A Season In Utopia

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In the first week of April, 1841, some eight or ten thoughtful, cultivated Bostonians bundled their possessions, their children, and themselves into country-going carriages and drove eight miles to a pleasant, roomy homestead in West Roxbury. Their destination, then known as the Ellis Farm, was later to be called Brook Farm, a name they made famous as the most literary—and, in ways, the least fortunate—of American Utopias. This small band, led by Mr. and Mrs. George Ripley, aimed to establish a self-supporting community whose economy would be based on a union of labor and culture, a hope in which they were doomed to disappointment. But Brook Farm is well remembered for their efforts.

George Ripley, ranking scholar in the Harvard class of 1823, had been a Unitarian minister; but recently he had become a convert to the philosophy championed by Emerson, in Nature, which held that man can attain knowledge by intuitional processes transcending the senses. Defending Emerson’s views, in a long-drawn-out controversy with Professor Andrews Norton of the Harvard Divinity School, Ripley had quite literally “talked himself out of his pulpit.”

Ripley was also profoundly troubled by the advent of the Machine. At that time the social reformers, and he was one of them, could not foresee the benefit machines would eventually bring to mankind. Horrified by the financial panic of 1837, the reformers saw only that the working-man, who had hitherto led a comparatively well-balanced life, was now a slave to “Mammon.” Consequently, a great wave of benevolence was spreading among those who desired to improve the lot of the laborer. Among these the most eminent was Dr. William Ellery Channing, the eloquent pastor of Boston’s Federal Street Church. The younger divines to whom he denounced the “evils of competition” were captivated by the solemn fire and earnestness of his warnings—uttered with emberlike eyes glowing in a drawn white face.

When Dr. Channing presented one of his “dearest ideas” to George Ripley, the younger man was well prepared to receive it. Dr. Channing wanted Ripley to bring together a group of like-minded people, to found a community where labor would be, in Emerson’s words, “honored and united with the free development of the intellect and the heart.” Such a “noble experiment,” they agreed, might eventually lead to the betterment of mankind.

The times were in tune with the purpose. As Emerson said, “We were all a little mad that winter. Not a man of us that did not have a plan for some new Utopia in his pocket.” Three other such communities —Hopedale, Northampton, and Fruitlands—were to be founded in New England within three years.

In the fall of 1840 the Ripleys had determined on action. Now, in the following spring, they set out to found a community which would show the world that there was nothing degrading about labor and that, if everyone shared in the drudgery, everyone would have leisure for culture. With the scholarly George Ripley was his dignified, cultivated wife, Sophia—she was a niece of Richard Dana, Cambridge poet and essayist, and she had taught school there prior to her marriage—and George’s sister, Miss Marianne Ripley; also the Minot Pratts and their three small children. Pratt, a printer in the office of the Christian Register, had become a convert to Emerson’s transcendentalism while setting up Ripley’s articles in type. Elise Barker, a domestic, and William Brockway Allen—a sturdy young man from Vermont who lately had managed a farm for the nonconformist Unitarian preacher, Theodore Parker, in neighboring West Roxbury—had been sent ahead to make the place ready.

Many others joined the community in the next few weeks, so that by midsummer they numbered some thirty persons. Nearly all of them entertained high hopes for the new way of life; and the younger men and women fairly reveled in the freedom from conventional restraint. One and all went about their daily tasks in an atmosphere of serene detachment from “civilization”; and from the beginning the daily routine at Brook Farm was unique.

Year after year, when the “rising horn” sounded, vague sounds of stirring were heard in “Attica,” as the rafter room in the central building was called. Soon boys and bachelors would come tumbling down ladder and stairway and out into the yard to douse their heads under the pump. Already Mr. Ripley could be seen, milking pail in hand, on his way to the barn. He always dressed for the task in loose blue smock, broad-brimmed hat, and rawhide boots. Mr. Ripley held that milking was conducive to reflection, “particularly when the cow’s tail is looped up behind.”

The central building was called The Hive, and every morning in the smoky old kitchen Mrs. Ripley, assisted by a “Household Corps,” prepared a simple but hearty breakfast of fruit, milk, eggs from the farm, and homemade bread. Presently the clatter of tablesetting echoed from the dining hall, and soon the parents with their offspring, visiting young ladies from “Boston’s best,” unattached gentlemen—among them Nathaniel Hawthorne, who had driven out to join the community in an April snowstorm—all could be seen filing through the doorway.