The utopian dream closest to Australian hearts occurred when trade unionist William Lane (1861–1917) set about founding his own socialist utopia in Paraguay. 300 Australians moved to the New Australia Colony in 1893. Perhaps it was the leaders' inter-personal skills that quickly led to a rebellion amongst his followers; in a fairly short number of years, most of the colonists became disillusioned with the passionate dream, returning to Australia in 1900.
Richard Francis was also interested in the subject in his book: The Alcott Family and Their Search for Utopia and he told a great story. The Fruitlands project occurred at a time (the 1840s) when Utopian communities were popping up with some frequency in New England. Others were advocating abolitionism and temperance but whatever the particular cause, there seemed to be a period of agitation and searching in Europe and in the USA. Francis noted that the broad impulse behind the American experiments was a reaction to the industrial revolution and the rise of the cities, with their consequent social injustice, poverty and environmental deterioration. He drew a connection with the Shakers, for example.
Fruitlands, Mass - in winter
They tried to live out a perfect lifestyle based on the values that appealed to Bronson – celibacy, spiritual goodness and a vegetarian lifestyle. The trouble was that a desperately austere lifestyle was not realistic. I suppose it was theoretically possible to survive living off fresh carrots and water, but there wasn’t much pleasure involved.
Englishmen Charles Lane and Henry Wright were the biggest support system for Bronson Alcott. Ralph Waldo Emerson, the third supporter who was very happy to fund the ambitious adventure into spiritualism, didn’t know what to make of the lifestyle he saw. On one hand he found the place to be very peaceful and was full of admiration for the spiritual harmony the participants were seeking. On the other hand, Emerson ended up accusing the participants of playacting in the pejorative sense, merely pretending to be farmers. And the food they ate was abysmal – a meagre breakfast of porridge and unleavened bread, in order to surrender to the order of the universe at large.
Alcott’s thinking was definitely on the side of progress, especially in his modernism views on education, ecology and women. But he seemed to make the mistake of confusing his own personal whims with instructions from God. Did he think he was a true prophet who divined God’s will for the ordinary people? I like Alcott’s own quote "Great is the man whom his age despises, for transcendent excellence is purchased through the obloquy of contemporaries; and shame is the gate of the temple of renown." It was hard to argue with such a mindset.
I have intentionally chosen a wintery image of Fruitlands because it was in winter that the members’ misery was greatest. Uncooked fruit and vegetables (except for potato), no cotton clothes because it was the product of slavery, no coffee tea or milk, no tobacco and no animal products (so no tallow for candles) – all of these things would have been a nightmare in the snow. Canvas shoes, in the absence of leather, seemed flimsy in the extreme.
Bronson and Abigail Alcott
Mrs Abigail Alcott's diary complained bitterly about the lack of privacy, the poor quality of life for women and children, the enforced celibacy for married couples and the austerity of the food and the clothes. But there is a suggestion that Mr Alcott was travelling around the country on Fruitlands funding and recruitment drives, and suffered much less from cold and hunger.
If the name Alcott is familiar, it is probably because Bronson’s ten-year-old daughter Louisa May became very famous for her novels. Was she excited about moving to the countryside? Apparently yes because her diary for 1/6/1843 noted “my three sisters and I are all going to be made perfect”. She said she later used some of the experiences at Fruitlands for her most famous novel, Little Women.
It all ended in tears when Abigail Alcott decided to sell off everything she owned, to save herself and her daughters, and to start a new life. They left Fruitlands in January 1844 in mid winter, Bronson in reluctant and weepy tow.
The Fruitlands project was set in a significant literary and philosophical context. So Francis cites important thinkers like Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Thomas Carlyle who left plenty of written opinions about the experiment. As a result, I was very grateful that the book had a comprehensive subject index.
Many thanks to Inbooks and Hasan Niyazi for a copy of Richard Francis’ Fruitlands: The Alcott Family and Their Search for Utopia. It was published by Yale University Press in 2011.