- 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
First a smallpox epidemic smote thirty out of the ninety “workers.” Then, in December, when many of the patients were tottering back to their tasks, two bitter disillusionments became generally known to the rank and file. Nathaniel Hawthorne, who had attempted to withdraw his capital investment of $1,000 when he left the community in the fall of 1841, now sued George Ripley and Charles Anderson Dana for the $530 still due him. Though the amount involved seems petty, it represented five times or more what it does today; and furthermore, in fairness to Hawthorne, it should be said that a federal appointment in the Salem customs or post office had not as yet been forthcoming, and he had been compelled to borrow from friends and dun his publisher for royalties. Hawthorne’s financial anxiety was further increased by his wife’s pregnancy. Be that as it may, Ripley was stunned. The case would not be tried until spring, but meanwhile it hung menacingly over his head.
As if this were not worry enough, there came another bitter pill for Ripley to swallow. Just before Christmas he had written to Albert Brisbane, asking him to solicit money for Brook Farm in its hour of need among the New York Fourierists—the very same men who, with Brisbane himself, had urged Ripley to change Brook Farm into a phalanx. Brisbane now replied that it would be hopeless to ask them—“you might as well undertake to raise dead men”—and he refused to do so. Both he and “the New York friends,” Brisbane declared, were now more interested in a new phalanx at Red Bank, New Jersey.
The winter of 1845–46 dragged along in the wistful hope that John Orvis and John Allen, two young newcomers to Brook Farm who had gone on a lecture tour to spread Fourierism throughout New England, might not return empty-handed. But the tour bore little fruit.
The two worst misfortunes were still to come.
On March 3, 1846, Brook Farm’s uncompleted phalanstery—the Farmers had gone some $7,000 into debt for it, expecting that the increase in personnel would pay for itself—was totally destroyed by fire. On March 7, the case of Nathaniel Hawthorne versus George Ripley et al. was tried in the Middlesex County Court of Common Pleas, and the court directed Ripley to pay the debt, plus the legal expenses—$560.63 in all.
In the reckoning the Farmers slowly brought themselves to face, the debt to Hawthorne did not count so much as the burning of the phalanstery. At first, leaders like John Dwight and Mrs. Ripley seem to have been too dazed to realize that disbandment was now inevitable. Ripley was concentrating on the Harbinger—the expected issue went to press at Brook Farm two days after the fire. Young Dana, probably the most intelligent of these idealists, was among the first to leave. He took his bride, Eunice Macdaniel, to New York, where he subsequently assisted Horace Greeley in editing the New York Tribune, and one by one all but a few remaining Farmers left.
Others benefited from what George and Sophia Ripley had made of Brook Farm, but only the Ripleys assumed responsibility for the debts. Before leaving the charred ruins of the phalanstery, George sold his precious library of foreign books to his friend Theodore Parker. “I can now understand,” Ripley remarked sadly, “how a man would feel if he could attend his own funeral.”
In August, George and Sophia moved to Long Island, New York—she to teach school, he to continue the Harbinger. To serve as editor of this organ, which survived the disasters at Brook Farm, was the only comfort to George Ripley in his hour of defeat. From an office above the New York Tribune in Manhattan, he threw all his energies into promoting the cause of Association, and abandoned Brook Farm to its fate.
Some of the die-hard enthusiasts, notably the Dwights, had lingered on. Ripley forced their hand at a meeting of the stockholders and creditors of the Brook Farm Phalanx, on August 18, 1847, when it was unanimously voted that “the President of the Phalanx, George Ripley,” be “hereby authorized to transfer to a Board of Three Trustees the whole property of the Corporation, for the purpose and with power of disposing of it to the best advantage of all concerned.” Ripley misguidedly believed that Fourierism, through his efforts in the Harbinger, might yet survive. When the Harbinger sputtered out, in February, 1849, George Ripley sickened and was silent.
Feeling, perhaps, a trifle at fault for his friend’s desperate plight, Greeley offered Ripley Margaret Fuller’s former position of literary critic on the Tribune, at a salary of five dollars a week. It would take George Ripley more than ten years to pay off the debts he had assumed for the failure of Brook Farm—paltry debts which could easily have been financed if the banks had extended loans then as they do today.
In the meantime, Ripley found his true vocation, and he was slowly gaining recognition as a man of letters. In 1857 his great achievement, the New American Cyclopaedia, was begun—actually it was the first American encyclopedia—in collaboration with his onetime pupil at Brook Farm, Charles Dana. Though published in the very midst of the Civil War, the volumes were quickly taken up by a public starved for a reference book of such authority.