Nathaniel Hawthorne called him calm and gentle, a mystic innovator holy in aspect, but whenever he saw the apostolic Bronson Alcott approaching his house, he ducked out the back door. Conversation with Alcott was usually a one-sided affair, with the listener buttonholed for what seemed like hours.

Born in 1799, the father of four girls and a self-taught man from Wolcott, Connecticut, who had in his youth supported himself by peddling small goods, Alcott had become a progressive educator who deplored corporal punishment, detested rote learning and delighted in children’s talk. Yet after 1840 he would never again deign to teach. By then a member of the Transcendental Club and friends with men like Ralph Waldo Emerson, its de facto head, Alcott had lost his footing at the Temple School in Boston when, against his assistant’s better judgment, he published Conversations With Children on the Gospels. Its allusions to sex and birth scandalized proper Bostonians, who promptly withdrew their children from the school; to make matters worse, he had the temerity to admit a black child.

Not long after this debacle, Alcott, who believed in the perfectibility of the individual and of society, dragged his family to Harvard, Massachusetts, about fourteen miles from Concord, where the Alcotts had been living not far from the Emersons. At a farm inappropriately dubbed Fruitlands—there was no orchard on the ninety acres—they would improve themselves, and invite others to do so. They would create a new Garden of Eden by living off the fruit of the land, even if there was no fruit.

The Alcott season in heaven is the subject of Richard Francis’s new book, Fruitlands: The Alcott Family and Their Search for Utopia. Francis, a British author, has tackled the subject before, notably in his fine Transcendental Utopias: Individual and Community at Brook Farm, Fruitlands and Walden, where he takes on the three most famous New England experiments in self-culture and social reform, including, as he puts it, Thoreau’s “community of one.” Now Francis delves solely into Fruitlands, which he calls “one of history’s most unsuccessful utopias ever.” True enough. He also adds that it was one of the most dramatic and significant. That’s debatable.

In the first place, the experiment lasted all of seven months, during which time nothing much happened except that Abigail Alcott, Bronson’s wife and usually the only grown woman at Fruitlands, was miserable, and the children were occasionally beset with radical indigestion because in utopia one ate only fruits and vegetables, mostly raw, and grain. Once, when a short-term Fruitlands convert (they were all short-term) confessed to eating a small piece of fish, she was so badly harangued—“know ye not, consumers of flesh meat, that ye are nourishing the wolf and tiger in your bosoms”—that the poor woman packed her bags and left.

Still, timing is everything. “We are all a little wild here with numberless projects of social reform,” Emerson had written to Thomas Carlyle two years earlier. “Not a reading man but has the draft of a new community in his waistcoat pocket.” In 1840, more than 500 Friends of Universal Reform had crowded into Boston to debate the woman question and damn the institution of slavery. Meantime, William Miller (better known as Father Miller) was preaching that the Second Coming would occur in the spring of 1843 and that those who followed him, the Millerites, who numbered some 50,000, would ascend to heaven a year later. And Sylvester Graham, 
a militant vegetarian who influenced Alcott, lectured about the brown bread made to his specifications (Graham crackers) as the means to salvation.

At least several dozen communities intending to remedy or escape the ills of industrial society were organized in the United States, including the Northampton Community for Association and Education in western Massachusetts and the Hopedale Community, also in the Bay State. West Roxbury, on the outskirts of Boston, was home to George and Sophia Ripley’s Brook Farm experiment, which intended to foster a “more natural union between intellectual and manual labor” and to mingle work and play to “permit a more simple and wholesome life, than can be led amidst the pressure of our competitive institutions.” Hawthorne joined up for a few months before noting “persons of marked individuality—crooked sticks, as some of us might be called—are not exactly the easiest to bind up into a fagot.”

Even industrialists like Francis Cabot Lowell had imagined a paternalistic factory system that cared for its workers. Of course, Bronson Alcott was no industrialist, far from it, and according to Richard Francis, his adventure in utopia was probably the most short-lived of them all. Regardless, Francis tacks on another seven months to the Fruitlands foray since the enterprise actually began in the Alcott home before the purchase of the farm. He even goes so far as to declare that Concord was a sort of utopia. That too is debatable, for it excludes the farmers or villagers not of a transcendental cast of mind, who produced grapes, pencils, clocks and hats.

Why this particular time produced such an outcropping of utopias is not Francis’s subject except insofar as he trots out the familiar shibboleths like creeping industrialization. In Alcott’s case, one also wonders what motivated his pursuit of perfection and, ultimately, power. And though a transcendentalist of the most romantic cast, after the Temple School fiasco he was untranscendentally adrift, depressed, destitute and angry. Writing like an abstraction-addicted undergraduate, he contributed some of his “Orphic Sayings,” short inscrutable paragraphs of spiritual elixir about “creation globed and orbed,” to The Dial, the house organ of the Transcendental Club. But it was the serendipitous correspondence of Englishman James Pierrepont Greaves that boosted his morale.

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Greaves was evidently a kindred spirit. Influenced by Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the educational reformer Johann Pestalozzi, who, like Alcott, declared “the role of an educator is to teach children, not subjects,” Greaves was also a vegetarian and went so far as to denounce cooked vegetables—heat kills their vital force—and passion, which is to say sex, which, like fire, is to be avoided. (Greaves was a bachelor.) Thomas Carlyle called Greaves one of the world’s great blockheads.

“It is probably fair to say,” Francis continues, “that English Transcendentalist thought was entering a muddled stage.” Even so, Greaves established a coeducational school, based on the Temple School, close to central London, which just happened to be called Alcott House after Bronson, and which Alcott visited in 1842 when Emerson provided him with travel money. Emerson’s generosity—Francis repeatedly calls Emerson “loyal”—is one of the most intriguing, poignant and perplexing leitmotifs in Fruitlands. Even when critical of Alcott, which was not hard to be, Emerson as often as not recanted or excused Alcott, for instance, as a “magnificent dreamer.” Sometimes he even thought Alcott the real Orphic thing, though he noted that whatever Alcott’s revelation, it always ended with “give us much land and money.” And yes, Emerson obliged.

While in England, Alcott met Charles Lane, Greaves’s disciple (Greaves had died just before Alcott’s arrival). Lane was all Alcott could have hoped for. Another enthusiast of the spirit, a reformer and a former journalist, divorced and with one son, Lane too reveled in organic metaphors (particularly having to do with trees): how humankind begins in soil and aspires upward toward a nonsectarian heaven. He too was militant about diet, the royal road to salvation; animal products were taboo, as were alcohol, coffee, tea and cocoa, and fruit was to be grown without manure; life should spring from life, not death.

A good disciple of Greaves, Lane also argued that the family as a biological unit inhibits the development of a truly spiritual community; for all nature (including humans) is in an ongoing state of ecological development that should be devoid of passion. “Vegetables are not merely to be eaten,” notes Francis in deadpan style. “They are to be imitated.” Thus instead of a biological family, Lane proposed a “consociate family,” or group of like-minded individuals, and the best place to plant this family was America, so with his son, William, in tow (William was Louisa May Alcott’s age) and another acolyte, Lane went back to Concord with Alcott. Imagine how Abigail must have felt.

Although, as might be expected, Lane and Alcott did not entirely agree, particularly on the importance of sex, they seem to have ignored their differences, at least for a time, though the tension in the small Alcott cottage was so palpable that Abigail set up a mailbox in which the members of the household could submit their grievances. Yet Lane settled Bronson’s debts and put up the money for Fruitlands, and on June 1, 1843, the group trekked out to their new home, where the older Alcott girls slept in an unheated attic without a window, and Lane and his son and the men who joined them, like the nudist Samuel Bower, slept in the barn. At its peak, there were no more than thirteen Fruitlanders, so to Abigail fell all the women’s housework of cleaning, laundry, cooking (though there was little enough of that).

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Like Lane, Francis lays the failure of Fruitlands at Abigail’s feet. “Mrs Alcott has no spontaneous inclination towards a larger family than her own natural one,” Lane complained. For Mrs. Alcott’s part, she confided to a brother after a few months at Fruitlands, “I am not dead yet, either to life or love.” A good sport, and devoted to Bronson, she tried to harden herself to the coming of winter by taking two icy cold shower-baths a day (the Fruitlanders wore only linen), but in the end she stood up to Lane. “Even our passions are heralds announcing a deep nature,” she declared.

That Abigail sensed what Francis calls, toward the end of his book, “some degree of homoerotic underpinning” between her husband and Lane almost goes without saying, except that Francis might have developed this idea earlier. Yet, to assert that their relationship “would explain Abigail’s anguish and resentment” does not tell the whole story. Fruitlands collapsed under the weight of its own pretensions, not to mention its growing debt, which Lane could no longer shoulder. Lane and Alcott were careless managers, poor farmers (they bolted during harvest time), weak thinkers and intolerant. They were, in other words, the “insane, well-meaning egotists” that Lydia Maria Child had called them—“well-meaning,” that is, as long you weren’t one of their children, who, after the morning’s immersion in cold water, did chores and studied all day only to be assailed before bedtime by such questions as “What is man?” Unsurprisingly, in her essay “Transcendental Wild Oats” Louisa May later satirized Fruitlanders as those benighted individuals who believed “plenteous orchards were soon to be evoked from their inner consciousness.”

Yet Francis grants a wide berth to Alcott, Greaves, Lane and, indeed, to the entire Fruitlands endeavor, which he describes as a “groping toward an ecological perspective.” Perhaps so, though it does not necessarily follow that it’s “an early attempt at determining a carbon footprint” or a prototype of “the science of ecology in their intuition that life is a single phenomenon and the world an organism needing delicate handling.” Nor is Fruitlands the first hippie commune; the group is too rigidly puritanical for that. But Francis tells the tale of Alcott’s folly—for what else is it?—with a healthy dollop of skepticism, quipping now and then about Bronson’s self-serving exploitation of “Transcendentalism as trompe l’oeil.”

After Fruitlands folded, Charles and William Lane joined the celibate Shakers, where Lane expected to find the asexual community he presumably yearned for; but he indentured William, and when he left the Shakers, disenchanted once again, Lane could not extract him. Again, Emerson rose to the occasion and influenced the Shakers to release the much-abused William, dragged hither and yon in his father’s quest for the ideal. Lane and son returned to Europe, where Charles married and sired five more children.

Alcott and his family returned to Concord, where he cultivated his own garden in the terraced land back of Hillside, which he planted with panache. Emerson commissioned him to build a summer house, Hawthorne continued to avoid him and Alcott continued to orate at length. He often charged admission for his Socratic Conversations, which is to say lectures; fortunately for the family, the talented Louisa May wrote prolifically, and for profit, and subsequently supported her holy father until his old age.