- Hating Miles Coverdale
What does it mean to hate Miles Coverdale? While a number of Nathaniel Hawthorne's characters have elicited ambivalent responses, the unusually hostile criticism leveled against the narrator of The Blithedale Romance (1852) appears to pose a unique analytical problem. Certainly, Coverdale's storytelling frustrates readers because of his unreliability: Because we are so frequently reminded that he presents only his partisan version of the "truth," it is difficult to trust his narrative voice. And because that voice is so inconsistent and erratic, it is understandable that some readers may feel justified in dismissing his description of Blithedale's socialist project. But scholarly irritation with Coverdale frequently goes beyond mere critical distrust and assumes a decidedly ad hominem tone, leaving even typically imperturbable critics raging against his narrative crimes.
What might it mean, for example, for an otherwise sympathetic reader to register a sense of betrayal that this narrator, who in his youth "seems an evenhanded fellow, possessed of a social conscience," ultimately reveals himself "never to have numbered among those who earnestly believe and aid in schemes for 'human progress'"? Or for a pair of scholars to marshal somewhat controversial evidence in support of their claim that Coverdale is not only "a remarkably pathetic as well as a remarkably repulsive figure" but also a murderer? Or for one prominent critic to rail against Coverdale for "forc[ing]" him, "through a catty withdrawal into class-linked dandyism," [End Page 363]
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to "become as voyeuristic and prying as he is, just to figure him out"?1 The range of negative emotions incited by the novel's narrator (insult, anger, hurt, betrayal) suggests the extent to which Blithedale touches a particularly personal nerve. Indeed, scholarly hostility toward Coverdale seems to measure the novel's refusal to square with readers' perceptions of what he (and the book) should be.
In this essay, I suggest that such responses may point, not so much to the inadequacies of Blithedale's narrator, as to the complexities (and even some of the ironies) of contemporary analytical concerns. Readers want this book to serve a range of purposes: as a socialist manifesto; as a feminist denunciation of chauvinism; as a subversive exploration of antebellum sexual desire. Yet it ultimately refuses alignment with any single cause or point of view, a condition of dissent that is exacerbated by Coverdale's apparently deliberate attempts to thwart the expectations readers have for his tale. The problem for many critics, then, is not just that Coverdale makes inappropriate narrative and social choices but that he is inconsistent in the choices that he makes. The seemingly incompatible ideological pairings that characterize his romance (socialist/capitalist, feminist/misogynist, homoerotic/heteronormative) simply do not make logical sense.
It is in this respect that Blithedale serves as an unusually prescient text for our current critical moment, particularly when negative scholarly reactions to Coverdale's narrative are juxtaposed against similarly disapproving reactions to Hawthorne himself. I want to argue that the epistemological indeterminacy represented by Coverdale's narrative—one that is similarly proposed in the prefaces to Blithedale and The House of the Seven Gables, and that is represented, as well, in the incongruities of Hawthorne's own personal value systems—does not mesh well with an analytical desire for stable, comprehensible forms of social knowledge. Specifically, I maintain that the need for Coverdale to "make sense" to readers highlights sense-making itself as a significant (if often implicit) critical goal. Despite a tendency in recent criticism to register a thoroughgoing skepticism over notions of "reliability" or "truth," the desire to untangle and understand Coverdale's narrative may in fact [End Page 365] signal an investment in precisely those narrative (and often political) concerns that some contemporary theory would have us disavow in favor of epistemological and social ambiguity.2 In this regard, critical frustration with Coverdale notes how the social implications of texts (and authors) are never merely culturally relative; readers likely would not be irritated with Coverdale, in other words, if they did...