Fruitlands: A Transcendentalist “New Eden”

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Concord, Massachusetts, in the mid-1800’s, was a hot-bed of Transcendentalism. Borrowing ideas from Immanuel Kant, Samuel Coleridge, and even Eastern philosophies, transcendentalists believed that a person’s intuition was most important, and that there was a unity between mankind and nature. Many transcendentalists were fierce abolitionists, vegetarians, and believers in communal property. They eschewed organized religion, believing instead that “the knowledge of God was based on intuition”.

Some of Concord’s famous transcendentalists were Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Amos Bronson Alcott, and their influence on such authors as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Walt Whitman, was powerful. These transcendentalists sought to change old, threadbare social norms, and to bring about a new awareness based on spirituality, intuition, and reason. Many were unconventional and enthusiastic idealists who dreamed of creating a “new Eden”.

Amos Bronson Alcott and his Dreams of Utopia

In the summer of 1842, Bronson Alcott went to England after the failure of his Temple School. It was here that Alcott met Charles Lane and Henry Gardner Wright, two teachers that ran a school called the Alcott House. Alcott House was a school with a curriculum and teaching philosophy based on Bronson Alcott’s own ideas, and Lane and Alcott soon found that they had many other beliefs in common. They both sought freedom from traditional institutions, they were both vegetarians, and they both believed in the possibility of a utopian community based on “shared moral values”.

The more they discussed the idea of this utopian community, the more it seemed to be possible. They felt that New England would be the best place, since, “It is the land for liberation of mankind, physically, socially, mentally, and morally”. Rather than join an already established utopian community such as Brook Farm in Revere, Massachusetts, they wanted to create their own purer, “new Eden”.

Fruitlands is Established

Charles Lane and his ten year old son returned to Concord with Alcott, and a 90 acre farm was purchased in Harvard, Massachusetts. It was there, that Fruitlands, their new Utopia, was founded.

In June of 1843, twelve people joined Fruitlands; Charles Lane and his son, Alcott, his wife Abby, and their three children, and several other enthusiastic albeit eccentric members. Among these “eccentrics” were Samuel Bower, a nudist who found clothing to be “stifling to the spirit”, Abraham Everett, who decided to spell his name backwards in order to flout convention, a former insane asylum inmate, and a man who swore at everyone he met in order to have free speech. With this cast of characters, one may wonder if the project was doomed from the beginning. Ralph Waldo Emerson may have agreed with this thought, when, after a visit to Fruitlands, he wrote, “They look well enough in July. We shall see them in December.”

Some of their goals and overly zealous ideals were as strange as many of the members. Stimulants of any kind were forbidden as were any animal products. Meat, butter, cheese, milk, wax, and even honey were taboo. Animal labor and animal-based fertilizers were also not allowed, and only vegetables with upward growing roots could be planted. Only linen clothes (cotton was tied to slavery) and canvas shoes could be worn, and no thought was given to what they would wear during the winter months. In Louisa May Alcott’s, Transcendental Wild Oats, a short story about her childhood experiences at Fruitlands, she wrote,”Ordinary secular farming is not our object. Fruit, grain, pulse, herbs, flax, and other vegetable products, receiving assiduous attention, will afford ample manual occupation, and chaste supplies for the bodily needs.”

Work at Fruitlands Begins

With the use of animal labor prohibited, the members of Fruitlands had to till the soil with spades and bare hands. This was not easy or efficient, and members soon found that lofty ideals and farming did not always mix. Finally, after blistered hands and sore backs, Alcott allowed an oxen to be brought in, and the crops were planted. A limited amount of crops were planted in order to avoid a surplus, because the members of Fruitlands felt that money was evil and a surplus would require trade. Again, Louis May Alcott wrote, “Money was abjured, as the root of all evil. The produce of the land was to supply most of their wants, or be exchanged for the few things they could not grow. This idea had its inconveniences, but self-denial was the fashion.”

Problems at Fruitlands

Members soon discovered that life at Fruitlands was less than utopian. There were complaints that not everyone was putting in the same amount of effort, the strict rules began to take their toll, and it became evident that there would not be enough food to feed everyone after the harvest.

Members began leaving, and by the end of the summer, only the Lanes, Alcotts, and one other member were left. Charles Lane tried to convince the Alcotts to join one of the Shaker communities, but Mrs. Alcott refused on the grounds that the Shakers advocated separation of the sexes. So, Charles Lane took his son and joined the local Shakers, and Mrs. Alcott took her children, left Fruitlands, and rented a nearby farmhouse. Soon after, Amos Bronson Alcott joined his wife and children, and they went back to Orchard House in Concord. By January of 1844, Fruitlands was no more. In the words of Louisa May Alcott, “He had tried, but it was a failure. The world was not ready for Utopia yet”.

Fruitlands Today

In 1914, Clara Endicott Sears restored Fruitlands and opened it as a museum. Today, Fruitlands, which sits on more than 200 acres, is a mecca for birders and nature lovers. The museum has several art galleries, holds yoga and meditation classes, and offers many educational opportunities. The museum has beautifully melded art, nature, education, and spirituality; all ideals that the transcendentalists held dear. Their website, .fruitlands.org, is a wonderful place to check out everything that the museum has to offer.

Fruitlands was a failure, but the ideals of the members were heartfelt and strong. As Bronson Alcott said, “We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds. A nation of men will for the first time exist, because each believes himself inspired by the Divine Soul”.