Bronson Alcott, Charles Lane and their unsuccessful search for utopia.
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“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.