Book Review: “Fruitlands” — New England Utopia Gone Wrong
You can understand why historian and novelist Richard Francis became attached to this quixotic piece of New England history. It’s got an amazing cast of colorful characters, and dramatic rivalries that involve contests over land, love, money, and sex.
Fruitlands: The Alcott Family and Their Search for Utopia by Richard Francis. Yale University Press, 344 pages, $30.
What a story! When you’re standing in the rudimentary farmhouse at Fruitlands as I did last spring and surveying the windy site of Bronson Alcott’s failed, 19th-century attempt at utopia, you have to wonder what the Transcendentalist was thinking. His ten-year-old daughter Louisa May, who later mined some of the experience in her classic Little Women, provides a simple answer. “We are all going to be made perfect,” she wrote in her diary on June 1, 1843. “This day we left Concord in the rain to travel by wagon the ten miles to our new home which Father has named Fruitlands.”
The members of Alcott’s cult-like commune, established in a chilly dell of Harvard, Massachusetts, never numbered more than 13 and included five children: an 11-year-old boy named William Lane, Louisa’s three sisters, aged 12, 8, and 3, and Louisa herself.
The adults were a shifty and shifting group that, in addition to philosopher/educator/lecturer Bronson Alcott and his wife Abigail, included Englishman Henry Gardiner Wright who, unable to abide by the group’s veganism, bailed out even before the commune set up Fruitlands; fellow English utopian Charles Lane, who believed in sexual abstinence despite having fathered William and was as intensely attached to Bronson as to his ideas; an English nudist and seeker named Samuel Bower; a Providence merchant’s son named Samuel Larned, who believed swearing “elevated the spirit” and greeted people by saying “Good morning, damn you,”; a cooper originally named Abraham Everett, who changed his name to Wood Abraham and had spent time in an asylum; another man in spiritual crisis named Isaac Hecker, who stayed a brief two weeks; and one American woman—Ann Page—who preferred living in the barn rather than in the house because there she had more opportunity to illicitly snack on an egg or a piece of fish.
This bizarre group of participants in a project of renunciation was led by an imperious, self-involved Alcott, who took the best room (with fireplace) at Fruitlands for his study and repository for some 1,000 books he and Lane brought with them. There is little mention of preparing more practical supplies or seeds or saplings for Fruitlands. It was a farm without an orchard or garden and, apart from its wild berries and smattering of apple trees, did not yield much edible fruit.
Alcott designated a second room with a fireplace as bedroom for himself, his wife, and the baby; he designated the remaining two for Charles Lane and guests such as Henry David Thoreau, whose regular visits he anticipated. Louisa and two of her sisters slept in a low, narrow, third-floor, unheated attic that makes Cinderella’s lodgings look luxurious.
Richard Francis explains that his interest in Fruitlands dates back to earlier work on Transcendentalist utopias that was more “abstract and analytical.” He had written a book about Brook Farm, Fruitlands, and Walden; another on the founder of American Shakerism, Ann Lee; and a third on Samuel Sewall, an ancestor of Abigail Alcott and the only judge at the Salem Witch Trial to publicly recant his ruling. But he was drawn back to the astonishing story of the Alcott family and its coterie of “consociate” utopians.
As he goes on to tell us in his sometimes riveting, sometimes mired-in-detail narrative, Fruitlands was one of a number of political and religious utopian experiments in New England that fused Transcendalist ideas with the writings of the Frenchman Charler Fourier and the English Robert Owen. It was situated not far from well-established Shaker settlements, the large and successful Brook Farm, the Northampton Community for Association and Education, and the Hopedale Community, as well as Walden Pond, to which Thoreau would repair two years later.
Alcott and Lane shared some beliefs with all of them. “Their obsession with living an uncorrupted life at one with their surroundings contained within itself an intuition of twin preoccupations of our own time, ecology and environmentalism,” Francis writes. Alcott and Lane, however, disdained the consumption or use of animals (including cows, ducks, chickens, their eggs, even their manure). The Fruitlanders ate only grains, fruits, and vegetables. Alcohol, coffee, and tea were forbidden as was, for a time, milk. They drank a lot of water, which they hauled by hand from the well 50 yards from the house since there was no household help.
Fervent abolitionists, they also boycotted the products of slavery: cane sugar and cotton. Since they refused to wear wool or leather, most of their clothes were made of linen; their shoes were made of canvas. Since they would not use animal products for lamps or candles made from tallow, their only source of light on rainy days or after dark was firewood, also hauled by hand from the forest.
Their major mode of processing their reflections on living was Conversations, a ritual conducted within the family and in public appearances by Alcott and Lane. Abigail encouraged her girls to communicate via a domestic “post office” and Bronson encouraged them to keep journals. All of the Fruitlanders but the baby wrote as though possessed—a torrent of letters, diary entries, articles.
You can understand why historian and novelist Francis became attached to this quixotic piece of New England history. It’s got an amazing cast of colorful characters and dramatic rivalries that involve contests over land, love, money and sex—not to speak of intrigues over daily diet set against a literary, historical, and philosophical backdrop. One of the little girls keeping notes on the experiment becomes an iconic figure in American literature.
Other note-takers include the cream of American writers of the time: Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson (who viewed Alcott as “a magnificent dreamer”), Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Margaret Fuller. Their many texts—lectures, letters to one another, diaries, articles for the Dial—provide a seemingly endless resource for Francis, even when Alcott has censored or ripped pages out of his wife or daughters’ accounts.
Unfortunately, the abundance of sources proves deadly for Mr. Francis. The journey that begins in June 1843 and ends in January 1844 makes seven months feel like seven years. Amid the density of detail, the key turning points in the story are lost. We get a clear sense of the four little girls doing housework and teaching one another to read and do arithmetic, but less of what’s going on between the adults, apart from the men’s chronic “penniless pilgrimages” during which they would abandon the farm to Abigail and Ann Page until she defected and scour the countryside for financial support and possible recruits.
I wasn’t even sure what constituted the last straw for Abigail Alcott, who had the empathy and patience of a social worker, but who finally put an end to the experiment before she and her daughters froze to death in the dead of a Massachusetts winter.
As a novelist, Francis was drawn to the high drama in Fruitlands, but as an historian, he can’t resist quoting from the thousands of texts available to him, thereby breaking the narrative over and over again and providing too much of a good thing. This tendency may delight those readers who can’t get enough of the Transcendentalists, but for those of us who find Fruitlander writings circular and meandering, it makes for intermittent tedium.
Another problem is that Francis himself finds Alcott so flagrantly exasperating a protagonist that he gives into his frustration and comments with increasing sarcasm on his actions. “It is hard to avoid interjecting,” Francis interjects for example, “at a distance of over a century and a half, that he (Alcott) hadn’t in fact made much of an attempt at maintaining his wife and family during the five years that had passed.” Such editorial jabs are amusing at first, but eventually the reader becomes irritated.
Nonetheless, I was glad to have read this book. It led me to order Transcendental Wild Oats, the memoir Louisa crafted from her diary, for what promises to be a less academic version of the story.
Helen Epstein has written a biography of Joe Papp. Her profiles of art historian Meyer Schapiro and her athlete father Kurt Epstein, who competed in the Berlin Olympics of 1936, can be downloaded from the Kindle store here.