- Historic Sites
The idealists who founded this Utopian colony were singularly well versed in mystical philosophy— and singularly ignorant about farming
February/March 1986 | Volume 37, Issue 2
“Yes, but the whole fish had to be tortured and slain that you might tempt your carnal appetite with that one taste of the tail,” Lane rebuked her. “Know ye not, consumers of flesh meat, that ye are nourishing the wolf and tiger in your bosom?” This and other memories of Fruitlands were recorded years later by Louisa May in a lively little book called Transcendental Wild Oats. In it she changed the names of the characters, but other sources confirm many of the episodes that she witnessed as a girl of ten.
The colonists’ lives fell into a daily pattern: up at dawn; cold baths in the river; music (Lane had brought a violin); breakfast of bread and fruit; work in the fields; the noon meal, followed by “deep-searching conversation”; more work; the evening meal; and “social communion” until sunset.
It was in the conversations that the Fruitlands experience found its justification. Alcott would propose a topic, such as “What is the highest aim?” and each person would expound his or her answer. (Lane: fidelity. Larned: thoughtfulness. Alcott: innocence.) All ages would contribute to the word-fest.
As the work in the fields went forward, some of the ideas the philosophers started with fell by the wayside. After a few tries at turning the sod by spade, they gratefully accepted Palmer’s offer of a team consisting of one ox and one cow. Potatoes were planted along with the aspiring vegetables. Unfortunately Palmer was not around to keep them from sowing three different grains in the same field. Emerson paid a visit in midsummer. “They look well in July,” he wrote in his diary. “We shall see them in December.”
At intervals Alcott was a vigorous worker on the farm. “Orpheus at the plow” was what William Ellery Channing, the great preacher, had once called him, in amused admiration. Lane, on the other hand, seemed to feel that, having paid for the farm, he could confine himself to supervisory duties. Both of them spent many days traveling around the countryside, spreading the transcendental word and seeking fellow spirits.
These were not hard to find. In that tingling time when New England stood between a rural past and an industrial future, the country west of Boston was sprinkled with reformers and dreamers. Four miles north of Fruitlands a community of Shakers was well established. Brook Farm and Hopedale were not far away. Scattered about were knots of phrenologists who read character from the skull, hydropathists who found salvation in cold water, Grahamites who put their faith in whole wheat bread, and Millerites who expected the Second Coming that very year. A time-traveler from Southern California in the 1960s would have found congenial company in Massachusetts of the 184Os.
Autumn came early and, as Emerson had feared, the fair-weather colonists began drifting away. The crops were sparse. Only the barley did well, and when that was ready for harvest, the founders were away on one of their walking trips, answering “some call of the Oversoul,” as Louisa recorded. It fell to Abby, the three older girls, and the Lane boy to get in the harvest.
There was spiritual trouble as well. In most of their ideas Alcott and Lane were perfect brothers. But Lane had one idea that Alcott did not share: he believed that marriage and the family were obstacles to the realization of a wider community fellowship. He kept trying to work celibacy into their statements of principle, and as the season wore on, he began putting pressure on Alcott to rid himself of his wife and family.
Abby could see that her husband was torn between his intellectual affinity for Lane and his love for her and the girls. For thirteen years she had put up with all of Bronson’s foibles, but she was now ready to act decisively. First, Lane received a letter from her brother, Sam, stating that the money needed to pay the next installment on the farm would not be forthcoming. Then Abby announced that she was leaving and taking the furniture.
Ten old apple trees convinced these sanguine founders to christen their domain Fruitlands.
The simmering feud between Abby and Lane was ended. Lane took his son and went off to live with the celibate Shakers, where, as Louisa maliciously pointed out, “he soon found that the rule of things was reversed, and it was all work and no play.” Early in January the Alcotts were left alone in the cold house with little to eat but barley. Bronson took to his bed and refused to eat at all, but after three days he had a change of heart and resolved to live. A few days later they all moved out, deciding to stay with friends.