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Visiting The Alcott Family's Failed 19th Century Utopia

This article is more than 12 years old.

Bronson Alcott, father of Louisa May Alcott of "Little Women" fame, is little known today, but in the 1840s, Alcott was called the most radical man in America and he inspired Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.

In a new book "Fruitlands: The Alcott family and Their Search for Utopia," British author Richard Francis tells the story of why, two years before Thoreau went to Walden Pond, Bronson Alcott moved his wife Abigail, their four daughters, and a number of followers into a dilapidated farmhouse on a windswept hill west of Boston, hoping to recreate the Garden of Eden.  Here & Now's Lynn Menegon visited Fruitlands to learn more.

Book Excerpt: Fruitlands: The Alcott family and Their Search for Utopia

By Richard Francis

ABOUT THIRTY MILES west of Boston there is a pleasant country lane called Prospect Hill Road, alongside which are plump suburban houses with cars in their driveways, basket ball hoops, sheltering bushes and trees. At a certain point on the west side of the road, the land falls away and a huge view opens up—the prospect of Prospect Hill. A driveway snakes down with a scattering of buildings on each side of it. The far one, a deep red clapboard farmhouse, is situated about two-thirds of the way down the slope, tucked into a shallow dell. Beyond it the valley bottoms out into an intervale, as it is technically known, a low-level tract of land by a river, the Nashua River in this case. The view stretches for miles to a couple of far mountains, Wachusett and Monadnock, the intervening land mainly forest with occasional scars from highways, a mili­tary base, a prison. But it is still a beautiful place. Standing on the slope of Prospect Hill in the summertime is like being on the shore of a vast green lake.

In 1843 an odd assortment of people assembled at that remote farmhouse (none of the other buildings were there then) to begin an experiment in living. This is the story of one of history’s most unsuccessful utopias ever—but also one of the most dramatic and significant.

In 1842 Bronson Alcott, a forty-two-year-old out-of-pocket philosopher in a state of deep depression, was funded by his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson to go to England on a morale-boosting trip. Over at Ham, in Surrey, a group of Englishmen had set up a community called Alcott House in his honor. Both Alcott and his English admirers believed that the Garden of Eden would return if only people avoided meat, cheese, milk, eggs, tea, coffee, and alcohol, preferably living on water and fruit. The English contingent also thought that a new generation of perfected humans could be born if sexual intercourse became entirely devoid of lust and passion. Alcott, however, was happily married and already the father of four daughters (one of whom was the future author of Little Women). Nevertheless two of the Englishmen, Charles Lane and Henry Wright, decided to go back to America with him to set up a utopian experiment in New England. Lane’s ten-year-old son William (product of a previous unhappy marriage) came too. They crammed into the Alcotts’ family home in Concord, and then the following summer everyone moved out to the farmhouse off Prospect Hill Road, which they named Fruitlands. Here, with a handful of other followers, they tried to live a self-sufficient life, eating their own produce and wearing homemade linen clothes (one of them believed in wearing nothing at all, in imitation of Adam and Eve).

Soon tension developed on all fronts. Alcott and Lane liked to go on “penniless pilgrimages,” taking rides across country without paying for them, in an effort to gather new recruits—they had a tendency to do this just when demanding farm work needed to be done, leaving it to the women and chil­dren. The farm chores themselves were made more difficult because the community disapproved of using animals to plow the ground and prohibited the use of manure. There were arguments about money (since the Alcotts did not have any, Lane had to pay for everything). The leaders accused each other of being tyrannical. There was despair about their inability to attract recruits to their austere way of life (the community peaked at thirteen members). One member left because Fruitlands was not spiritual enough; another found the regime too tough (she was thrown out for eating a piece of fish, at least according to one account); another—the nudist—decided it was not tough enough and left to be more abstemious elsewhere. Above all, Abigail Alcott realized that Lane’s beliefs threatened her marriage and devalued her role as a mother. Soon a battle developed between the two for the possession of her husband. As a savage winter began, she hatched a plan with her brother to bring Fruitlands to an end.

Despite their eccentricity, many of the Fruitlanders’ ideas ring bells today. They thought pollution and environmental damage could destroy civiliza­tion; they intuited the interconnectedness of all living things, and had an inkling of ecology long before the science had been invented; they were passionately opposed to slavery, and supported women’s rights; they believed in civil disobedience, and espoused anarchism. Their experiment is a blend of outmoded and surprisingly modern ways of thinking about the world. Above all it is a very human story of misunderstanding and jealousy, in which a group of idealists end by trying to destroy each other.

Fruitlands was one of a number of utopian communities that were being established in New England at that time. The year previously the Northampton Community for Association and Education had been set up about forty miles from the Fruitlands site on the western edge of Massachusetts; at about the same time the Hopedale Community was estab­lished about thirty-five miles to the southwest. These experiments, like Fruitlands itself, advocated abolitionism and temperance but ultimately were not simply a product of particular grievances or issues. They reflected large-scale political and social unease running through both Europe and America, giving rise to the Chartist movement in Britain, for example, and in due course manifesting itself in the repeal of the Corn Laws and, on the European mainland, the revolutions of 1848. The broad impulse behind the American experiments was a reaction to the industrial revolution and the rise of cities, with their consequent social injustice, poverty, and environ­mental deterioration—developments that had taken place later in the U.S.A. than on the other side of the Atlantic but which were making themselves felt by the 1840s.

The Americans indulged in their community building with particular relish, the example of the Puritan plantations and townships still comparatively fresh in their minds. There were longer-established institutions too, even closer at hand. The Shakers had settled both in Harvard village, the township to which Fruitlands belonged, and in Shirley, just a few miles west. These were religious organizations rather than reforming ones, established by the followers of Ann Lee, the eighteenth-century female “messiah,” and devoted to the worship of God through dance and song, cultivating the land, and producing simple and beautiful furniture. Though Fruitlands was not a religious community as such, its members were influenced by Shaker austerity and its prohibition of sex, its advocacy of women’s rights, and its farming practices.

There was an affinity of a different kind between Fruitlands and the most famous community of its day, Brook Farm. This utopia had been established in West Roxbury, now part of urban Boston but in those days a pleasant rural location just to the west of the city, and like Fruitlands it was the product of the Transcendentalist movement that had originated in the region in the 1830s.

New England Transcendentalism had its roots in a religious contro­versy. The Calvinism of the colonial Puritans had gradually given way to Unitarianism, a nondogmatic and inclusive form of Christianity that was essentially the product of empirical philosophy and Enlightenment values. The Unitarians held that the message of the gospels appealed to basic decency and commonsense, but because of their Lockean belief that evidence was needed to underline faith, their creed at that period was pared down to one irreducible point: a belief in the authenticity of the gospel miracles. God broke the laws of nature briefly to prove he existed: it is just what a logical Supreme Being would do.

However, a number of Unitarian ministers and other thinkers, among them Ralph Waldo Emerson, George Ripley, and Bronson Alcott, came to the conclusion that belief in miracles was an unnecessary concession to the supernatural: the Christian message was true because it was true, and didn’t need any evidence to substantiate it. From one point of view they can be seen as more rationalistic than their opponents; from another, as more mystical. As Emerson put it, “the very word Miracle, as pronounced by the Christian churches, gives a false impression: it is Monster. It is not one with the blowing clover and the falling rain.” The New England Transcendentalists believed that Christ was not endowed with supernatural gifts but was a man like other men, except that he had lived a perfect life, and thereby set an example which we can follow. It is not surprising therefore that this movement gave birth to two utopian experiments—three, if one includes Thoreau’s later community of one, when he lived in his hut for two years beside Walden Pond.

George Ripley abandoned his ministry (as did Emerson and others) and he and his wife Sophia set up Brook Farm in April 1841. Though it began in a small way, it expanded rapidly and by the time of the founding of Fruitlands had around a hundred members. It represented an attempt to abolish social division and injustice, and to reconcile manual and mental work. This meant two things essentially: cutting across class boundaries, so that manual workers lived cheek by jowl with those traditionally regarded as their social superiors; and allowing intellectuals—including the man of letters Nathaniel Hawthorne, who was a member during the first year—to live a more balanced life, with healthy work on the land acting as a counterweight to mental activity. Fruitlands shared this ambition but differed from its rival in other respects, particularly in terms of its scale.

Lane and Wright were English Transcendentalists rather than New England ones, disciples of an obscure British educationalist and philosopher called James Pierrepont Greaves, who gathered a small group of acolytes around him in London in the 1830s. Greaves had imbibed his Transcendentalism from German philosophy via the mediation of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Like his American counterparts he believed that there was a coherent underlying struc­ture to the world, and that if one lived one’s life correctly, one could participate in that universal harmony.

In his earlier days Greaves had worked with the Swiss educational reformer Johann Pestalozzi; over on the other side of the Atlantic, Bronson Alcott ran a famous experimental school in Boston for several years in the mid-1830s. Greaves came to hear of it, and made contact with him, thus trig­gering a transatlantic cross-fertilization of ideas that ultimately led to Lane and Wright joining forces with Alcott in Massachusetts to conduct their experiment in living a good life.

Nevertheless the Fruitlands community insisted on thinking of itself as a family, though what they meant by that word, and indeed whether they all meant the same thing, was to be its major bone of contention. Did “family” refer simply to a small group of people or to a biological entity? Should Fruitlands be seen as a paradigm, offering itself as an example in living to other households, or should it be regarded as part of a process, as a group that would swell inexorably? In the midst of all this uncertainty ten-year-old Louisa May Alcott was keeping a diary and recording some of the experi­ences that would lie behind the great celebration of family life she would publish nearly thirty years later.

Copyright © 2010 Richard Francis

This segment aired on November 25, 2010.


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