February/March 1986 | Volume 37, Issue 2
The idealists who founded this Utopian colony were singularly well versed in mystical philosophy— and singularly ignorant about farming
On the first day of June 1843, Bronson Alcott drove a large wagon up to his house in Concord, Massachusetts. Onto it he loaded his wife, Abby, three of his four little girls, his books, and enough belongings to sustain them in a new home. Ahead of the wagon walked a sour-faced Englishman, Charles Lane, and the oldest Alcott girl, May. Lane’s son, William, aged ten, found a place on the wagon, where he was entrusted with a bust of Socrates.
Through spells of sun and showers the little party made its way fourteen miles west to the town of Harvard. Their destination was a red farmhouse set upon ninety acres of rolling meadow and woodland, a property that Lane had paid for since Alcott, as always, had no money. There were only ten old apple trees in sight, but as Louisa May Alcott, the second daughter, later wrote, “in the firm belief that plenteous orchards were soon to be evoked from their inner consciousness, these sanguine founders had christened their domain Truitlands.’ ”
This was to be the site of a Utopian community where Alcott and a select band of fellow spirits would put into practice the vague but lofty principles of transcendentalism. Their purpose was to build a refuge against the gathering forces of industrial society and to live according to nature. Or, as their skeptical English acquaintance, Thomas Carlyle put it, “to save the world by a return to acorns and the golden age.”
Amos Bronson Alcott, at forty-three, was almost at the midpoint of a long life devoted in large part to talking. Even when his great friend Ralph Waldo Emerson took him for a walk in the fields, Alcott’s first impulse was to sit down on the nearest stone wall and talk. In all the fifty thick volumes that contain his written journals—mostly unpublished and unread—there is little to suggest the magic of Alcott’s conversation. But from his hearers there is ample testimony that he held them spellbound. Emerson, who had met the best minds in America, judged him the “most extraordinary man and the greatest genius of his time.”
Bronson Alcott had one failing, however, that distressed his wife and caused his neighbors to shake their heads. He never made a living. As a young man he had been a peddler but had ended up in debt to his father. He had taught school, brilliantly, but had lost every teaching job he held. In Concord he had worked as a handyman, but only when he felt he could spare the time from teaching and preaching. “I am of the race of the prophets,” he said. “I cannot but think that my action will make an era in the history of man.”
Alcott’s true gift, it seems clear, was that of a teacher of small children. His own education owed little to the schools he attended in rural Connecticut but much to his wide reading in literature and philosophy. Through his novel methods of teaching, first practiced in remote elementary schools, he came to the attention of educational reformers, including the Reverend Samuel May. He married May’s sister, Abby, and, partly through her social connections in Boston, was invited to start a school for the young children of Boston’s first families.
The central tenet of Alcott’s educational theory—and a cornerstone of transcendental thought—was that a child is born with an inner light, that is, with intuitive ideas that transcend the experience of the senses and the powers of reason. The teacher’s mission was not to fill the child’s mind with facts but to uncover and nurture and apply the truths that were already there. To this end Alcott adopted methods that in later times would be called progressive education. The classroom was a place of pleasure and challenge, not of discipline. He sought to draw forth the child’s own thoughts and to follow them wherever they led, even onto dangerous territory.
One of the topics he explored with the children was the miracle of birth. Ever so delicately he told them how “love begets love … the seed of the human being is placed in the midst of matter which nourishes it, and it grows and becomes perfected.... Is not a baby love made flesh?” Little Josiah Quincy, the class prodigy, aged six, offered another interpretation. The birth of a baby, he thought, had something to do with the “naughtiness of other people.”
If Alcott had kept these discussions within the classroom, he might have had no trouble. But in hopes of spreading his educational theory, he transcribed them in the book Conversations with Children on the Gospels. Then, while proper Boston parents were still reeling from the shock, he made matters worse by admitting a little black girl to his school. Enrollment dropped from nearly forty to ten, and the school had to close. The Alcotts moved to Concord, the most hospitable place for independent thinkers.
In the fall of 1842 Alcott’s spirits were lifted by news that his ideas had found fertile ground in England, where a group of educators had named their school Alcott House. Soon he was aboard ship, his passage paid by Emerson. In London he had a mixed reception. Invited to dinner by Carlyle, he dismayed his host by eating nothing but vegetables and drinking only water. The next morning Carlyle, still hoping to please this rustic philosopher, procured fresh strawberries for breakfast; Alcott put them on the same plate with mashed potatoes “so that the juices could mingle.” He was not invited back.
Among the educators, however, Alcott found true soul mates. When he sailed back to the United States, he brought with him Charles Lane and Lane’s young son. By the time they landed, they had formed a plan for a New Eden in America. They spelled out their goals in a prospectus: “simplicity in diet, plain garments, pure bathing, unsullied dwellings, open conduct, gentle behavior, kindly sympathies, serene minds.”
For the time being, the English visitors moved into the little Concord cottage, forcing the Alcotts to double up. But that was not the worst of it. Lane imposed an iron discipline, banning all animal products, including milk (except, when Abby put her foot down, for the baby). No frivolous talk was allowed. In her diary Abby recorded that she “was always frowned down into stiff guilt.”
Alcott had hoped to find support for his colony among the philosophic elite of Concord. But some of them were already paying their intellectual dues to Brook Farm, the transcendental colony outside Boston. As for Henry David Thoreau, he took a loner’s view of all such communities: “I think I had rather keep bachelor’s hall in hell than go to board in heaven.”
In the end it was Lane who put up his life savings—two thousand dollars—to buy the farm at Harvard. Abby’s brother, Sam, added three hundred dollars and agreed to hold the property as trustee, paying the purchase price in installments. The Concord intellectuals gave only their blessing. The colonists who actually showed up at Fruitlands that summer were much farther out.
The only one waiting for the founders when they arrived from Concord was Joseph Palmer, a middle-aged farmer in white clothes and a long, bushy beard. In a clean-shaven period he had been under constant pressure from his neighbors to cut off his beard, and one day in Fitchburg three young toughs had ambushed him, wielding a pair of scissors. Palmer had pulled a knife, cutting them slightly. For that he was fined ten dollars and, when he refused to pay, was put in jail, where he stayed for a year, winning a small place in history as the “Martyr of the Beard.” Palmer was a godsend because, of all those who came to Fruitlands, he was the only one who knew about farming.
Alcott and Lane had brought almost a thousand books, mostly dealing with mystical philosophy, but not a single pamphlet on agriculture. They did have ideas on the subject, but many of those ideas were at war with practicalities. They abjured the use of horses or oxen- their fellow toilers—as draft animals. They would not rob the cow of its milk or the sheep of its wool. (Since cotton was grown by slave labor, that left only linen as acceptable fabric for clothing.) Some of the colonists wanted to grow only “aspiring” vegetables that reached toward heaven and none that grew downward, such as potatoes.
One of the first to join the community was Samuel Bower, a young Englishman who adhered to the principles of transcendentalism, uncooked food, and the rest, but who also had his own special crusade. He was an Adamite, firm in the belief that humans should shed their clothes and go about as God made them. Since Mrs. Alcott would have none of that, Bower was sometimes absent. “At midsummer,” Louisa May remembered, “he retired to the wilderness, to try his plan where the woodchucks were without prejudices and the huckleberry bushes were hospitably full.”
Among others who showed up during the summer were Samuel Larned, who was said to have lived for one year wholly on crackers and another wholly on apples, and Abram Wood, who had signalized his rebellion against society by changing his name to Wood Abram. In all sixteen men joined the community, but only one woman did so. That was Ann Page, a spinster from Providence, whose first question upon arrival elicited one of Abby Alcott’s rare complaints.
‘Are there any beasts of burden on the place?” asked Ann Page.
“Only one woman,” answered Abby.
Abby soon found that Ann Page was more interested in writing poetry than in cleaning house. They quarreled, and Ann left. It was just as well, for the everwatchful Lane had discovered that Ann kept cheese in her trunk. Worse, she had stopped by a neighbor’s at dinner time and eaten a morsel of fish. Louisa May described the confrontation:
“I only took a little bit of the tail,” sobbed the penitent poet.
“Yes, but the whole fish had to be tortured and slain that you might tempt your carnal appetite with that one taste of the tail,” Lane rebuked her. “Know ye not, consumers of flesh meat, that ye are nourishing the wolf and tiger in your bosom?” This and other memories of Fruitlands were recorded years later by Louisa May in a lively little book called Transcendental Wild Oats. In it she changed the names of the characters, but other sources confirm many of the episodes that she witnessed as a girl of ten.
The colonists’ lives fell into a daily pattern: up at dawn; cold baths in the river; music (Lane had brought a violin); breakfast of bread and fruit; work in the fields; the noon meal, followed by “deep-searching conversation”; more work; the evening meal; and “social communion” until sunset.
It was in the conversations that the Fruitlands experience found its justification. Alcott would propose a topic, such as “What is the highest aim?” and each person would expound his or her answer. (Lane: fidelity. Larned: thoughtfulness. Alcott: innocence.) All ages would contribute to the word-fest.
As the work in the fields went forward, some of the ideas the philosophers started with fell by the wayside. After a few tries at turning the sod by spade, they gratefully accepted Palmer’s offer of a team consisting of one ox and one cow. Potatoes were planted along with the aspiring vegetables. Unfortunately Palmer was not around to keep them from sowing three different grains in the same field. Emerson paid a visit in midsummer. “They look well in July,” he wrote in his diary. “We shall see them in December.”
At intervals Alcott was a vigorous worker on the farm. “Orpheus at the plow” was what William Ellery Channing, the great preacher, had once called him, in amused admiration. Lane, on the other hand, seemed to feel that, having paid for the farm, he could confine himself to supervisory duties. Both of them spent many days traveling around the countryside, spreading the transcendental word and seeking fellow spirits.
These were not hard to find. In that tingling time when New England stood between a rural past and an industrial future, the country west of Boston was sprinkled with reformers and dreamers. Four miles north of Fruitlands a community of Shakers was well established. Brook Farm and Hopedale were not far away. Scattered about were knots of phrenologists who read character from the skull, hydropathists who found salvation in cold water, Grahamites who put their faith in whole wheat bread, and Millerites who expected the Second Coming that very year. A time-traveler from Southern California in the 1960s would have found congenial company in Massachusetts of the 184Os.
Autumn came early and, as Emerson had feared, the fair-weather colonists began drifting away. The crops were sparse. Only the barley did well, and when that was ready for harvest, the founders were away on one of their walking trips, answering “some call of the Oversoul,” as Louisa recorded. It fell to Abby, the three older girls, and the Lane boy to get in the harvest.
There was spiritual trouble as well. In most of their ideas Alcott and Lane were perfect brothers. But Lane had one idea that Alcott did not share: he believed that marriage and the family were obstacles to the realization of a wider community fellowship. He kept trying to work celibacy into their statements of principle, and as the season wore on, he began putting pressure on Alcott to rid himself of his wife and family.
Abby could see that her husband was torn between his intellectual affinity for Lane and his love for her and the girls. For thirteen years she had put up with all of Bronson’s foibles, but she was now ready to act decisively. First, Lane received a letter from her brother, Sam, stating that the money needed to pay the next installment on the farm would not be forthcoming. Then Abby announced that she was leaving and taking the furniture.
The simmering feud between Abby and Lane was ended. Lane took his son and went off to live with the celibate Shakers, where, as Louisa maliciously pointed out, “he soon found that the rule of things was reversed, and it was all work and no play.” Early in January the Alcotts were left alone in the cold house with little to eat but barley. Bronson took to his bed and refused to eat at all, but after three days he had a change of heart and resolved to live. A few days later they all moved out, deciding to stay with friends.
Returning to Concord the next year, the Alcotts eked out a living as before. Bronson tilled his garden, took on odd jobs, conducted his “conversations,” and eventually got an appointment as Concord’s superintendent of schools, a post that gave him standing, if not much money (one hundred dollars a year). For a while Abby earned a salary as a pioneer social worker in Boston’s Irish slums, and later she took in sewing. Thus, with the help of friends, they got by, until at length Louisa May wrote Little Women and put them all on easy street.
Lane returned to England, where he did an about-face, made a modest fortune with a financial paper, remarried, and fathered five more children. Joseph Palmer, who lived to see the beard come back into fashion, bought the Fruitlands property and kept open house for a continuing stream of seekers, eccentrics, and common tramps.
Of all the brave Utopian colonies that sprang up at the time, Fruitlands had perhaps the most impractical direction and the shortest time span. But sooner or later the others also disappeared or lost their character. They were sand castles built in the face of a rushing tide. In the same year that Bronson Alcott drove his wagon fourteen miles west from Concord, whole trains of covered wagons were setting out to cross the Rocky Mountains. At the edge of the Fruitlands property, within a few years, railroad tracks would push down the Nashua Valley. The locomotive, the telegraph, the Colt revolver, the steel plow- all were coming forth to serve an aggressive industrial nation.
The philosophic farmers had failed in their experiment. But their dream of a simpler, sweeter life lived on, through all the stress of industrialism, to sustain the dreamers of later times. Let Louisa May have the last word on the starry spirits of Fruitlands: “They said many wise things and did many foolish ones.”