Fruitlands: The Alcott Family and Their Search for Utopia

Richard Francis
Copyright Date: 2010
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 336
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    This is the first definitive account of Fruitlands, one of history's most unsuccessful-but most significant-utopian experiments. It was established in Massachusetts in 1843 by Bronson Alcott (whose ten-year-old daughter Louisa May, future author ofLittle Women,was among the members) and an Englishman called Charles Lane, under the watchful gaze of Emerson, Thoreau, and other New England intellectuals.

    Alcott and Lane developed their own version of the doctrine known as Transcendentalism, hoping to transform society and redeem the environment through a strict regime of veganism and celibacy. But physical suffering and emotional conflict-particularly between Lane and Alcott's wife, Abigail-made the community unsustainable.

    Drawing on the letters and diaries of those involved, Richard Francis explores the relationship between the complex philosophical beliefs held by Alcott, Lane, and their fellow idealists and their day-to-day lives. The result is a vivid and often very funny narrative of their travails, demonstrating the dilemmas and conflicts inherent to any utopian experiment and shedding light on a fascinating period of American history.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-16944-7
    Subjects: History, Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-12)

    About thirty miles west of Boston there is a pleasant country lane called Prospect Hill Road, alongside which are plump suburban houses with cars in their driveways, basket ball hoops, sheltering bushes and trees. At a certain point on the west side of the road, the land falls away and a huge view opens up—the prospect of Prospect Hill. A driveway snakes down with a scattering of buildings on each side of it. The far one, a deep red clapboard farmhouse, is situated about two-thirds of the way down the slope, tucked into a shallow dell. Beyond it the...

  5. Part 1: The Seed
    • 1 To Reproduce Perfect Men
      (pp. 15-31)

      In 1834 Amos Bronson Alcott arrived in Boston with his wife Abigail and their two small daughters, Anna and Louisa. He was a schoolteacher, at a time when formal qualifications were not needed for the profession, which was just as well, since he didn’t have any. He was a tall, lanky man, with fair hair and rather horsey features, restless and impulsive, with an extraordinary gift for talking.

      Alcott came from a struggling farm in Wolcott, Connecticut, and was born in 1799, the oldest of a family of eight children.¹ He left school at thirteen but read widely under the...

    • 2 Now I Know What Thought Is
      (pp. 32-45)

      At about the time Alcott was conversing on the gospels at the Temple School, a young British intellectual by the name of George Henry Lewes was regularly attending a discussion group in a London tavern situated in Red Lion Square. Eventually, Lewes would become an important literary critic and philosopher (as well as the partner of George Eliot), and he was attracted to this gathering because it discussed philosophical matters.

      It was a group of characters who could have stepped straight out of the pages ofPickwick Papers: a bookstall owner, a watchmaker, a sonneteer, a cobbler, an anatomist. One...

    • 3 A Joy in a Winding Sheet
      (pp. 46-68)

      Alcott was in Limbo. For a time he held a class in a small room in the basement of the Temple building, and then in his lodgings. “A few children come daily to my house,” he said, “but that does not give me a school.” In addition he conducted public “Conversations.” He would borrow or rent a room for the evening, sell tickets, and talk with his audience on matters of philosophy or morality. His family was close to destitution, and he felt intellectually isolated. “Few men know me, fewer listen to me. I seem to be of small account.”¹...

    • 4 Fabling of Worlds
      (pp. 69-83)

      The voyage lasted three weeks (it was a period of transition in transatlantic crossing—vessels had steam engines generating 400 horsepower or so, as well as sails).¹ As theRosalindmade its way past the Newfoundland Banks, Alcott led a Conversation on reform. He must have let his dreams of utopia carry him away because his fellow passengers thought at first he was simply spinning pleasing fables. But by persevering, Alcott was able to make them believe in the concreteness of his proposals (so he thought), enacting on an intellectual level the very journey he was making on an elemental...

    • 5 Rembrandt’s Pot
      (pp. 84-94)

      The idea that Bronson Alcott had sold a utopia in Massachusetts to a bunch of Englishmen shook Emerson to the core—particularly because he felt implicated in the potential disaster, as it was he who had sent the paradise planter across the brine in the first place. What was happening was the rabid transmission of the reforming zeal he had just described in theDialin his “Lecture on the Times”: “They bite us, and we run mad also.”¹ He therefore wrote a letter which he insisted Alcott should show to Wright and Lane. In it he said that while...

  6. Part 2: The Fruit
    • 6 Hesitations at the Plunge
      (pp. 97-106)

      Utopia had been inaugurated at Concordia Cottage. Emerson gave the travelers a cautious welcome. He was impressed by the thousand books they had brought with them, a combination of the Alcott House library and purchases Alcott himself had made in London and Derbyshire, but a little appalled by the unrelenting mysticism of their contents. “We shall scarcely need the moon any longer o’ nights,” he told his brother William, imagining the mass of cabalism giving off a phosphorescent glow.

      Emerson also noted with some alarm that the collection included “9 or 10 volumes of Mr. Greaves’s MSS, & some casts & prints...

    • 7 The Mind Yields, Falters, and Fails
      (pp. 107-116)

      Our three adventurers, Emerson called the utopians from Concordia Cottage. But there was another adult living in those cramped confines, as well as five children. What of Abigail Alcott?

      Lane and Wright claimed to be impressed by American womanhood. “The greatest interior advantage which they observed in our community over theirs was in the women,” Emerson reported. “In England the women were quite obtuse to any liberal thought; whilst here they are intelligent & ready.”¹ It is a distinctly backhanded compliment, particularly given the insufferably patronizing tone—and one of those Englishwomen apparently obtuse to liberal thought was Elizabeth Wright, left...

    • 8 The Little Wicket Gate
      (pp. 117-136)

      On January 16, 1843, Alcott did something strange, even by his standards. He got himself sent to jail.¹ Or rather, being Alcott, he tried to get himself sent to jail but didn’t quite succeed.

      His plan was to opt out of state control by refusing to pay the poll tax. As we saw in Chapter 3, the antislavery agitation that provided the original impulse of the movement had broadened into a belief that to pay taxes meant endorsing government violence, as expressed in the maintenance of a militia and the prosecution of wars, and from there it had ballooned into...

    • 9 The Principle of Inverse Ratio
      (pp. 137-154)

      Over in London Carlyle had read the second part of Lane’sDialessay on that “blockhead” Greaves, and on March 11th put pen to paper to warn Emerson he should keep “a rather strict outlook on Alcott and his English Tail … Bottomless imbeciles ought not to be seen in company with Ralph Waldo Emerson.”¹ He didn’t need to worry, since Emerson was hardly likely to be seduced. He had his fear of the utopian impulse to keep him at a distance, after all, not to mention a sense of humor. At about this time he produced a surreal account...

    • 10 Diffusive Illimitable Benevolence
      (pp. 155-172)

      They called the new property Fruitlands. The land below the farmhouse, stretching down toward the Nashua River, had been known as the Plum Tree Meadows since early colonial times, so that name provided a sort of precedent.¹ The connection would one day be honored in Louisa May Alcott’sLittle Men, when Jo calls her school Plumfield.² But in June 1843 the name Fruitlands was hardly a description, more a statement of intent, since apart from the few apple trees mentioned by Lane (years later Louisa remembered just ten in all, old ones at that), there was no orchard. It takes...

    • 11 The New Waves Curl
      (pp. 173-184)

      Taking advantage of a wet morning, the indefatigable Lane put pen to paper on June 16th to send another progress report to William Oldham back at Ham. Once again he stressed the bargain he had got. “It seems to be agreed on all hands … that we have not made a bad exchange, even in the commercial sense, of our cash for land.” He expatiates on his theme, grabbing his old colleague by the lapels: “Only think, brother Oldham”—land four pounds an acre, one large area of peat, “black as ink,—valued at 200 to 300 dollars per acre!”...

    • 12 Utter Subjection of the Body
      (pp. 185-198)

      While lane continued to try to accommodate Alcott’s commitment to the family, Alcott was doing his best to move in the other direction. On July 2nd he gave a lecture to his fellow members of the Fruitlands community, back in a familiar role, teacher’s chalk in hand. “Mr Alcott most beautifully and forcibly illustrated on the black board the sacrifices and utter subjection of the body to the Soul,” Abigail wrote in her journal, “showing the + on which the lusts of the flesh are to be sacrificed.”

      “Most beautifully”—she does her best to approve, the loyal wife even...

    • 13 The Consociate Family Life
      (pp. 199-210)

      Alcott and Lane made some purchases in Boston and visited Brook Farm at West Roxbury (though they were obviously unaware of Hecker’s intention to return there for the time being). “There are 80 or 90 persons playing away their youth and day time in a miserably joyous frivolous manner,” Lane reported to Oldham. Most of the adults were there to “pass ‘a good time,’ ” he concluded grumpily (this is the same letter in which he worried about the love, unity, and humanity of Hecker’s family). He was horrified at the “prominent position” of animals in the community, totting up...

    • 14 Penniless Pilgrimages
      (pp. 211-226)

      On August 26th Abigail Alcott visited the Shakers to see their way of life for herself. For Lane they exemplified a successful and well-ordered community founded on sexual abstinence, female leadership, and a new balance between the sexes. Abigail reached precisely the opposite verdict. “I gain but little from their domestic or internal arrangements,” she confided to her diary. “There is servitude somewhere, I have no doubt.” Far from finding evidence of sexual equality, she detected signs of exploitation. “There is a fat sleek comfortable look about the men,” she observed, “and among the women … a stiff awkward reserve...

    • 15 Softly Doth the Sun Descend
      (pp. 227-239)

      When Louisa May Alcott woke up on October 8th, her first thought was “It’s Mother’s birthday: I must be very good.” She ran down to give her a kiss and wish her happy birthday. After breakfast the Fruitlanders gave Abigail their presents. Louisa’s was a cross made of moss, and a piece of poetry. To celebrate, school was canceled for the day and instead the children played in the woods and collected autumn leaves. Louisa and Anna had a row. “O she is so very very cross I cannot love her,” Louisa told her mother in a letter she put...

    • 16 Nectar in a Sieve
      (pp. 240-252)

      It happened off-stage, so it is impossible to tell if Abigail Alcott herself took the initiative, or her brother Sam. When the Fruitlands deal went through, Lane had paid only $1,500 of the required amount of $1,800. The missing $300 had gone to settling Alcott’s debts, and was due to be paid to Maverick Wyman in installments at six-monthly intervals over two years. The sum of $75 had therefore now become due. Because he had needed a mortgage on the property, he had been forced to farm for profit, rather than live self-sufficiently, which had been the intention. Emerson had...

    • 17 Cain and Abel
      (pp. 253-268)

      Alcott’s old colleague, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, also attended the convention in Boston over Christmas and New Year, and reported its proceedings in theDial. She arrived already aware of Fourier’s secret doctrines. “We confess to some remembrances of vague horror, connected with this name,” she said, but these doubts were immediately dispelled by the contribution of William Ellery Channing, the Christian Fourierist who had chaired the Conversation Alcott and Lane held during their penniless pilgrimage to New York. Channing put her mind at rest by showing how Fourier’s scheme could be reconciled with religious morality.¹

      It must have been galling...

    • 18 Tumbledown Hall
      (pp. 269-277)

      On October 1,1844 the Alcotts moved back to Concord, renting rooms in a house belonging to a cousin of their old landlord Edmund Hosmer.¹ Emerson, on impulse, had just bought fourteen acres of land by the shores of Walden Pond, a mile or so from the center of the village, one of his favorite haunts. Now he could grow his own blackberries, he told his brother William. He was not surprised to find Alcott immediately on the prowl. “The dreaming Alcott is here with Indian dreams that I helped him to some house & farm in the Spirit Land!”²

      Alcott wrote...

  7. Conclusion
    (pp. 278-283)

    The Fruitlands fiasco was the product of misunderstandings and mistakes on every level, practical, personal, philosophical.

    It is quite obvious that Lane and Alcott should not have acquired a farm in the first place. By its very nature a farm involves overproduction and the trading of surplus produce, while the Fruitlanders wished to be self-sufficient and avoid vicarious living. Their way of life required a large garden-cum-orchard, or a smallholding. The excess acreage represented the afterglow of Lane’s original ambition to be part of a large project. The fact that in walking the land Mrs. Alcott felt the pull of...

  8. Notes
    (pp. 284-302)
  9. Sources
    (pp. 303-310)
  10. Index
    (pp. 311-322)