Fruitlands by Richard Francis

Bronson Alcott seems to lurk around every corner in my research into the New England Transcendentalist background of the Thomas Moore Johnson correspondence. His “Western tours” to Missouri and Illinois lit the flame of the movement called the “Missouri Platonists” in recent historical works, and Johnson met him in this context. Alexander Wilder, Johnson’s chief advisor during publication of his journal The Platonist (1881-1888), mentioned Alcott more frequently and admiringly than any other colleagues in the Concord School of Philosophy. Alcott met Sarah Stanley shortly before her marriage to Archibald Grimke, and both were admirers and acquaintances of Mary Baker Glover, soon to become Mrs. Eddy. The Alcotts’ family life was filled with twists and turns as Bronson’s idealism and enthusiasm led him into many far fetched schemes and failed projects. His family’s stay of less than one year at the Harvard, MA farm which is now the Fruitlands Museum was satirized in daughter Louisa’s 1873 semi-fictional Transcendental Wild Oats. In 2010 Yale University Press published a book by historian Richard Francis, author of previous studies of communities like Fruitlands, entirely devoted to that single failed venture.

The author’s blog provides this summary of what made the short-lived experiment so memorable and so worthy of a book length study:

The intention was no less than to create paradise on earth. The members believed that this would be achievable as long as they established the appropriate relationship with the environment. They were what we would call vegans, making no use of animal products and wearing only linen (cotton was forbidden because it was the product of slavery). Samuel Bower went one step further, advocating nudity as the way to be at one with your surroundings rather than insulated from them.

What makes the Fruitlanders’ ideas fascinating is their combination of anachronistic and forward-looking ways of thinking. They had a literal interpretation of the story of the Garden of Eden in Genesis; at the same time they were concerned with issues that worry us today – the exploitation of the natural world, the problem of pollution (and even climate change), the shortcomings of city life, the duty of civil disobedience. In some respects they were grim fundamentalists; in others, the ancestors of twentieth century hippies; and, even more relevantly, the precursors of today’s environmental activists.

The story of Fruitlands revolves round the conflict between family loyalty and social responsibility, the tension between the individual and the community. It is a tragic-comic tale of hapless blundering and high idealism, and my book tries to do justice to the strange texture of life in the community, its jealousies, antagonism and comedy, the austere values, the intellectual daring, and the glaring incompetence of the participants.