The few months between June 1843 and January 1844 were some of the most incredible and important of Amos Bronson Alcott
's life. During this time, he and his family lived in a utopian community he had cofounded to enable himself and his followers to live in perfect harmony with Transcendental ethics.
The example for this "new Eden" came while Alcott was in England during the summer of 1842. After the Temple School failed, Ralph Waldo Emerson
gave Alcott the money he needed to travel to England. There he saw and admired the work of a group of teachers and philosophers, among them Charles Lane
and Henry Gardner Wright
. These men ran a school that was based on many of Alcott's ideas and, in fact, was named after him--the Alcott House. Like Alcott, the English reformers had begun as educators, but once they found that society restrained individual development, they too became critics of institutions. The English reformers became communists in property (for all property belonged to God), anarchists in government, free lovers in marriage, and vegetarians in diet. In everything, they aimed at absolute freedom from instituted authority. While Alcott was there he met several men, most notably Charles Lane, who were interested in experimenting with communal living.
The idea of a spiritual community based on shared moral values fascinated a number of Transcendentalists, as well as many social reformers in general. At that time, there were several utopian communities in America that the group could have joined. Brook Farm was the most obvious one; based increasingly on the utopian theories of Charles Fourier
, it was located near Boston and involved many of Alcott's friends and fellow transcendentalists (including Nathaniel Hawthorne
for a time). But Alcott and Lane felt that Brook Farm was not pure enough; indeed, for Lane, the Association in West Roxbury did not even qualify as what he considered a true "community." Alcott and Lane chose to start their own community in order to carry out all their philosophies.
After the failure of his schools, Alcott was naturally quite gratified to find such strong support for his ideas and life's work in England. It was probably the high he experienced from his association with these men that led to the establishment of Fruitlands. Fruitlands was a direct consequence of Alcott's practical need to act on his high ideals. For Alcott, his experience in England renewed his faith in America, particularly New England, which seemed a natural place for a utopian community.
While they insisted that reform began with the individual, they considered themselves already reformed. Charles Lane wrote home to the New Age that "It occurs to me continually that this is the land for liberation of mankind, physically, socially, mentally, and morally. True it is that the people of this country are not free in all respects. There is much priestcraft, sensuality, and selfishness--a trinity generally found in unity. But facilities for freedom are great, perhaps beyond example in the world. At present the people do not value them at their fair estimate, but they are a teachable people."
Bringing with him a library of important books, Alcott returned to his family in Concord accompanied by Lane, Lane's ten-year-old son William, and several others who soon became known as the "English mystics." After much searching, an appropriate site for the community was found. Despite his aversion to ownership of property, Charles Lane used $1800 of his own money to purchase a farm of 90 acres and to lease an old red farmhouse in rural Harvard, a town about 15 miles west of Concord. He reconciled this purchase of property with his beliefs in the following way: "We do not recognize the purchase of land; but its redemption from the debasing state of proprium, or property, to divine uses, we clearly understand; where those whom the world esteems owners are found yielding their individual rights to the Supreme Owner." Alcott was uninterested in the owner of the land provided that its free use could be obtained for divine purposes.
In theory, the membership of Fruitlands was composed of a spiritual elite. "The entrance to paradise is still through the strait and narrow gate of self-denial," Alcott wrote just before the community began. "Eden's avenue is yet guarded by the fiery-sworded cherubim, and humility and charity are the credentials for admission." A total of eleven adults eventually joined Fruitlands, most of them belonging to the middle class. The major members of this "con-sociate family" were the Lanes and the Alcott family, consisting of Bronson, his wife Abby, and their four daughters--Anna was 12, Louisa was 10 and turned 11, Lizzie turned 8, and May turned 3.
All members of Fruitlands were essentially radical in their means of establishing separate identities away from society. Each experienced deep conflicts between their work and their religion, and they all underwent an awakening before joining Fruitlands. One man, Abraham Everett
, reversed his name and called himself "Wood Abram." Another man, Joseph Palmer
, insisted on wearing a long beard despite its being totally out of fashion at a time when all men were clean-shaven. Before coming to Fruitlands, in fact, he had been persecuted for his choice: once four men had attempted to forcibly cut off his beard; he beat them off, was arrested and jailed, and refused to pay a fine to be released from prison. Samuel Bower
, another member, experimented with nudism after realizing that clothing was spiritually stifling. Samuel Larned
came from a circle of intellectuals in Providence, Rhode Island, who admired the transcendentalists. Ann Page
(the only woman other than Mrs. Alcott) joined but was expelled for eating a piece of fish. There are also reports of a man who lived one year only on apples and the next only on crackers.
Another member was Isaac Hecker
, who had been a part owner of a New York baking firm. At a lecture in 1841, Hecker first heard Orestes Brownson
preach his gospel of Christian democracy. Subsequently, he rebelled against the routine of commerce since it inhibited spiritual growth. Hecker warned his brother not to "get too engrossed in outward business" but "rather neglect a part of it for that which is immortal in its life, incomparable in its fulness." The conflict between labor and self expression was felt by all the Transcendentalists--yet for Hecker, who felt himself caught up in daily trade, Fruitlands held specific appeal. Fruitlands matched Hecker's priorities in that it was much less an integrated community than a place for a person to realize his own potential.
Additionally, like others at Fruitlands, Hecker had become unable to cope with daily life. He had nervous fits, heard imaginary voices, and suffered from an unidentified sexual disorder for which others advised marriage but which convinced him always to remain celibate. In attempts to purify himself, Hecker tried fasting and restricting his diet to unleavened bread, fruit, and water--and even expressed his wish to do away with the digestive system entirely. He later became a Roman Catholic priest.
At Fruitlands, Lane advocated a strict policy of abstinence. "Neither coffee, tea, molasses, nor rice tempts us beyond the bounds of indigenous production," Lane wrote. "No animal substances neither flesh, butter, cheese, eggs, nor milk pollute our tables, nor corrupt our bodies." By living on a simple diet, the members of Fruitlands were to eliminate their need for trade and minimize labor.
If Alcott felt Brook Farm was not "austere enough," he certainly made up for this lack at Fruitlands. Absolutely no meat or other animal products were eaten (hence the name Fruitlands). In fact nothing from animals (including wool, honey, wax, or manure) nor even animal labor were used by the community. The founders felt men should not take anything from animals, for they should be as free as humans. Bronson Alcott's idealism was so strong, in fact, that he would not permit canker-worms to be disturbed, and forbade the planting of such vegetables and roots as grow downward instead of upward into the air.
Bronson Alcott's eleven-year-old daughter, Anna, agreed with her father's vegan beliefs. "We have power to think and feel with," she wrote, "and they have not the same power of thinking, they should be allowed to live in peace and not made to labour so hard and be eaten so much. Then to eat them! Eat what has life and feelings to make the body of the innocent animals! . . . Besides flesh is not clean food, and when there is beautiful juicy fruits who can be a flesh-eater?"
Furthermore, the reformers believed that spiritual freedom depended on dispensing with the labor of animals. Benevolence and disdain were both motives for reform. They wanted to eliminate cattle from the drudgery of farm labor and spare them from the degradation of slaughter for food. However, they also meant to end the need for human contact with animals because they felt that animals were revolting to the spirit. Lane was vehement about the "debauchery" of cattle raising and denounced in graphic terms the use of their "filthy ordures" as fertilizer.
The economic philosophy of Fruitlands put it in contrast with other New England communes. The nearby Shaker Community impressed Alcott and Lane with the system of communal property, but ultimately they condemned the Shakers for their practice of business. Lane believed that the Shakers sought profit due to their diet which included meat, milk, coffee, and tea. Unlike at Brook Farm, too, the philosophy of Fruitlands was based around the economy. The economy of Fruitlands was based on a single principle: abstinence from worldly activity. Thus, Fruitlands became a tightly integrated system of property, trade, and labor.
The members of Fruitlands never tried to produce more goods than they could use. They believed that a surplus of material goods would inhibit spirituality. Also, they limited production to insure that they would not become entangled in trade. Fruitlands' members held an independent economy as the supreme goal and philosophy of their community. In many ways, Fruitlands made it possible to remove oneself from the masses, deny the world completely, yet leave society wholly intact. Thus, while the members believed that something was dreadfully wrong with the market economy, they evaded the problem by changing nothing except themselves.
For a time, at least to the participants, Fruitlands seemed to work. For the first time in his life, Alcott began to show interest in agriculture. He wrote to his brothers about building dams for irrigation and using water power for industry. Alcott and Lane, with great enthusiasm, spread their ideas to others outside their community. Yet any perception of prosperity was an illusion. Emerson showed wry foresight when, after visiting Fruitlands, he wrote: "They look well in July. We shall see them in December."
The truth is, that, unfortunately, wonderful as these ideas were, they were not at all practical. Any farmer could have told this group of dreamers that it was impossible to raise enough food and other supplies by using only spades and bare hands. Also, not everyone was willing to work as hard as was necessary. Many saw the community as an opportunity to be housed and fed while sitting in apple trees writing poetry or thinking great thoughts. After all, it is much easier to dream of utopias than to plant seeds on your hands and knees. Then, too, often the philosophers would travel off to lecture and spread the news of the utopia, leaving Mrs. Alcott, the children, and the only practical man, Palmer, to do all the work.
Needless to say, this was not the result they had expected. Lane had believed that the ideal society was an urban culture dedicated to leisure. Men would be relieved of the toil of growing food for animals, and women would no longer be bound to "the servitude of the dairy and the flesh-pots." Women would be able to exercise their full moral influence on the family. Without the space wasted on cattle, population would be able to increase by a factor of four, humanity would be reunited in purified cities, and the land itself would be restored by the exclusion of manure. To secure free time, efficient production became one of Alcott's main goals after he eliminated cattle.
However, labor became drudgery when they tried to plant their crops without the help of animals. Even after Alcott sacrificed a bit of his idealism and allowed Palmer to use his oxen (one of which turned out to be a cow) to pull the plow, still not enough food could be raised to keep the community through the winter. The efforts of Alcott and the other members remained at odds with capitalism. However, Fruitlands needed capital to survive, and when they were forced to choose between practical measures for their long-term success and living spiritually, they opted for the latter.
As it became clear that Fruitlands was destined to fall apart, or as their views conflicted with the founders, members began to leave the community. By winter only the Lanes and the Alcotts remained. Lane urged Bronson to join the Harvard Shaker community. This time, though, patient Mrs. Alcott put her foot down. The Shakers were a religious society advocating total separation of the sexes. Joining them would mean the breakup of her family, something she "selfishly," according to Lane, refused to allow. Lane and his son left for the Shakers in mid-January and Mrs. Alcott moved her family to Still River (in Harvard) for a time before moving back to Concord. There is some uncertainty as to when exactly the departure from Fruitlands took place, according to Benjamin Franklin Sanborn
's Bronson Alcott at Alcott House, England, and Fruitlands, New England
(1908, Torch Press), which focuses on the Fruitlands era. On the one hand, Alcott's "Autobiographical Collections" specifies a January date ("Removing from Fruitlands, January, 1844"); on the other hand, Sanborn writes that "Louisa is probably right in fixing the date late in December, 1843" (page 72). Sanborn doesn't provide a specific reference for this claim but likely has Louisa's diaries in mind, since he quotes from them extensively.
Louisa May Alcott wrote about Fruitlands in her short piece, "Transcendental Wild Oats." Louisa was only a child at the time, but she stored the memories of Fruitlands and later wrote this story about her father's experiment. To many, that story may seem like the only thing that came out of the whole experience. But although Fruitlands failed, Alcott never gave up the ideas upon which it had been based. He simply molded them into more practical forms after learning that man was not meant to live in Eden.