A Season of Fruitlands

Fruitlands Museum, CC HeritageArts&Letters

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.

A Season of Whispers

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.

A Season of Machimoodus State Park

My novel A Season of Whispers is available this Thursday, and all week I’m touring the places that influenced its setting.

Machimoodus State Park, located in East Haddam, Connecticut, is a 300-acre park full of crumbled stone walls, trap rock, and towering white pines located along the Salmon River.

It’s also the source — or, at least, is one of the sources — of the Moodus Noises.

Back during my archaeology days, I encountered the noises firsthand while working a cultural-resource management gig in the woods near Old Saybrook. I’d arrived early in the morning before the rest of the crew, and while setting up, heard a series of low echoing rumbles coming from the north. They were very different than thunder — more like sonic booms. I assumed they were some kind of explosion but when my coworkers showed up, they told me there was nothing on the news. It was only afterward that I realized I’d heard the Moodus Noises.

Connecticut is very geologically active — we had two earthquakes alone back in July — but the good news is most of the quakes are below 2.0 Richter. Geologists have determined the Moodus Noises are generated by microquakes occurring deep underground, the sound of which then reverberates to the surface.

Local Native American tribes venerated the area around Machimoodus — which translates to “the place of bad noises” — as the home of a spirit they called Hobbamock or Hobomoko, who was a sort of Plutonic underworld figure. Later, the Puritans regarded the area as haunted and associated it with the devil (but then again, the Puritans regarded everything as Satanic — there’s another state park nearby called Devil’s Hopyard). It’s interesting to me that the tribes correctly pinpointed the origin of the noises as being underground.

The fictional town of Saltonstall, which is where A Season of Whispers takes place, is set a little south of Machimoodus State Park. It’s worth visiting for an easy hike.

A Season of Brook Farm

The Hive was the communal heart of Brook Farm. During his stay, Nathaniel Hawthorne lived in the front right room.

On Thursday, my novel A Season of Whispers drops in print and ebook editions.

Season is set in 1844 in a fictional transcendentalist commune called Bonaventure, located in eastern Connecticut. Bonaventure was influenced by two real-life transcendentalist communities, one of which is Brook Farm, located in the outskirts of Boston.

Brook Farm was founded by George Ripley, a Unitarian minister, and his wife Sophia as an experiment in societal reform. Both had been inspired after visiting at least one intentional community founded by German immigrants (in Ohio, IIRC) and after spending the summer of 1840 on a farm in West Roxbury reading about the French socialist Charles Fourier.

The Ripleys sought to establish a communal arrangement that ensured “a more natural union between intellectual and manual labor,” separate and apart from “the pressures of our competitive institutions.” Their sense of socialism was much less rigid or ideological than what we may think of. Brook Farm was organized as a joint-stock company, in which members bought shares (at $500 a pop, equivalent to about $13,900 in today’s money) in exchange for three hots and a cot and a dividend from the profits. Only a very few Brook Farmers actually paid that much, however, and it’s doubtful anyone saw a penny in return. Brook Farm was also nondenominational, notable as most utopian settlements usually required subscribers to uphold a specific religion or creed.

For a few years, Brook Farm became a kind of sun around which the transcendentalists orbited. Both Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller, editrix of The Dial (which was The Atlantic or New Yorker of the movement), declined to join but were frequent visitors.

Nathaniel Hawthorne joined in April 1841 after purchasing two shares, the other for his future wife Sophia. Hawthorne soon became disillusioned with farm work, particularly with all the manure, and found the labor left him too tired to write. After vacationing in Salem for a few weeks in September, he finally left the farm permanently in November — without ever receiving a refund of his shares. A decade later, Hawthorne fictionalized his Brook Farm experience in The Blithedale Romance, a comical novel I can’t recommend highly enough.

A Season of Whispers

One of the issues the Brook Farmers struggled with was how exactly society should be reformed. What would a perfect society look like? What did “reform” mean in practical everyday terms?

Although the farm grew crops with middling success, Brook Farm supported itself mainly through the day school run by the Ripleys. By 1844, the enterprise was successful enough for them to shift into a new phase, in which they leaned heavily into Fourierism, costing them several members as a result. Fourier was quite specific how people would live under his system, even down to the architecture; and so the Brook Farmers embraced austere poverty in order to build a Phalanstery on the property, a sort of communal dormitory constructed around a common green space. Construction continued until March 1846, when the nearly completed Phalanstery burned to the ground.

The disaster ruined Brook Farm, and while the Ripleys eventually recovered — George Ripley went on to become a successful journalist and editor of Harper’s Magazine — it took them 13 years to pay off the debts accrued by their utopian experiment.

Today you can visit the Brook Farm Historic Site but you may be disappointed as nothing from the era remains (the oldest building is a print shop built in 1890 or so). Still, you can roam the area, which includes a cemetery, and get a feel for the land.

You can read more about Hawthorne’s stay at Brook Farm here.

Short News, Reclusive Scriveners Edition

Interior (Model Reading) by Edward Hopper, 1925

Don’t Engage. At Litreactor, Cina Pelayo, author and editor of Gothic Blue Book, offered her advice to writers regarding social media.

There are some authors who only tweet about writing. There are some authors who tweet about writing, and just a little bit about themselves. Then, there are some authors who tweet about their work, themselves, and are very active in social and political causes online, engaging opponents, and being vocal overall. What image are you trying to present? Think about it and frame yourself as such.

Pelayo confines herself to Twitter and Instagram, which coincidentally are the only two platforms I use beyond this blog. I find Twitter helpful for learning and sharing news but impossible for any kind of meaningful communication unless I already know the person, so my hat’s off to anyone who can build a following there.

Instagram is, I think, a better platform. I attended a social-media panel at StokerCon 2018 and Paul Tremblay offered some good advice: He suggested people may not want your links to buy stuff but they may be interested in your life as a writer, so consider showcasing that. This is my approach toward Instagram. Alas, 90 percent of my life is cooking meals for the fam, sitting at the keyboard, exercising, or working on household projects, and the internet doesn’t need more food porn, gym selfies, or shelf blogs. So I don’t post often.

Pelayo is a little more cautious than I am. I believe writing, whether it’s journalism, novel writing, or whatever, is inherently a political act and thus writers shouldn’t necessarily shy away from putting their opinions out there, assuming those opinions aren’t superficial or impulsive. Our worldviews are already hardwired into what we do — it’s just a matter of how on the nose we want to be in public.

In the last few years I’ve made an effort to be positive on Twitter, something I’ve been working on IRL as I strive to be more optimistic and grateful. But I also aim to avoid letting fear drive my interactions. As Philip K. Dick wrote, “If you’re afraid you don’t commit yourself to life completely. Fear makes you always, always hold something back.”

Piranesi. Susanna Clarke, author of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell — which I consider to be the greatest fantasy novel written in my lifetime, if not ever — has a new book out, her first in 16 years. She discusses it in this terrific New Yorker interview.

Rest in Peace. Charles Saunders, author of the Imaro and Dossouye series of African-based sword-and-sorcery novels, passed away in May but his death was only announced this month. Saunders was a very prolific journalist and author, writing four nonfiction books in addition to his novels, as well as numerous essays, columns, and short stories. He was 73.

We All Live in Lovecraft Country

This Sunday, Jordan Peele’s series Lovecraft Country will debut on HBO, based on the novel by Matt Ruff. Here’s a review of the book I wrote back in 2016.

Lovecraft Country
by Matt Ruff
Harper (384 pages, $26.99 hardback, $7.99 digital, February 2016)

Pam Noles grew up the daughter of a mother who was very active in the NAACP and a father who, because of his color, had to sue their city after being turned down eight times for a firefighting job. Noles also grew up loving all things science fiction — books and B movies — even though nobody on those book covers or in those movies resembled her family.

On Saturday nights Noles watched schlocky movies hosted by an Elvira knockoff called The Ghoul, backed by a cast of weirdos (every big market had something similar — in Philly we had Saturday Night Dead, hosted by Stella “The Maneater From Manayunk”). During breaks in the movie they performed skits.

Usually it would be just me in the basement sprawled on the floor surrounded by snacks, Legos and books to read during the commercials. If he was off shift, sometimes Dad would come down and join me in his leather recliner by the stairs. Every once in a while Mom called down from the kitchen Are you letting her watch those weird things? And we’d lie in unison, No. If she came down to check for herself, Dad would get in trouble.

Dad had his own names for the movies.

What’s this? ‘Escape to a White Planet?’

It’s called ‘When Worlds Collide.’ I’m sure I sounded indignant.

‘Mars Kills the White People.’ I love this one.

Daaaaad. It says it right there. ‘War of the Worlds’. I know I sighed heavily, but was careful to turn back to the tv before rolling my eyes.

Once he asked me which was more real, the movie or the skits between. I didn’t get it, and told him that they were both stories, so they were both fake. He didn’t bring it up again until a skit came on. I can’t remember if it was a ‘Soulman’ skit or one of the caveman gags (the cavemen were multicultural — basic white, Polish, Italian, and black). But I remember Dad saying, how come you never see anybody like that in the stories you like? And I remember answering, maybe they didn’t have black people back then. He said there’s always been black people. I said but black people can’t be wizards and space people and they can’t fight evil, so they can’t be in the story. When he didn’t say anything back I turned around. He was in full recline mode in his chair and he was very still, looking at me. He didn’t say anything else.

Matt Ruff credits Noles as inspiration in the acknowledgments of his latest novel, Lovecraft Country, and it’s easy to see why: her father’s acuity echoes throughout in the voice of the character Montrose Turner.

Much like Noles herself, Montrose’s son Atticus has been raised on a steady diet of sci-fi — Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tom Swift, pulp magazines — and like Noles’s dad, Montrose never stops pointing out the implicit racism of that media: on the covers Nordic he-men rescue blonde damsels from villains of darker complexion, while inside fair-skinned men save the world from ethnics and monsters.

When a young Atticus describes his newfound love of the writer H.P. Lovecraft, Montrose responds with a trip to the library. His voice has “the perverse mix of anger and glee” when he returns home with a certain infamous 1912 poem penned by Lovecraft to show his son. The doggerel ruins Lovecraft for him.

Nowadays Lovecraft’s legacy is mixed nuts. The Library of America has published a thick collection of his work, the unpronounceable name of his most well-known creation is a Twitter hashtag, and there’s a line of beers dedicated to him; and yet after 40 years the World Fantasy Convention remodeled their awards, shaped as a stylized bust of HPL, over complaints of his racism. All of this makes 2016 either the best or worst of times to release a novel set in 1950s America about Atticus and his African-American friends and relations caught in a Lovecraftian conspiracy.

Ruff addresses the chamber pachyderm in chapter one. When Atticus complains to his uncle about Montrose’s constant harassment over his choice of reading materials, his uncle reminds him that “stories are like people, Atticus. Loving them doesn’t make them perfect. You try to cherish their virtues and overlook their flaws. The flaws are still there, though.”

With that mic dropped, Atticus and company depart for the wilds of Massachusetts in search of Montrose, who has been abducted by cultists for sinister purposes. What follows is a series of connected short stories and novellas, each featuring a different member of Atticus’s circle as its protagonist, as the group struggles to extricate themselves from a war between dueling — and, more notably, Caucasian — sorcerers.

There’s fewer tentacles and asylum incarcerations than Lovecraft fans might expect; with its haunted houses and devil dolls and weird science, it’s more Trilogy of Terror than “Dunwich Horror.” But as each chapter bled into the next, I found it increasingly unputdownable.

The real malevolence Atticus and the rest confront is the same shoggoth Montrose continuously stabs at with a yardstick, a gibbering Great Old One of police harassment and Brown v. Board of Education and this morning’s news. Theirs is the landscape Lovecraft inhabited rather than the one he made up.

When two black boys try to buy a Coke from a machine outside a store called Perch’s that advertises White Customers Only, Montrose pushes them away. “‘This here?’” he says of the machine. “‘This is a slap in the face. Every time you put in a nickel, you’re telling Mr. Perch, ‘Thank you, sir, may I have another?’ A man who respects himself will never do that.’”

But the boys don’t get it — they insult him and run away. Like Noles, they won’t understand until much later.

A Season of Whispers Release Date

A Season of Whispers

The release date for A Season of Whispers has been bumped from two days before Halloween to October 8. Not sure if hard copies will be available then but if you’ve ordered the e-book, you should be able to download it that day.

This gives us nearly the whole month of October to hustle the book — after all, Halloween isn’t a date, it’s a season. The earlier release also gives us a little breathing room before the election, which is sure to be a burning car full of circus clowns rolled off a cliff. If you read just one historical Gothic mystery before the end of the world, make it mine.

Mark your calendars — October 8, 2020. Don’t forget to pre-order it here.