- Historic Sites
A Season In Utopia
At Brook Farm a handful of gentle Bostonians launched a noble but short-lived experiment in communal living.
April 1959 | Volume 10, Issue 3
The kitchen might be smoky but the long, low dining room was scrupulously neat. Everything was white —the walls, the tables, even the dishes. Mr. Ripley sat between his wife and his sister at the further end of the room. He now wore neat pedagogical attire; Mrs. Ripley—to the astonishment of a southern visitor who was amazed to see a lady dressed like a female slave—appeared in the freshly starched homemade calico she always donned when engaged in household tasks. Most of the pupils at the Brook Farm Institute of Agriculture and Education, as the school was officially called, ate at the Ripleys’ table; and Mr. Ripley loved to talk with them at breakfast, “his gleaming eyes seeming to reflect their brilliancy on the golden bows of his spectacles.” Mrs. Ripley—tall, graceful, and slim—was, like her husband, nearsighted; but only on occasions would she raise “a gold-bowed eye-glass to look at some distant object.” As the company dispersed, red-headed young Charles Anderson Dana—destined to become the distinguished editor of the New York Sun but now chief of the “Waiter Corps —would signal to his assistants to remove the dishes to the pantry, where a “corps” of young ladies would wash them.
School kept, for the small fry, in a house across the road, tall, angular Miss Marianne Ripley, George’s sister—to the children she was known as “Her Perpendicular Majesty”—shepherded them to their schoolhouse, The Nest. Mrs. Ripley chose laundry work for her “labor,” and after supervising members of the Household Corps, she spent long hours each morning pressing such frivolities as pleated night caps; then she taught older pupils in the afternoon.
Except at the Nest, school hours were somewhat irregular. Neither animals nor crops would wait for attention, and pupils and teachers had to arrange their classes accordingly, Fortunately for the pupils, the Brook Farm teachers were skilled pedagogues. Both George and Sophia Ripley were scholars, and by instinct as well as training they knew how to arouse children’s interest. George P. Bradford of Concord, scholar and close friend of Emerson, taught literature; in addition, he had the happy gift of opening the eyes of the young to the scientific aspects of nature, and when he thought they had seen enough of shells, grasses, insects, and the like, he would turn to the heavens and give them a night lecture on the stars.
Music-maker John S. Dwight, who had just stepped down from his pulpit in Northampton, soon had all the Brook Farmers organized in groups and choirs. Frail little Mr. Dwight was often so exhausted by work in the fields that he had to lie down on a sofa after giving a music lesson. Later he was to lead public taste away from sentimental ballads and bell-ringing, both much in vogue in the 1840s, to the great lieder and symphonies of the German composers.
Nathaniel Hawthorne shared none of his associates’ zeal for social reform. He had joined Brook Farm impulsively, rashly investing $1,000, all his hard-earned savings from his labor in the Boston Custom House, with the expectation that membership in the community would enable him to marry Sophia Peabody. The Peabody sisters of Salem were an arresting trio of young ladies—Elizabeth, the educator and philanthropist; Mary, who would become the wife of Horace Mann; and Sophia, who possessed a gentleness that stout “Lizzie” and somber Mary lacked, and” to whom Hawthorne had been engaged for the past two years. (See “The Hawthornes in Paradise,” by Malcolm Cowley, AMERICAN HERITAGE, December, 1958.)
He expected that in exchange for half a day of manual labor he would secure bed and board, and leisure in which to write. To Nathaniel Hawthorne, frustrated by his slavery as a clerk, the prospect of commanding a whole half-day in which to hammer out a page must have seemed as if fate had suddenly offered him a ride on the winged horse. But his dream of leisure was never fulfilled; he had little privacy, and the manual labor so exhausted him that he could not write.
Several of his letters to his fiancée reflect the idyllic mood in which Brook Farm began. He makes us see the men, bent on wearing out old finery in the fields, sowing crops, working “our gold mine”—the manure pile—and then the sly smile of William Allen, the only professional among them, at the awkward enthusiasm with which the “philosophers” wielded the pitchfork.
The terrain of Brook Farm was delightfully varied in those days. Opposite the front door of the Hive, in a dell sheltered by graceful elms, flowed the “brook clear running,” in Sophia Ripley’s phrase, that gave the farm its new name. Rising in an arc, the drive led to the two houses built when the community, in its second and third years, seemed established. You came first to Pilgrim House, so named because it had been the gift of one Ichabod Morton of Plymouth. Above, on a knoll with a field sloping up to it, stood the Cottage, the only community building that has survived. A woman member who donated it had the building built in the form of a Maltese cross, with four gables, the stairwell in the center. Reserving a set of rooms for herself, she put the rest of the house at the service of the association.