- Planting Out after BlithedaleTranscendental Agrarianism and Ecocritical Economy
Toward the end of the first chapter of Emerson's Nature, while "crossing a bare common," his "head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space,—all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God."1 These lines, along with Thoreau's Walden, suggest transcendentalism as a tributary of ecocriticism, an early incubator of biocentric attitudes. For when the "mean egotism" of humanism "vanishes," Emerson receives "the suggestion of an occult relation between man and the vegetable," effacing the conceptual divide between nature and culture, body and mind.2 Yet the lines directly following this famous image illustrate one of the central problems of both ecocriticism and transcendentalism. For as that "transparent eye-ball," Emerson relates that "the name of the nearest friend sounds then foreign and accidental: to be brothers, to be acquaintances,—master or servant, is then a trifle and a disturbance."3 This unsettling severance encapsulates a key transcendentalist tension between individual ecological vision and responsible social ethic that ecocriticism has inherited as we struggle to transfer the updated ecological ontology for which we advocate to viable socioeconomic recommendations.
This paper will explore one transcendentalist solution to this quandary that has yet received little ecocritical attention: socialist agrarian utopianism. The socioeconomic experiments of Brook Farm, Fruit-lands, and Walden Pond were all direct attempts to bridge the troublesome gap between theory and practice by applying a transcendentalist philosophical vision to the actual sociohistorical context of [End Page 44] nineteenth-century New England. This essay will thus turn to Hawthorne's Blithedale Romance—a fictionalized account of Brook Farm, where Hawthorne resided, like his poet-narrator Coverdale, for a single summer season—in an attempt to glean positive directions for eco-criticism from Blithedale's shortcomings. For in the novel's final pages, Coverdale declares that "more and more, I feel that we had struck upon what ought to be a truth. Posterity may dig it up, and profit by it."4 This truth, I argue, is one commonly approached: that agrarian engagement is the mental and physical act in which nature and culture meet. The failure of Blithedale is due not to its georgic preoccupation but to its pervasive social strategy of detachment, a tactic that begins within individual human souls and extends in concentric rings to the settlement's relationship with its wider economic community and ultimately to the vast order of space, time, and nature itself. My reading suggests that ecocritics looking for social applications should train their gaze toward a new sort of agrarianism, one unmoored from utopian prospects of a society of small farms, and that instead places emphasis on evaluating and performing more meaningful and responsible labor within existing ecosocial networks.
As yet neither Blithedale nor the general topic of transcendental utopianism has received extended ecocritical attention. This may appear surprising, given the importance of romanticism and bioregionalism to the development of ecocriticism; but the neglect of transcendental utopias corresponds with ecocriticism's wariness of wading into the sticky realms of application. Though ecocriticism was animated early by the promise, indeed the necessity, of a literary-theoretical "return to activism" and a "re-engagement with realism" that would extend its ontological revisions outside the academy to assist the aversion of environmental catastrophe, it has largely elided discussion of the economic changes needed to do so.5 Accordingly, the one extended ecocritical reading of transcendentalist social projects, Lance Newman's Our Common Dwelling, is inspired by the same desire for biting ecocritical application that drives this essay. Writing in 2005, Newman recognizes ecocritical practice to "suffer from the weaknesses of the postmodernist tradition it extends," namely that "it is so willing to see performing radicalism, thinking difference, or renarrating history, not just as necessary but also as sufficient forms of political action."6 This is especially troubling since the [End Page 45] political strategy of consciousness raising that Newman identifies can actually collaborate in the perpetuation of oppressive institutional systems by eliding the economic action required...