16 June 2012

Fruitlands: Utopia or absurd dream

I'm attracted to the concept of ideal communities, be they religious, socialist, feminist, temperance, environmental or even industrial. Although utopia is probably very difficult to establish on earth, the kibbutz movement in Israel proved that it was possible to live and work together for a common good, somewhat isolated from the population around.

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

Fruitlands too started with a dream, although a Transcendentalist and not a specifically religious dream. In 1843 educator Bronson Alcott (1799-1888) moved his wife Abigail (1800–77), their four daughters and their small number of followers into a run down farmhouse in a rural area west of Boston, hoping to recreate the Garden of Eden. I assume Abigail shared the dream since she was no intellectual slouch - she was an educator, social worker, temperance worker and abolitionist in her own right.

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

Clearly many communes based on absolutely equality, before and since Fruitlands, have found that equality is ephemeral. Mr Alcott and his closest followers had a somewhat privileged lifestyle as compared to the rest of the members. And Alcott took the best room with the best fireplace at Fruitlands for his private study! Alcott selected a second room with a fireplace as bedroom for himself, his wife and the baby; and he allocated the remaining two for Charles Lane and important, intellectual guests. All the other members slept in a low, narrow, third-floor, unheated and rather miserable outhouse.

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.






8 comments:

Andrew said...

I didn't see L M Alcott coming. Her experience must have had a great affect on her writing.

student of history said...

Why didn't they live in individual houses that each family could keep warm and private? "A low, narrow, third-floor, unheated and rather miserable outhouse" sounds like my idea of a nightmare.

Hels said...

Andrew,

I read and adored Little Women and Little Men in 1963, but I didn't even know what snow was. Let alone a utopia.

Thankfully Richard Francis examined Louisa May Alcott's later novels and specifically identified those people, places and events that were derived from her Fruitlands experience. Even when characters were given made-up names, Francis showed that the links were clear.

Hels said...

student

Richard Francis gave two ideological reasons. Firstly houses were considered unnatural. A person living in a more open structure (eg tent, hut) has a sharper and more direct experience of his surroundings than a person who was shut away from the world in a sealed off house.

More importantly, Charles Lane's idea of a "family" was communal. This was very different from Abigail Alcott's idea of a family which was biological.

Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Hels:
Such projects, as the Fruitlands one which you outline here are, we feel, to be viewed with a certain amount of scepticism and seldom, if ever, have conformed to the original ideals or principles.

For ourselves, believing as we do in the individuality of the individual, we should regard living in the way described with something approaching horror.

Glen / Kent Today and Yesterday said...

Hi Hels - interesting stuff. Reading your post "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others" from George Orwell's Animal Farm came to mind!

Glen

Hels said...

Jane and Lance

It is certainly true that all utopian collectives were headed for disappointment. But this was particularly true of Fruitlands because Alcott's decision-making was guided ONLY by his personal whims and the advice of his fellow philosophers. If decision-making was open to the entire community at Fruitlands, the community might well have survived longer.

By the way, Francis noted that many Utopian communities were popping up in New England at that time. What was it about the 1840s that led to a search for community?

Hels said...

Glen

*nod* George Orwell would not have known about Fruitlands, but he certainly was in touch with the utopian movement.