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.