half-hearted manner, the feminist concedes Austen’s mild assertion of the rights of women while castigating her for, believe it or not, her “failure to envisage a female community across social barriers.” (63-4) The Marxist is disappointed that Austen “fails to admit to admit that ‘impoverished middle-class women are victims of a capitalist system’” (64) You get the idea. Each of these essays basically seeks to prove that the novel portrays unequal relations between sexes, classes, and other groups. This is hardly surprising since the story is set in a society where such differences are highly significant. One might well criticize a work that somehow avoided reflecting society in such a fundamental way.

Apart from the fact that the critics’ findings are trivial and miss the many possible fruitful readings of the novel; they are also all much of a piece. One could have objected to the pigeon-holes in an older volume of this sort which might have featured a New Critic, a Marxist, a Freudian, and a Jungian, but at least there would have been some variety. Such tiresome sameness is particularly pernicious in a textbook directed at students who might be persuaded that this sort of vapid play represents the entire range of possible literary studies. But what value is there is lamenting Austen’s lack of twenty-first century political correctness even once? [2] The Marxist (and his colleagues) seem to differ from Engels who condemned ideologically driven fiction, what he called the Tendenzroman, while noting that the novels of the royalist Balzac contain more data on French society than “all the professed historians, economists, and statisticians of the period.” [3]

While applauding this first-rate book for its polemic purposes as well as its own sound ideas and well-wrought style, I have my own strictures. This book treats only literature, intentionally eschewing the other arts. This may be linked to Seaton’s scant consideration of form. Though form has been a constituent element of literature since the days when it all was oral, both as a signifying code and for its own beauty, we would suspect Seaton reads only to educate himself about human affairs were it not that he makes so many casual yet appreciative comments on the writers he discusses. The inclusion of visual art or music would have made it much more difficult to keep form in the background.

Form is deeply related to beauty, the sensation of pleasure which has always been considered an end of art. One may avoid fetishizing beauty without neglecting it. Surely if we pick up War and Peace for another go-round, our own motive has much in common with that of the Ibo women who gather about open fires in the evening to compose “moon songs.” We, like Shakespeare’s audience and those who habitually watch Breaking Bad, seek primarily pleasure, entertainment, an agreeable way to pass the time. We have evolved to excel in symbolic manipulation; it is little wonder that we find recreation in practicing our greatest skill.

For some works of art pleasure, whether formal beauty or amusement, may be the chief end at which the artist aims. Others may foreground description, either human or landscape. Some may primarily seek to move the reader to tears or laughter or some more complex emotion. If the writer or reader wishes to privilege theme, the result will be didacticism in some form, however indirect. (Actually, all popular and oral forms lend themselves to this sort of approach and the Horatian formula grants it importance equal to pleasure.)

Seaton’s discussion of moral imagination in Trilling (113-115) seems to suggest that the end of literary consumption should be a heightened sense of right and wrong within oneself and in society at large such that one would be more likely to discern the specious from the true in social schemes. Does anyone really think that literature professors, those of the old school at any rate, are equipped to lead more moral lives than other people? A good deal of our impression of the authors of great works is that their lives are as messy of not a bit more than most peoples’. The notion that the literati, if only they were to read in a humanistic manner, would be more politically sophisticated than their neighbors’ seems not only unlikely, but it sounds dangerously close to the sort of elitism Seaton consistently deplores.

He argues that the greatness of Trilling and Edmund Wilson rests on their ability to bring “insights gleaned from fiction, poetry, and plays to bear on moral, cultural, and social issues.” (143) This view would suggest that literature is a sort of educational aid to the understanding of other things. If Arnold was right in declaring that the critic must “see the object as it really is,” (144) how does that lead to the apparently more important secondary revelations outside the text? He rightly points out that just as researchers in the natural sciences can claim no particular qualification when commenting on moral or political issues, those in the humanities have no authority in questions of chemistry or physics. (175) It remains to be demonstrated that experts in literature have special access to the truth about morality or politics. Surely they are expert in the treatment of aesthetic texts and in that field alone just as the creators’ expertise is solely as artists.

In any event, information that can inform judgments about human affairs both individual and social is available from a number of sources, both in direct experience and in non-literary texts. Literature in my opinion differs from other forms of discourse in that it more accurately represents human consciousness in a rich range of ways: by recognizing the drive for pleasure that animates all living things, by admitting the irrational, conflicted, and unknown motives that often govern behavior, by foregrounding sense impressions, which is the principal way in which we enlarge our knowledge, and finally, by its capacity for investigating unanswerable questions, mysteries like love and sex, death and aggression, and ultimate reality. (Seaton is very suspicious of granting significance to metaphysical claims by writers in spite of the fact that religion in a broad sense is one of the most common and enduring themes.) Only works of art can imply an entire world-view. We do not find the depth and meaning in these areas from theologians or psychologists or medical doctors or encyclopedists that is available from Homer and Dante and Cervantes.

Somehow I think Seaton would largely agree. I know that we read in much the same manner. His own analysis stresses that a critic need not be always correct or even consistent to make meaningful comments on literature. In this volume he has not only set forth an original and useful description of literary history. He demonstrates in his own sensibility the humanistic values that have been traditionally associated with literary study while doing battle against those who would dismantle the discipline. The book is at once a pleasure to read and a record of the author's own pleasures in reading. No better authority is needed to demonstrate the value of a lifetime of treating literature as something that really matters.


The book, incidentally, sells for $90. Why can print-on-demand service produce equally handsome volumes for five percent of that price? It is certainly not due to royalties or advertising budget. Ask your library (a university library would be the best bet) to buy a copy.

1. Recall the situationist slogan from Paris 1968: L’imagination au pouvoir!

2. Seaton says that this expression was originally used solemnly and now “half-ironically.” [192] I believe that I first heard it used in a self-mocking manner about 1971 by leftists and only later -- from those with little actual experience in the movements of the sixties -- in more serious usage as a real standard of behavior.

3. Letter to Margaret Harkness. In an earlier letter to Laura Lafargue, Engels expresses the same admiration for Balzac referring to the conservative author’s “revolutionary dialectic,”, in contrast to the consciously leftist writers: “all the Vaulabelles, Capefigues, Louis Blancs, et tutti quanti.” Both letters are included in Marx and Engels On Literature and Art ( Moscow: Progress, 1976. P. 93). Marx, too, thought Balzac, with Cervantes, the greatest of novelists and planned to write a book on him. Fielding was another of his favorites. (Marx and Engels On Literature and Art, p. 439)

Documents of the fourth Surreal Cabaret

1. the announcement

Fourth Surreal Cabaret at the Seligmann Center
The fourth Surreal Cabaret, featuring performance art, multi-media, and other avant-garde techniques will be presented at 7:30 on Friday, June 13 in the Kurt Seligmann Studio, 23 White Oak Drive, Sugar Loaf. The event is free and open to the public.
The program will open as usual with a benediction from the Surrealist chaplain, the Lama Swine Toil. Music will be provided by the New Jersey experimental ensemble ArtCrime. Acts include a rap by Anne Hanson, the Council of (Poetic) Experimentation doing “Genet Discordia,” William Seaton’s “Party,” and Susanna Rich singing two songs from her one-woman musical Shakespeare’s *itches: the Musical.
The Cabarets provide a rare opportunity for Hudson Valley residents to see exciting new work by area artists using cutting edge practices. “We pay tribute to Surrealist Kurt Seligmann in a way I suspect he would have approved – by showcasing new vision.” says producer William Seaton.
As in the past artist David Horton has created a poster for the Cabaret.

2. the program

Lama Swine Toil "Benediction"
The Surrealist chaplain will seek to save the lost and to convince the saved to lose themselves.

CO(P)E "Genet Discordia/Bird of Paradise"
Featuring Steve Roe’s voice, Dan Andreana’s video, Al Margolis, Kevin Geraghty, and Detta Andreana on sound. The Council of (Poetic) Experimentation is an art collective dedicated to the performance and publication of experimental works. Their most recent publication is War Stories.

Anne Hanson "The Panther and the Butterfly"
A poem transformed into a rap, sort of falling between the two. Anne Hanson is known to Hudson Valley audiences as a poet and storyteller.

William Seaton "Party"
Unspoken conversations, the subterranean levels of a social gathering, find utterance. Actors are Ingrid King, Jim Kenny, & Patricia Seaton. William Seaton is the producer of the Surreal Cabarets. He maintains a blog at williamseaton.blogspot.com.

Susanna Rich "Nicole's Song"
This song from the one-woman show Shakespeare’s *itches marks the twentieth anniversary of Nicole Brown Simpson's death.
"Kate Explains"
Also from Shakespeare’s *itches, Kate the Shrew as a contemporary bartender. For more information on Susanna Rich’s performances, books, and other activities see susannarich.com or wildnightsproductions.com.

ArtCrime Music
John Korchok, Steve Orbach, and Bob Siebert perform as ArtCrime, New Jersey’s outstanding experimental ensemble. With backgrounds in jazz, rock, and experimental music, the instrumentalists of ArtCrime create entirely new, often improvisatory music. See http://www.art-crime.net/.


3. the poster by David Horton



4. the words of the Lama Swine Toil

The Parable of the not-OK Corral
He walked the dusty, sun-baked streets of a town
on the far frontier of metaphysics.
His faithful Indian companion whispered sutras in his ear.
The townspeople hustled off to shelter behind the nearest received ideas.
The tumbleweeds blew, and the buzzards cried out wise suggestions ,
but he never heard and just stared straight ahead.
At the street’s opposite end, walking slowly toward him, was his enemy,
his brother, his mirror-image.
(And the town’s pretty schoolmarm walked an identical street
at that very moment, facing a Doppelgänger of her own,
her foot like his poised seeking the next step,
and neither could help it at all.)
The sweat dripped down his cheek.
The Avidya Boys, he knew, were crouching in doorways,
leaning from second-story windows,
and the gang from the Hungry Ghost Ranch,
covered him from every angle.
The clock ticked on toward the highest of high noons
when time, that old codger, will expire, as did Gabby Hayes in 1969.
Suddenly he heard from behind the voice of the kosmos, deep and unmistakable,
“Drop your ego on the ground right there, I’ve got you covered. “
And he knew the jig was finally up.

5. Party

To be performed by four actors, dispersed throughout the room. The lights should be out as the monologues are unspoken. Art the Cabaret performance, the audience was told they might close their eyes.

Party
I.
1st speaker: How can it be that everyone is talking to someone with the sole exception of me. I can hardly continue staring at the book titles much longer. Oh, how to assume an insouciant air as I sit outside the gate, listening to the self-satisfied buzz of all the drones? I sit discomfited on rocks, so harsh a seat alone, a tragic pariah, unrecognized, unappreciated, like the finest of apples, too high on the tree, pecked by mindless birds, exposed to wind and rain and merciless fate. The fallen apple is more fortunate, its crisis past, the quick hurtle to meet earth over.

2nd speaker: All is well just now. I think. My dyspepsia has subsided, my portfolio has gained twenty percent this year and yet I haven’t gained more than ten percent in weight. Last time I saw my doctor he said he saw no problems, but that was two weeks ago and I failed to point out that weird blemish in my armpit which online research has indicated could be the sign of any number of serious conditions. Then, too, even darker possibilities may lurk in the bushes, ready to leap like a fierce and mocking panther. My balance sheet will be powerless then. My successful lawsuit will mean nothing. I can only imagine the leap of the predator who is surely there,, the sudden sharp full-body alarm. I can only imagine it again and again until the thought is worse than the reality.

3rd speaker: Oh, god, I haven’t the slightest idea what she has been saying for the past five minutes. It looks like I’m cued to respond. I have perhaps two seconds to devise the best strategy. I am on the edge of a high cliff and I see the rocks below. Vertigo seizes me. Oh, that I might buzz like a fly to the further reaches of the room. Lord, lord, what does that look mean? I am pinned in an album, classified and dessicated, without recourse, but perhaps that is only right. This day, another damp and ruined space of time, to be discarded like a used tissue, capable of inspiring only disgust.
4th speaker: light in room’s corner, groan of outside autos, tremor in the skull, graceful neck flesh incline curve of thigh shaking of a comely arm eruption of energies heading toward a brick wall hurtling on to whammo collision dizzy soft knee whew take a long breath wine rises to brain already fogged by error confusion and willful refusal to see to feel to ----? Buzz of anger yesterday at the bus stop what was the look about? Tomorrow the dentist.

1st speaker: Indeed, I am out of my element. When I lived in California, ah, all was palmy. I flourished in the sun, but here its heat is rude and pushy. These people all think just alike. They grow here rooted to the soil like barnacles to their rock. When will someone ask the question that will free my soul and let it rise and flourish and sing? I am the genie, locked still inside the lamp, pinched by unfair circumstance, awaiting the magic word. I hear the confident rumble of everyone else’s words knowing that my own alone would be garbled and meaningless as though run backwards. My silence is finally my preference.

2nd speaker: O might one feel secure in a grand and hilltop mansion? Or would I then attract lightning, jealousy, angry mobs perhaps? My position is a lofty one, but I gained it through deceit, I maintain it by impersonating a success. The strain is mounting. How can I continue the fraud another day? Another hour? Many eyes see through me, they slyly predict my downfall, indeed perhaps they can cause it. I’m propped up only by my reluctance to let the jackals lick my bones. Yet they advance steadily with sharp intentions in their eyes. I shall take refuge in the toilet. Perhaps it’s time to exit before my stride will be even less graceful than now.

3rd speaker: If only time could pause a moment I might regain my composure, but the ground slips from beneath my feet ever so slightly. I need only a chance to catch up, to rest a moment, to seize time and hold it by the throat and shake it until it gives me what I must have. I could then be master, I could flourish, yet here I am, condemned to run two seconds behind, always regarding my movie with a detached and critical eye and always writing later a most brilliant review which will never see the light of day.

4th speaker: Twinge of envy I am a barely balanced funambulist with no rest on the high tension line buzzing with power, the birds on either side skip and dance, the sun blazes with certainty and power, the other people are far away, all security systems on high alert these past few years, avoid feedback, prick of lust, flash of pale skin, twitter of neural dendrites leap every synapse whee whee mememememememe eeeee

Two Notes on Hawthorne's Blithedale Romance

1. The Idea of the Romance
After the sixteenth century, entries in the OED define romance as a story very remote from ordinary life, “an extravagant fiction.” Though the very title of Hawthorne’s Blithedale Romance implies a fanciful unrealistic story, the novel, more than most, is entangled with the author’s biography and with the history and ideas of his time. The setting in a commune similar to Brook Farm, only one of hundreds of similar nineteenth century American experiments, has inspired considerable comment on the author’s motives for joining the community and on the era’s utopianism.
This focus on Brook Farm by critics may slight other aspects of the novel. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the narration is the oblique construction of the character of the narrator, Miles Coverdale, surely to some extent a self-portrait. Though he is described as a mild, somewhat reticent poet of indifferent achievement, an observer more than anything else, it is within his soul that a psychomachia is staged. The book, like much of Hawthorne’s oeuvre, is deeply concerned with fundamental ethical questions and includes a diabolic figure in Westervelt without any counterbalancing savior. In addition Blithedale certainly fails as a Garden of Eden, for all that it has Adam, Eve, and Satan in attendance. In this fallen world, Coverdale imagines Zenobia “in Eve’s earliest garment” and notes her flower, said to signify pride. He observes Westervelt’s flaming pin and serpent-headed staff. In the grand attempt to reestablish Eden “…the presence of Zenobia caused our heroic enterprise to show like an illusion, a masquerade, a pastoral, a counterfeit Arcadia, in which we grown-up men and women were making a play-day of the years that were given us to live in.” (Chapter 3) A reenactment of the fall then occurs, again through the temptations of a distracting female, as the men’s high ideals collapse into selfishness, lust, and ennui.
D. H. Lawrence, in his brilliant Studies in Classic American Literature, accepts the polarity of good and evil, simply preferring to cheer for the other side. He considers this book as the work in which Hawthorne, the great writer of romances, “came nearest to actuality.” Of course for Lawrence what was real, what mattered, was not the history of his times, but rather a deep engagement with the gods within. To him Hawthorne was a “serpent,” a “demon,” in spite of his image as “a blue-eyed darling.” “You must look through the surface of American art and see what demons [its authors] were.” For Lawrence the book records the impossibility of salvation for those who have both lost the vision of the Heavenly Father and who fail to conform to their own nature, figured as the Holy Ghost.
Lawrence’s counter-cultural eroticism may seem miles apart from Hawthorne’s belated Puritanism which, with all of its Biblical imagery, sometimes makes the reader feel momentarily adrift in some new adventure of Bunyan’s Christian, but the fact is that Lawrence’s lower-case gods comport well with Hawthorne’s troubled nineteenth century sensibility. His critique of his own society’s hypocrisy had a good deal in common with Hawthorne’s. The descent of the well-meaning intellectuals and artists of Blithedale is the more catastrophic as they plummet from the lofty height of their own set of principles. The high-minded Transcendentalist philosophers are seen “all going slightly rotten” through infidelity to their own natures which Lawrence has good fun calling “the Holy Ghost.” Lawrence’s sarcasm is too good to pass up. He says that Brook Farm is where “the famous idealists and transcendentalists of America met to till the soil and hew the timber by the sweat of their own brows, thinking high thoughts the while, and breathing an atmosphere of communal love, and tingling in tune with the Oversoul, like so many strings of a super-celestial harp. . . . Of course they fell out like cats and dogs. . . .And all the music they made was the music of their quarreling.” As the spiritual and the psychological are for Lawrence as closely identified as they were for Hawthorne, his reading works admirably. (His essay ends with an anticlimactic finale ridiculing spiritualists which may yet retain some bite in this era of New Age charlatans.)
The use of the term “romance,” as Hawthorne explains in his preface, is meant to allow a “conventional privilege,” to stray from the mimetic path,” which would otherwise require putting the work, as he says “side by side with nature.” He seeks instead a “strange enchantment,” but this is not inconsistent with the representation of lived experience. Indeed, his time at Brook Farm, he says, was “essentially a day-dream,” and, in his reminiscence, it has an air of exotic mystery and of adventure comparable to George William Curtis’s accounts of Egypt and Syria.
But such a paradox is entirely consistent with Hawthorne’s quest for transcendence while working the manure pile. Lawrence mocks Hawthorne saying “I never felt more spectral” than while doing manual labor, but the fact is that Lawrence felt the same way about having sex. For him there is no contradiction between the spiritual and the carnal, only a need for balance. “Love is the hastening gravitation of spirit toward spirit, and body towards body in the joy of creation.” (“Love”)
When the psyche is too far out of balance, drastic relief may be attractive. Coverdale shocks the reader when he says, “If I choose a counsellor, in the present aspect of my affairs, it must be either an angel or a madman.” (157) The reader may be excused for blinking momentarily and wondering whether the words were written by Hawthorne or by Allen Ginsberg yet both sought experience out of the common way in pursuit of a deeper, a truer experience

2. The Fall of Communes
The most successful enterprise at Brook Farm was, not surprisingly, the school which attracted students from a considerable distance. Like many more modern communes and back-to-the-land projects, the farm’s residents were educated members of the bourgeoisie lacking agricultural experience. Hawthorne generates comedy in the comments of the “uncouth” Silas Foster, the genuine Yankee farmer who directs the group’s farming activities. The account in Blithedale Romance provides a range of miscellaneous motives among the communards: Hollingsworth sees it as a pool for recruits for his own plans for the reform of felons, Priscilla is passively brought there, Coverdale himself has only the foggiest idea why he has come. Hawthorne himself according to his biographers, saw Brook Farm as the likeliest and most practical way he might support himself and a wife. The book would have been an unconvincing romance indeed if the social experiment had been represented as succeeding.
Most activists for social change are motivated by self-interest. Workers campaigned for unions, women for suffrage, and African-Americans for civil rights. Others, however, join in the struggle for progress out of sympathy, caritas or karuna , if you will. Early settlement houses were supported by affluent patrons, and people in the developed world donate money for the suffering children of poor regions they will never visit. Yet a third category is discernible as well: those who may be themselves comfortable, yet feel their own freedom is dependent making gestures at least directed toward moving society forward. I used to say in the sixties, “Liberals are motivated by compassion; radicals seek their own liberation.”
A good part of the radicalism of intellectuals and artists arises from this last sort of motive. Apart from the obvious role of highly-educated revolutionary leaders such as Marx, Lenin, Castro, and Ho, the fact is that ever since the Romantic movement, a significant share of writers have been adversarial critics of the social order as they found it, mostly on the left but sometimes on the radical right. In my own era, and indeed in my own life, the American movement has been based in this group more than any other. While labor unions lost their broader social vision and became bureaucratized, and socialism has been forgotten by the proletariat, college-educated youth and veteran progressives have continued to campaign on feminist, environmental, and peace issues, and against imperialism in spite of their own often comfortable circumstances.
Marx himself recognized the contradiction when he declined the presidency of the Internationale in favor of the candidacy of the cobbler George Odger. Part of what marks the gap between the left organizations of the 1930s and those of the 60s is that, apart from the African-American element, the later movement was composed for the most part of people of bourgeois origins. The founding document of the Students for a Democratic Society, the Port Huron Statement (1960) declares at its outset, “ We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit.” To its authors the “contentment amidst prosperity” one would have expected from American wealth in fact might “better be called a glaze above deeply felt anxieties.”
George Ripley, at whose home the first meeting of the Transcendental Club was held, was a liberal Unitarian whose social ideals were shaped by his theological orientation, not his own exploitation. Even after Fourierism became the ideology of Brook farm, there was little attempt to shape the society at large. Members sought their own liberation in the supportive context if a group of the like-minded (as the Transcendentalists sometimes called themselves). If they could not alter the structure of society, they could at least feel convinced of their own righteousness. If they could not successfully challenge the growing capitalist power of their day, they could contend against factions of their own comrades.
The history of communes indicates that those that lasted were most often those with authoritarian, often religious structure : the Amana Colonies, the Bruderhof, the Shakers (and the Farm and Lama among groups originating in the 1960s). Freer aggregations such as Brook Farm and Drop City were more short-lived, arising as they did from the conjunction of the politically radical with the intellectual and artistic elite, a distinguishing mark of the post-Romantic era. In the United States the socialist sympathies of advanced thinkers were recorded in Blithedale Romance, but the narrative contains also sufficient explanation for their failure to advance that cause. The fact that the author’s interests were far more moral and psychological than social goes far to explain why the experiment which he joined could not survive.

References are to the 1958 Norton paperback with an introduction by Arlin Turner.