Fruitlands: the Alcott family and their search for Utopia by Richard Francis

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I have *not* taken to Transcendentalism: this is for research purposes only.  Fruitlands was the short-lived commune set up by Bronson Alcott, Louisa M Alcott’s father, and his London-born associate Charles Lane. They had an interesting range of ideas, from the admirable, notably supporting Abolitionism and, to some extent, women’s rights, to the offensive – some of their ideas about producing a perfect new generation came unpleasantly close to eugenics – and all sorts of other things.  Opposing organised religion and political parties – wouldn’t life be so much more peaceful …?   Following a vegan diet. Trying to avoid cooking anything.  Opposing individual property ownership. Drinking nothing but water, not using artificial lighting, showering and bathing using only cold water, not using any form of animal labour, not using even natural fertilisers (they said that manure upset the weather), practising celibacy except as “necessary” to procreate; and one of them was into nudism because he thought that clothes stifled the spirit.

Some of it seems rather extreme; and their experiment didn’t last very long.  After only a few months, Lane and Alcott fell out, Lane joined the Shakers – everyone knows that Shakerism originated in Manchester and Bolton, yes 🙂 ?!  – , Mrs Alcott put her foot down, and Fruitlands was abandoned. But certain aspects of their theories and practices held some appeal at the time and afterwards, and do resonate in our own age of concern about environmental issues and religious and political extremism.  But, as so often happens, it wasn’t thought out properly – trying to live entirely off natural products on land that wasn’t really arable wasn’t the greatest of ideas – and those in charge were so repressive and dictatorial and determined to force their views on everyone else that they created more discord than harmony.  Louisa wasn’t impressed … and yet there are certainly some aspects of Fruitlands in Plumfield.

This is for research purposes, as I’ve said – it’s not really bedtime or holiday reading.  But there’s some interesting stuff in it – plenty of food for thought.

Transcendentalism’s usually said to be an offshoot of Romanticism, combined with religion, and then taken off in the direction of separating yourself from wordly things and sticking closely to nature. I get myself all tangled up with Romanticism. It’s a Lancastrian thing – we’re very proud of the Industrial Revolution, but we also want to keep the Lake District unspoilt so that we can wander about dreaming of hosts of golden daffodils!

I do not get tangled up with religion, but some of the Transcendentalists did – Eve eating the apple was apparently a bad thing because, although apples work with veganism, she was looking for knowledge instead of just looking for an apple. This is not my department. If someone says “The Fall”, I assume they mean the late, great, Mark E Smith & co. It had links to aspects of Unitarianism, and also to the Shakers – who’ve always interested me because of the local connection.  I’m so parochial!  It’s linked to Hinduism and Jainism as well, and I find those links easier to follow, because they don’t get everything mixed up with the creation story.  Anyway, this is not my department, as I’ve said: I’m just doing some research into the history of New England, and this particular area of it appealed because of the Alcott connection.

Louisa M Alcott’s own take on it was that the men did a lot of waffling whilst the women tried to keep body and soul together.  I feel so sorry for Abigail Alcott, Louisa’s mother. Some observers commented that the Transcendalists – like 17th century Puritans – thought that no-one should be allowed to be happy; and remarks made in Abigail’s letters and diaries suggest that that was how she felt. Bronson, like a lot of idealists, conveniently ignored the practicalities of real life, so they were always in debt. He also nearly ended up in prison for refusing to pay his tax so that he could distance himself from the state – a bit like that Australian couple who were in the news recently, for refusing to pay their property taxes because they said that their property actually belonged to the Good Lord. (Presumably they were quite happy to use all the public services paid for by everyone else’s taxes.)  And he didn’t want to get a job because he thought that being a wage slave was bondage, but he thought it was fine to tap friends and relatives for money because that was encouraging them to be charitable!  A very far cry from Jo March writing penny-dreadfuls in order to pay her way in life.

Abigail suffered from both physical and mental health problems, as well.  A vegan diet is obviously fine if you’re getting the proper nutrition, but they didn’t have the requisite knowledge about that and so she was existing on fruit, bread and water, and consequently felt ill for a lot of the time. And the ideas about producing perfect offspring meant that Bronson blamed her when they had a stillborn baby. Even the domestic postbox idea, which she introduced and which sounds like such good fun when Laurie introduces it in Little Women, came about not as a bit of fun but as a way of trying to relieve domestic tension – write your issues down instead of bottling them up or yelling at each other about them. I don’t wonder she had enough. It can’t have been very nice for either her or the children … although it’s interesting that the Bhaers’ Plumfield, which was supposed to be so wonderful, was probably named after Plum Tree Meadows, the previous name for the area where Fruitlands was situated.

On a more positive note, the Anglo-American links are fascinating. I always think that with 19th century movements. Considering that letters must have taken quite a while to cross the Atlantic, the amount of communication and sharing of ideas is fascinating. The nudist guy was British, incidentally.  There was even an Alcott House, predating Fruitlands, in Surrey, named after Bronson Alcott. He seems to have been obsessed with the idea that American women were better than British women, though! That probably explains the rather offensive way that Louisa portrays Kate Vaughn, which always annoys me. And their contacts, or at least Bronson Alcott and Charles Lane’s contacts, with some very well-known names on both sides of the Atlantic, are worth nothing – Carlyle, Hawthorne, Thoreau. Louisa M Alcott’s probably better known than any of them these days: I wonder what Bronson would have made of that!

If Bronson Alcott were around today, he’d probably be one of those people who, whilst some of his ideas would be too extreme for most people, would have many ideas which made a lot of sense, especially with all the current concerns about the environment … but who alienate others with their lecturing tone, their refusal to respect or even listen properly to other people’s views, their lack of humour, their failure to consider practicalities and their constant attempts to guilt-trip everyone.  I don’t know why it always seems to get like that.  It’s a great shame.

Also, as the author points out, they didn’t really get involved with the Abolitionist movement, and they didn’t seem very concerned about all the other social and political issues of the day.  Marmee and the girls taking their Christmas breakfast round to the Hummels (this is my comment, not the author’s!) might not have changed the world, but at least they tried to help people in need!

It seems very likely that Plumfield was Louisa’s attempt at showing a gentler side of it – one which might have worked.

There’s a lot of philosophy in this book, so it’s quite heavy-going, but the author’s done a very good job with the subject matter.  Some of the ideas are quite outlandish, and he’s very critical of how self-obsessed they were, but he doesn’t mock them – yet, at the same time, he shows the impracticability of Alcott and Lane’s particular experiment, and its negative impact on Abigail Alcott and others.  And he gets a few Little Women/Little Men references in there, whilst resisting what must have been a strong temptation (well, it would have been to me!) to include dozens of them in a book which isn’t actually about them.  I wouldn’t say that this was an entertaining book, but it was quite interesting.

And, whilst I’m certainly not suggesting that we all start running around starkers, or avoiding eating potatoes because they grown downwards rather than upwards, some of the ideas are certainly relevant to today.  Avoiding buying clothes or other items known to have been produced unethically.  Being careful when it comes to artificial substances getting into the food supply. Not being cruel to animals.  The Fruitland experiment just wasn’t viable, and I don’t think I’d have liked Bronson Alcott or Charles Lane very much, but, as I said, there’s some food for thought here!

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