On a rainy June day in 1843, the Transcendentalist philosopher Bronson Alcott and his wife and several children made their way in a creaking wagon up Prospect Hill in Harvard, Massachusetts, to a worn red farmhouse that Alcott christened "Fruitlands." This name reflected Alcott's hope that he, his family, and a few acolytes could live off the land while he occupied himself mainly with Transcendentalist thinking.
Alcott had a plan for his mini-Utopia. His family and their few associates--the "Con-Sociate Family"--would eat mainly fruit, nuts and grains. They would obey the dietary strictures of Sylvester Graham, he of the still popular graham crackers. Alcott forbade consumption of anything that harmed man or beast: no meat or dairy products, no sugar or molasses, no cotton, silk, leather or wool, no coffee, tea or wine, no manure for fertilizer, no beeswax for candles, no whale oil for lamps. Mrs. Alcott rebelled at this last stricture: she needed a whale-oil lamp, she said, so that she could sew--or mend--in the evenings, and on that one point, Alcott surrendered.
Alcott's daughter, Louisa May, later skewered her father's fantasies in a short work, "Transcendental Wild Oats." She was ten at the time of his experiment in communal, rural living, but her eye was sharp and her sense of right and wrong not entirely corrupted by conventional Victorian filial attitudes. She loved her father--what good Victorian daughter did not?--but she also knew his limitations as a breadwinner; she spent her life writing to make enough money to support the family, and some of that writing, tales of murder and mayhem written under a pseudonym, allowed her to vent her anger.
Alcott's idea was impractical from the start; neither he nor his few comrades knew anything about farming. Like Brook Farm and other Utopian experiments in the mid-nineteenth century, Fruitlands had little hope of success. (It is ironic, however, that not five miles from Fruitlands, another Utopian community--Shakers--were farming and prospering; Alcott never availed himself of their expertise.) As the summer advanced and crops were either not planted or, planted, failed to thrive, it became increasingly obvious that the little community at Fruitlands was doomed. When winter came and the larder was empty, Alcott could not admit his failure; he took to his bed, turned his face to the wall, and prepared to starve himself to death, leaving his family destitute. This act of either cowardice or agonizing self-knowledge was aborted by Mrs. Alcott, who pleaded with her maddeningly impractical husband to continue to live for his family's sake. He agreed, arose from his bed, and took his little band back to Concord.
In 1910, a wealthy Boston Brahmin, Clara Endicott Sears, built a summer home on Prospect Hill. She soon discovered that her property included the dilapidated farmhouse that had been Bronson Alcott's "Fruitlands." Like Louisa May Alcott, Miss Sears was not a conventional Victorian woman. She had a deep interest in New England history and culture, and wrote several books, fiction and nonfiction, about it including a charming volume on American folk painting. She opened "Fruitlands" as a house museum in 1914. In 1917, when the neighboring Harvard Shaker community closed, the eldress asked Miss Sears to move the Shaker office building to the Prospect Hill property; it opened as a Shaker museum, the first in the country, shortly afterwards. In the 1920's, Miss Sears added an American Indian museum and a building that housed a collection of Hudson River School and American folk paintings. Although Miss Sears's house, the Pergolas, burned down years ago, the museum complex thrives today on Prospect Hill, in the countryside that she loved. If you go there, you may sense Bronson Alcott's spirit haunting the small red farmhouse nestled in the trees. Like all visionaries, he aspired to a life that was perhaps not possible in this world. He gave us his daughter, Louisa May, and perhaps that was enough.
Louisa May Alcott. Transcendental Wild Oats and Excerpts from the Fruitlands Diary
Cynthia H. Barton. History's Daughter: The Life of Clara Endicott Sears
Harriet Ellen O'Brien. Lost Utopias
Martha Saxton. A Modern Biography of Louisa May Alcott
Clara Endicott Sears. Bronson Alcott's Fruitlands
Some American Primitives: A Study of New England Faces and Folk Portraits
Odell Shepard. Pedlar's Progress: The Life of Bronson Alcott
Madeleine Stern (ed.) Behind the Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott
Madeleine Stern. Louisa May Alcott