- 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
Meanwhile, it had become clear to the directors of Brook Farm that the community would never become self-supporting unless they enlarged their workshops. Quick to realize the high potential of leadership at Brook Farm, Greeley and Brisbane became frequent visitors. Both insisted that the adoption of Fourier’s Theory of Attractive Industry—that each person works better when the work is congenial and the program varied—would prove an infallible panacea for the directors’ financial worries.
As Brisbane presented it, this theory did not seem to George Ripley too remote from “the Union of Labor and Culture.” The reorganization was begun in January, 1845, and in March, 1845, the Massachusetts Legislature reincorporated Brook Farm as a “phalanx,” Fourier’s term for his highly integrated community.
Some of Fourier’s plans for the good life are routine today. The central building of the phalanx, as Fourier envisioned it, was a preview of the modern apartment hotel—with the difference that each “phalanstery” would stand in the center of an extensive terrain, and sustain its populace of 1,800 on the land.
There is also a modicum of modern reasoning in Fourier’s theory of “groups and series,” which held that man tires after two hours of intense concentration, but that he is able to work long hours every day if he is refreshed by a variety of occupations. Fourier thought that his system of diversified tasks would solve the knotty problem of the distribution of benefits, for if each man earned top wages in one group, he would accept a fair distribution in all. To generous-minded George Ripley, all this seemed reason itself, and he forged ahead to make Brook Farm the outstanding phalanx in the country, and himself one of the most influential leaders of Fourierism.
After the change to Fourierism, Ripley’s transcendentalist friends lost interest in Brook Farm, while Horace Greeley and Albert Brisbane came more and more frequently to supervise the newly incorporated phalanx. Greeley was always popping up unexpectedly, and everything about him—his hair, his face, his clothes—was so white that somebody complained he was as startling as a ghost. As for Brisbane, he was forever warning the young people that only Fourierism could save mankind. One night when a group was sitting by the brook in the moonlight, one of the ladies exclaimed, “What a heavenly moon! What a beautiful world!” To which Mr. Brisbane replied, “Miserable world! Damned bad moon!”
Despite this “Gloomy Apostle” the Farmers still welcomed such friends as Christopher P. Cranch, poet, painter, musician, and cartoonist—a visitor who always brought laughter with him. And after the evening entertainment, select groups still met in one another’s rooms to drink coffee, exchange ideas, and perpetuate puns—it is surprising how gay and silly the reform-philosophy-minded Farmers could become. But such innocent gaieties seem pitiful in the light of the trouble which began soon after the change to Fourierism.
In the summer of 1844 the directors of the phalanx had decided to build a phalanstery to house more workers. The decision had been made in the expectation that the Theory of Attractive Industry would begin to pay dividends at once if operations were conducted on a larger scale. But construction dragged, and the building was not finished by late 1845, when winter again intervened.
Meanwhile, scandal had come to Brook Farm, a result of other aspects of Fourier’s system. In his first enthusiasm Ripley had failed to foresee that his association with Fourierism would automatically make him—in the eyes of the world—a supporter of the philosopher’s other radical ideas, and of his very bizarre imaginings about the cosmos. Fourier’s attitude toward sex, as Emerson put it, was “very French indeed.” Young people at an early age would be encouraged in experimental marriage; and each phalanstery would be equipped with “Corps of Bacchae and Bayaderes” for the pleasure of the male “Harmonians.” In contemplating the cosmos, Fourier became convinced that the stars mated and had little ones; and that the sea was turning into lemonade, a beverage of which he was inordinately fond.
Such aspects of Fourierism were given wide publicity in the press by enemies of the Association movement, and also by political enemies of Greeley. In consequence the Brook Farm School suffered a severe drop in enrollment, which represented a serious financial loss.
The Farm itself had ever proved a disappointment, for the soil was gravelly, the climate treacherous, and the Farmers mere amateurs. But from the start the school had been a financial as well as an educational success. Parents had regarded it a privilege to commit their offspring to the care of Mr. and Mrs. Ripley. Severely plain fare and recurring financial anxiety, especially in the winter, had been the Farmers’ lot since the founding, however; and their spirits rebounded in June, 1845, when the Fourierist organ, The Phalanx, which had died, was revived at Brook Farm as the Harbinger. Then, without warning, disaster struck.