Transcendental Ideas: Social Reform
History of Fruitlands
Jessica Gordon, VCU
History of Fruitlands and The English Reformers
Bronson Alcott took up farming not only for the purifying discipline of manual labor but to disengage himself from an economy "whose root is selfishness, whose trunk is property, whose fruit is gold (Boller, 118)." Alcott was associated with the Nonresistance Society, a radical offshoot of the abolitionist movement who believed in the systematic oppression of all human institutions opposed to divine law and the duty to withdraw immediately leaving them to collapse under the burden of their own evil. However, in Concord Alcott discovered the flaws of this theory. As he cut ties with his oppressors, he became the oppressed and quickly discovered that poverty stifled the free workings of the spirit. Bronson Alcott and his family lived at the Orchard House. When farming could no longer supply his family's needs, Alcott began to chop wood for one dollar a day. However, Alcott believed that hired labor was the most blatant form of economic bondage, and since he remained in debt, he did not work as hired labor for long. Often, Alcott would borrow money from friends and relatives reasoning that the charity of friends was a means of drawing out their higher nature: "Persons, here and there, are taking us kindly by the hand, and without complaints or misjudgments, ministering of their love, their confidence, their respect and substance to our needs."
Alcott's economic philosophy began to expand at this time. He outlined a theory that denied property of private and public ownership. Alcott left Concord with a renewed faith in a divine economy, and in 1841, he began to seek members for Fruitlands. Finding his strongest support in England, in 1842, Alcott went to England to meet with a group of reformers who had named their school Alcott House after reading his work on education. Like Alcott, the English reformers had begun as educators, but once they found that society restrained individual development, they too became critics of institutions. The English reformers became communists in property--technicallyl the reformers and Alcott believed that all property belonged to God—anarchists in government, free lovers in marriage, and vegetarians in diet. In everything, they aimed at freedom from instituted authority.
While they insisted that reform began with the individual, they considered themselves already reformed and contemplated the idea of a utopian community. Charles Lane, one of the reformers, wrote to home to the New Age and said that "It occurs to me continually that this is the land for liberation of mankind, physically, socially, mentally, and morally. True it is that the people of this country are not free in all respects. There is much priestcraft, sensuality, and selfishness—a trinity generally found in unity. But facilities for freedom are great, perhaps beyond example in the world. At present the people do not value them at their fair estimate, but they are a teachable people (Boller, 121)." For Alcott, his experience in England renewed his faith in America, particularly New England, and thus began Fruitlands.
Philosophy and Economy
Unlike Brook Farm, the philosophy of Fruitlands was based around the economy. The economy of Fruitlands was based on a single principle, abstinence from worldly activity. Thus, Fruitlands became a tightly integrated system of property, trade, and labor.
Lane was the only investor in Fruitlands. For $1800.00, he bought a niney-acre farm in rural Harvard, Massachusetts. He reconciled this purchase of property with his beliefs in this way: "We do not recognize the purchase of land; but its redemption from the debasing state of proprium, or property, to divine uses, we clearly understand; where those whom the world esteems owners are found yielding their individual rights to the Supreme Owner." Alcott was uninterested in the owner of the land provided that its free use could be obtained for divine purposes. Such contradictions in practice were common at Fruitlands.
The members of Fruitlands never tried to produce more goods than they could use. They believed that a surplus of material goods would inhibit spirituality. Also, they limited production to insure that they would not become entangled in trade. Thus, Fruitlands' members held an independent economy as the supreme goal and philosophy of their community (Boller, 122).
Diet and Vegetarianism
When Alcott and Lane visited the nearby Shaker Community, they were impressed by the system of communal property but eventually condemned the community for their practice of business. Lane believed that they sought profit due to their diet which included meat, milk, coffee and tea. At Fruitlands, Lane advocated a policy of abstinence. "Neither coffee, rea, molasses, nor rice tempts us beyond the bounds of indigenous production," Lane wrote. "No animal substances neither flesh, butter, cheese, eggs, nor milk pollute our tables, nor corrupt our bodies (Boller, 124)." By living on a simple diet, the members of Frutilands were able to eliminate their need for trade and minimize labor. Furthermore, the reformers believed that spiritual freedom depended on dispensing with the labor of animals. Benevolence and disdain were both motives for the reform. They wanted to eliminate cattle from the drudgery of farm labor and spare them from the degradation of slaughter for food. However, they also meant to end the need for human contact with animals because they felt that animals were revolting to the spirit. Lane was vehement about the "debauchery" of cattle raising and denounced in graphic terms the use of their "filthy ordures" as fertilizer. Bronson Alcott's eleven-year-old daughter, Anna, agreed with her father's beliefs. "We have should to think and feel with," she wrote, "and they have not the same power of thinking, they should be allowed to live in peace and not made to labour so hard and be eaten so much. Then to eat them! Eat what has life and feelings to make the body of the innocent animals! . . .Besides flesh is not clean food, and when there is beautiful juicy fruits who can be a flesh-eater?" (Boller, 125) Louisa May Alcott showed many of the stresses of living at Fruitlands in her short piece, "Transcendental Wild Oats." Bronson Alcott's idealism was so strong that he would not permit canker-worms to be disturbed, and forbade the planting of such vegetables and roots as grow downward instead of upward into the air.
Lane believed that the ideal society was an urban culture dedicated to leisure. Men would be relieved of the toil of growing food for animals, and women would no longer be bound to "the servitude of the dairy and the flesh-pots." Women would be able to exercise their full moral influence on the family. Without the space wasted on cattle, population would increase to four times its present rate, humanity would be reunited in purified cities, and the land itself would be restored by the exclusion of manure. To secure free time, efficient production became one of Alcott's main goals after he eliminated cattle. For the first time in his life, Alcott began to show interest in agriculture. He wrote to his brothers about building dams for irrigation and using water power for industry. However, labor became drudgery when they tried to plant their crops without the help of animals. Eventually, they solved the problem by utilizing an ox and a cow to pull the plow. The efforts of Alcott and the other members remained at odds with capitalism. However, Fruitlands needed the capital to survive, and when they were forced to choose between practical measures for their long-term success and living spiritually, they opted for the latter.
Membership of Fruitlands
In theory, the membership of Fruitlands was composed of a spiritually elite. "The entrance to paradise is till through the strait and narrow gate of self-denial," Alcott wrote just before the community began. He continued, "Eden's avenue is yet guarded by the fiery-sworded cherubim, and humility and charity are the credentials for admission (Boller, 126)." A total of eleven adults joined Fruitlands, and most of them belinged to the middle class. Four of the nine men had been involved n the commercial market as white-collar workers or owners of businesses. Lane edited the Price Current, Samuel Larned worked in a countinghouse in Providence, Joseph Palmer owned a butchering business near Fruitlands, and Isaac Hecker was part owner of a New York baking firm. Each experienced deep conflicts between their work and their religion, and they all underwent an awakening before joining Fruitlands. Lane was converted by James Greaves, the founder of Alcott house, who believed in perfection through education. Larned came from a circle of intellectuals in Providence who each admired the transcendentalists. Hecker was converted by Orestes Bronson. Since Hecker later became a priest, the most information is available about him.
At a lecture in 1841, Hecker first heard Brownson preach his gospel of Christian democracy. Subsequently, he rebelled against the routine of commerce since in inhibited his spiritual growth. Hecker warned his brother not to "get too engrossed in woutward business" but "rather neglect a part of it for that which is immortal in its life, incomparable in its fulness (Boller, 129)." The conflict between labor and self expression was felt by all the transcendentalists; yet for Hecker, who was caught up in daily trade, Fruitalands specifically appealed to him. Fruitlands matched Hecker's priorities in that Fruitlands was much less an ihntegrated community than a place for a person to realize his own potential.
Beginning as impatience with his work, Hecker began to unable to cope with the every-day world. He had nervous fits, heard imaginary voices, and suffered from an unidentified sexual disorder for which others advised marriage but which convinced him always to remain celibate. In attempts to purify himself, Hecker tried fasting and restricting his diet to unleavened bread, fruit, and water and even expressed his wish to do away with the digestive system entirely.Rose, 128-129.
Samuel Larned came from Rhode Island. Larned rebelled against the status quo by travelling through New England and swearing at everyone he met. He believed that profane language, uttered in pure spirit, could be redeemed from vulgarity even while men, women, and children clearly remained unredeemed in his native state.
The other members of Fruitlands were similarly radical in their means of establishing separate identities away from society. A man named Abraham Wood called himself Wood Abraham. Joseph Palmer wore a beard in a time when all men were clean shaven. Another man is said to have left Fruitlands to experiment with nudism upon deciding that clothing was spiritually stifling. (See Rose for more details.)
In many ways, Fruitlands made it possible to remove oneself from the masses, deny the world completely, yet leave society wholly intact. Thus, while the members believed that something was dreadfully wrong with the market economy, they evaded the problem by changing nothing except themselves.
Note: The major source for this paper is Anne C. Rose's Transcendentalism as a Social Movement.
Fruitlands Farmhouse. Fruitlands Museums Site.
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