Fruitlands: The Alcott Family and Their Search for Utopia (Yale University Press: New York, 2010; UK, 2011)
Fruitlands was the name given to a community set up in central Massachusetts near the village of Harvard (not to be confused with the university of that name) in June 1843. It came to an unhappy end just six months later, in January 1843.
The community was led by two individuals, the more famous of whom was Bronson Alcott, one of the so-called New England Transcendentalists (a literary and intellectual movement associated with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau). Alcott was the father of Louisa May Alcott, the writer, who was a ten-year-old child at the time of the experiment. The other leader was an Englishman called Charles Lane, the disciple of an obscure and extremely eccentric British philosopher by the name of James Pierrepont Greaves.
Other members of the community were Alcott’s wife Abigail and their four daughters (the ‘little women’), Lane’s son William, another Englishman called Samuel Bower, the former inmate of a lunatic asylum by the name of Wood Abraham, Joseph Palmer, a local farmer who had spent time in prison for wearing a beard, and a young man called Isaac Hecker, who went on to found the Catholic Paulist Fathers
The intention was no less than to create paradise on earth. The members believed that this would be achievable as long as they established the appropriate relationship with the environment. They were what we would call vegans, making no use of animal products and wearing only linen (cotton was forbidden because it was the product of slavery). Samuel Bower went one step further, advocating nudity as the way to be at one with your surroundings rather than insulated from them.
What makes the Fruitlanders’ ideas fascinating is their combination of anachronistic and forward-looking ways of thinking. They had a literal interpretation of the story of the Garden of Eden in Genesis; at the same time they were concerned with issues that worry us today – the exploitation of the natural world, the problem of pollution (and even climate change), the shortcomings of city life, the duty of civil disobedience. In some respects they were grim fundamentalists; in others, the ancestors of twentieth century hippies; and, even more relevantly, the precursors of today’s environmental activists.
The story of Fruitlands revolves round the conflict between family loyalty and social responsibility, the tension between the individual and the community. It is a tragic-comic tale of hapless blundering and high idealism, and my book tries to do justice to the strange texture of life in the community, its jealousies, antagonism and comedy, the austere values, the intellectual daring, and the glaring incompetence of the participants.
‘Engagingly written and brilliantly researched, Richard Francis’ Fruitlands takes its place as the preeminent work on Transcendentalism’s most poignant folly.’ (John Matteson, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father)
‘Deeply researched and gracefully written’ – Bee Wilson, Sunday Times
‘Stylish, instructive, and hugely entertaining’ – Miranda Seymour, Daily Telegraph