Very often, an intentional community that no longer exists is referred to as a failed utopia. You usually see those two words together: failed and utopia. Brook Farm is sometimes described as having failed because it disbanded after the Phalanstery burned down; but had you visited one or two years after its founding, you would have encountered a thriving, successful venture.
Labeling a community as having failed just because it’s no longer around assumes permanence was its primary goal. A better gauge, I think, is whether it fulfilled its objectives during its lifetime, no matter how fleeting its span might have been.
And yet even by that metric, it’s hard to argue that Fruitlands was anything but a disaster.
Like Brook Farm, Fruitlands was founded by members of the transcendentalist movement. In May 1843, Charles Lane, an eccentric Englishman who found America more fertile for his utopian dreams, bought a 90-acre farm about 16 miles west of Concord, Massachusetts. There, he and his bestie Amos Bronson Alcott founded the Fruitlands commune. Several other members, as well as Alcott’s family — which included a young Louisa May Alcott — joined them.
Lane and Alcott were much more rigid than the Ripleys at Brook Farm. The Fruitlands ethos preached strict self-sufficiency, with Lane writing that the “Exchange of Commodities, useful & useless” was bad for human nature, which complicated their acquisition of those things they couldn’t produce themselves (Lane even went so far as to not recognize the farm as being his property). The Fruitlanders were abolitionists, so no cotton was allowed because it was picked by slaves; but neither was wool, as they were vegans. They were also raw foodies, so most cooking was out, and they shunned root foods as being unhealthy. Even candles were forbidden as the wax appropriated the labor of bees, so everyone went to bed as soon as it was dark.
It’s not an easy thing to survive a New England winter with only linen clothes and no potatoes, onions, or beets in the cellar. While Lane and Alcott did relent on some things — they bought an ox to plow and a cow for milk — by December the Fruitlanders were starving and deserted the project. Amos sank into a deep depression. His wife Abby took the reins and brought the family to a friend’s house where they could again wear warm clothes and eat a decent meal, and gradually she nursed her husband back to health. If there’s a moral to be learned from the Fruitlands experiment, it’s a feminist one.
Louis May Alcott wrote a barely fictionalized satire of the experience called “Transcendental Wild Oats,” which is available in her collection Silver Pitchers. By all means, read it — if not for its depiction of her father’s folly, then for its sympathetic portrait of her long-suffering mother.
Another interesting character at Fruitlands was Joseph Palmer, who prior to joining spent 15 months in prison after defending himself from an attack by hooligans trying to shave his beard. After Fruitlands, well, failed, Palmer bought the farm and lived there for 20 years, which suggests it wasn’t the land or climate so much as the ideology that ruined Lane and Alcott’s dream.
You can visit Fruitlands where, unlike Brook Farm, you’ll find some of the original buildings intact. Fruitlands also served as an inspiration for Bonaventure, the fictional transcendentalist farm that’s the setting for my novel, A Season of Whispers, which is out tomorrow.