- 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
To the west and north of the Brook Farm acres there towered in those days a magnificent stand of virgin forest, and deep within it stood Pulpit Rock, where John Eliot, the “Apostle to the Indians,” had addressed his savage congregation. In their Sunday mood the Farmers often gathered here in summer and early fall to listen to the “Christian Socialist” Dr. William Henry Channing, nephew of Dr. William Ellery Channing. His celebrated uncle no longer was able to preach, but the nephew had lifted the torch from his hand to lead reform, both as a Christian minister and an “Associanist,” as persons who endorsed such communities as Brook Farm were called.
The setting in itself was impressive—the shattered granite boulder rising from a heap of smaller rocks, with a canopy of birch trees above to serve as a sounding board. Wild columbine and mosses grew in the fissures, and the sunshine, filtering through the pines, shed a golden radiance. At the conclusion of the services, Dr. Channing would descend into the congregation and bid them all join hands to make a circle—the symbol of Universal Unity, and of the at-one-ment of all men and women”—to “form the Church of Humanity that shall cover the men and women of every nation and every clime.”
Leaving the wood, the sweep of the drive passed the long flight of steps leading up to the Eyrie—a wooden structure on a ledge of stone that was the highest point of land on Brook Farm. The smooth-matched boards were painted gray; but the severity of the building was relieved by a deep, ornamented cornice and three graceful French windows that opened on the upper of two terraces. The Ripleys moved in as soon as the Eyrie was completed, in the fall of 1842. They occupied the chamber over the parlor, and the smaller dormitories were given over to a carefully selected group of friends and pupils. The Eyrie, with its surrounding prospect—there was a grove in the rear and an orchard in front, and glimpses of the Charles River could be seen from the upper windows—was considered the most desirable lodging, and its inmates represented the “aristocracy” of Brook Farm.
After lunch, the morning students became afternoon workers, and the leaders of the community who had practiced some form of manual labor all the forenoon assembled their students for the afternoon session. The roster of pupils is ornamented with names that became illustrious—George William Curtis, one of the first occupants of “The Editor’s Easy Chair” in Harper’s Magazine, Isaac Hecker, founder of the Paulist Fathers; Francis Channing Barlow, New York secretary of state in 1869 and attorney general in 1871, in which capacity he prosecuted the Tweed Ring; and Charles Dana.
At tea time, the day’s work over, the Farmers were refreshed by “brewis,” a corn meal mush baked with molasses. Afterward, as the girls washed dishes, they sang “O Canaan, bright Canaan”; one Farmer proposed and won his girl over this kitchen sink. When the last dish had been sung to the cupboard, one and all forgathered for the evening entertainment.
The Farmers’ enthusiasm for “sociables of discernment” never flagged: indeed, it continued into the sad days when they were compelled to disband. The nature of the Brook Farm entertainments varied widely. Many evenings were devoted to philosophical inquiry and discussion, and often a visitor—such as Margaret Fuller, Bronson Alcott, or Ralph Waldo Emerson—would lead the talk.
Each of these three notables had a detached but highly interested attitude toward Brook Farm. Margaret Fuller, reputed to be the most learned woman in America, was much fawned upon by aspiring Brook Farm girls who considered it a privilege to serve her breakfast in bed. Mr. Emerson was less popular with the young; they sensed that he disapproved of their New Freedom, and they may have suspected that he had come to look for signs of last living rather than to pay respect to the Ripleys’ benign social reform. Mr. Alcott, however, enjoyed an extensive following. When he came for a visit, as many as could be seated joined him at the “Graham table,” despite its strictly vegetarian diet.
In later life, those who were present during the first two years referred to this transcendental period at Brook Farm as the “halcyon days.” For by the third summer—1843—the idyllic atmosphere was no longer the same, and several of the Farmers left. This change was in good part brought about by Albert Brisbane, who had imbibed the philosophical system of Charles Fourier while in Paris, to such effect that upon his return he became its leading apostle here.
Brisbane’s brief exposition of Fourierism, The Social Destiny of Man, had been reviewed by Sophia Ripley in the July, 1841, issue of The Dial, the transcendentalists’ organ edited by Margaret Fuller. It is evident from Mrs. Ripley’s review, which doubtless reflected her husband’s opinion as well as her own, that the Ripleys at that time were no more interested in Fourierism than in other scientific analyses of the co-operative principle.
Indeed, Fourier’s ideas did not begin to take hold of the American imagination until March, 1842, when Brisbane persuaded Horace Greeley to give him a column in the New York Tribune. Brisbane at once displayed an extraordinary talent for propaganda. In essence, his method of selling ideas was the same as that used in commercials today—repetition—and it enjoyed great success. By the summer of 1843, groups of Fourierites—called Fury-ites by the public because of their fanatical zeal—had sprung up all over.