“This is the story of one of history’s most unsuccessful utopias … but also one of the most dramatic,” writes historian Richard Francis in “Fruitlands” (Yale University Press), his in-depth account of the rise and fall of the short-lived utopian experiment of the same name. Founded by Bronson Alcott—father of Louisa May Alcott, author of “Little Women”—and English Transcendentalist Charles Lane, the members pledged themselves to celibacy and a strict diet of fruit and raw vegetables, aiming to live simply and celebrate an intimate connection with the environment.
On June 1, 1843, the members of the community moved into a deep red clapboard farmhouse on 90 acres of farmland overlooking the Nashua River in Harvard, Massachusetts. Initially they enjoyed living non-traditional lives, but a poor harvest and the onset of a frigid New England winter tested their resolve—especially their commitment to cold showers and wardrobes limited to homespun linen. By January 1844 the experiment was over, undermined by the members’ collective physical discomfort, as well as rancorous debate over loyalty, sexuality, the sharing of labor and financial woes.
Yet the community’s legacy turned out to be greater than one might expect, as Fruitlanders influenced the likes of Henry David Thoreau, not to mention Louisa May. Earlier this week, I spoke with Francis about Fruitlands and its eccentric inhabitants, and their attempt to create a more perfect world.
Tell me about the founders of Fruitlands.
It was started by Bronson Alcott, a teacher and thinker who had previously founded a very radical, experimental school. At his school he asked students questions rather than teaching them stuff, believing that children come fully formed and lose knowledge as they grow up. But the school failed because he asked students theological questions, and people thought it was disgraceful having children talk about the bible. He also asked them where babies came from, and this was considered outrageous.
But word of the school got through to a group of very eccentric British philosophers, who clustered around a man named James Pierrepont Greaves—a mystic living in London. The group shared many of Alcott’s ideas about education, and created a school in his honor called Alcott House.
Meanwhile, things went from bad to worse for Alcott, and over the next few years everything he touched was a disaster. He was so disillusioned by the failure of his school that he never got another proper job in his life.
Then, in 1842, Alcott’s friend Ralph Waldo Emerson decided it would cheer him up if he went to England to meet his admirers. The man Alcott really wanted to meet was Greaves, who died before Alcott arrived. But the circle of followers was still there, and he got involved with Lane and Henry Wright, who went to Concord [Massachusetts] with Alcott to set up a utopian community using Lane’s money.
Where was Fruitlands and how many individuals were part of the community?
In a sense it was in two locations. Fruitlanders moved into Alcott’s house in Concord, a little cottage, and lived there together for six months or so. But they were looking for something more permanent and found it in Harvard, a small village about 30 miles from Boston. They rented 90 acres of farmland and were lent the house that went with it. They called the place Fruitlands because they proposed to live on fruit.
At its peak there were only 13 members in the community, including five children—the four Alcott children, the “little women,” as they became known when Louisa Marie Alcott wrote “Little Women,” and Lane’s son, William. They tried to farm the land, but they didn’t approve of using animals, and it’s quite daunting to farm 90 acres when you aren’t using animals.
Tell me more about their philosophy. What were the founders trying to achieve?
Their philosophy was an offshoot of a movement called Transcendentalism that developed in Boston in the 1830s. The most important aspect of it was a belief in the perfectability of humankind. Transcendentalists believed that Jesus wasn’t the son of God, but was simply a perfect human being, setting an example for other human beings to become perfect likewise. The spin Alcott put on this was that if you could orient yourself correctly to the material world, you would solve that problem. In other words, he believed the spirit is born into a material environment and it’s becoming material that erodes your spiritual perfection. Therefore, if you could calibrate the material environment around you correctly, your spirit would be safeguarded.
What self-imposed restrictions did Fruitlanders place upon themselves?
Their regime was to eat fruit and vegetables—preferably raw, though they did eat cooked potatoes. They washed in cold water and wouldn’t use any spices. They also wouldn’t use alcohol or tobacco, and wouldn’t use any animal products in their clothing. And they wouldn’t use cotton [because] it was the product of slavery, so they wore linen. It’s not surprising that they got cold, and that the community began to falter as winter came on.
Aside from the onset of winter, why was the experiment so short-lived?
They called themselves a consociate family [a friendly or cooperative association], but what they never got to the bottom of was what that meant. For Lane it meant a group of like-minded people that could expand and expand and reform the world. But the Alcott’s, particularly Mrs. Alcott, thought of family as the heart of society. She was interested in creating a well-functioning nuclear family that would be an example to other families.
The other problem is that Lane was very hostile to the notion of sex, because sex—like diet—was one of the problems in the Garden of Eden. Lane believed sex was a bad idea, even if he did have a son. Bronson and Abigail Alcott subscribed to this notion for some time, but then Mrs. Alcott began to perceive that it was threatening her marriage.
What effectively brought the community to an end is that there was a small mortgage attached to the Fruitlands property. It cost eighteen-hundred dollars and Lane had paid fifteen-hundred [in cash] and had borrowed three-hundred. Mrs. Alcott’s brother [Sam May] was the guarantor of the mortgage, and she persuaded her brother not to honor the guarantee when it came due in November . Lane by then had decided he had spent enough, and May wouldn’t chip in his share, so they couldn’t honor the mortgage. In a sense, Mrs. Alcott undermined the community by influencing her brother to do that.
The other immediate cause is that it became clear that as time went on they were not going to farm successfully. In fact, Bronson Alcott and Lane went to New York in August to try to attract new members when they should have been harvesting their crops. They went on a “penniless pilgrimage,” because they didn’t believe in using money—if possible. They took a steamer and when the ticket collector came along they told him they didn’t have tickets or money but that they would conduct a public conversation for the edification of the passengers instead [laughs]. Anyway, poor Mrs. Alcott was left alone on the farm with the children trying to harvest the crops.
Are there any other utopian-minded communities that one can compare to Fruitlands?
There were quite a few utopian communities at that time in Massachusetts. Brook Farm (1841-47) was the largest and most successful. It was inhabited by radical people who wanted do both mental and physical work while living the good life in the countryside. Nathaniel Hawthorne [“The Scarlet Letter”] was at Brook Farm for a while. He wanted to do his writing and farm work as well—a way of living a rounded sort of life. At Brook Farm, manual workers and intellectuals lived side by side.
Tell me about a few of the characters who lived at Fruitlands?
There was a man named Samuel Larned who had been at Brook Farm previous to coming to Fruitlands, but it wasn’t austere enough for him. Allegedly he spent a whole year living entirely on apples, and another year living on crackers. He also believed that it was therapeutic to swear—a lot. When Louisa May wrote a memoir about the community years later she noted that he would greet people in the morning by saying, “Good morning, damn you” [laughs].
There was another guy named Samuel Bower who could be described as the hard-liner. He was a nudist, because he felt that if you had no clothes on it meant you had immediate contact with the environment. The other Fruitlanders wouldn’t let him go around in the nude, but they allowed him to run around at night wearing a white shift, which allegedly gave rise to rumors of a ghost seen clamoring around the local hills.
Finally, there was a farmer named Joseph Palmer, who didn’t live at Fruitlands but helped out the community. He was quite an interesting character because he had a huge beard, and in the 1840s beards weren’t normally worn by men. A few years earlier he had been set upon by a gang of ruffians who tried to shave off his beard, and in the struggle he stabbed one of his attackers in the leg. He was fined and imprisoned, but refused to pay his fine and refused to shave off his beard. He stayed in prison 18 months and became such an embarrassment that the judge who sentenced him went round to the prison pleading for him to leave. He only left when his mother asked him to come home.
But Palmer turned out to be an unexpectedly influential character. The fact that he served time in prison as a matter of principle encouraged Alcott, who refused to pay his poll tax while in Concord. Alcott got arrested and was taken to Concord jail, but the jailer wasn’t at home. So the sheriff told him to amuse himself for a few hours while he went to find the jailer. Alcott went off and had lunch with his friends—Henry David Thoreau being one of them—and when he went back to the prison, he discovered that his poll tax had been paid by somebody else.
But the episode proved significant because three years later, Thoreau got himself sent to jail for one night for not paying his poll tax. Then, of course, he wrote his essay Civil Disobedience.
When researching Fruitlands what surprised you most?
The main thing was the extent to which the Fruitlanders influenced Thoreau. That’s interesting, because it ultimately channeled their ideas into mainstream American literature. Also, the importance of the input from the British side, with the English sustaining Alcott in terms of morale, and putting up the money for his experiment.
What does the experiment say about the impulse to create a more perfect world?
It tells us that impulse is there in quite a few people and quite a few ways. It seems terribly cranky in many respects, but at the same time, one can visualize the Fruitlanders groping through the world in ways we can recognize today. They almost figured out the notion of ecology and how the environment works—that you can’t break it down into separate parts and that you need to respect it as a totality. They made themselves a laughingstock, both in their own time and subsequently. But underpinning their crazy notions were some real intuitions about life.