Fruitlands: The Alcott Family and Their Search for Utopia

AS LIVING EXPERIMENTS GO, Fruitlands probably ranks among the more ill-conceived utopian communities ever attempted. To an impartial observer, the viability of the commune in Concord, Massachusetts, was as unlikely as its failure was grand. It lasted through only seven months of 1843, from June to January, and included just fourteen people; their diet consisted only of foods which would not give up their life force (i.e. are replenished on trees and vines), though they didn’t in fact have many fruit trees on their eleven acres. They lived off the land, though they had little farming experience and forbade animal labor or fertilizer. They aspired to celibacy, though they had five children among them. They possessed a vast library but could not read after dark, because they could not use oil lamps or candles (both derived from animal products). The idea was to return as nearly to the Garden of Eden as possible, but between the infighting, the brutal weather, and poor health, it amounted to a camping expedition in hell.

Yet it probably would not have amounted to more than a historical footnote, if it weren’t for the cast of famous transcendentalists involved: idealist Bronson Alcott — father of then ten-year-old Louisa May Alcott, who later based some writings on this living experience — and his contemporaries Emerson, Thoreau, and Fuller, who weighed in with their opinions on the community. Emerson, though a constant friend, had little faith in Alcott’s ability to draw recruits to Fruitlands: “[The community’s] appeal to the public indicates infirm faith, like people whose heads are not clear & must see a house built before they can comprehend the plan of it. . . . Very pathetic it is to see this wandering emperor from year to year making his round of visits from house to house of such as do not exclude him, seeking a companion.” According to historian Richard Francis, author of Fruitlands: The Alcott Family and their Search for Utopia, the great significance of this farm west of Boston lies in the “drama in which a particular group of people interacted with each other, intellectually and emotionally.” The division of labor was never fair; the food was limited and living conditions unhealthy; and the infighting between cofounder Charles Lane, Alcott, and Alcott’s wife, Abigail, became such a bitter triangle that even ten-year-old Louisa worried in her journal that her father would leave them. “In the eve father and mother and Anna and I had a long talk. I was very unhappy, and we all cried.” Francis notes that they were crying about the stress and bad feeling, the failure of the community, and the loss of their home. “Anna and I cried in bed,” Louisa continued, “and I prayed God to keep us all together.”

Francis conveys the ambition and intensity of their ideals, which are impressive. The goal was to live in a way that would, as nearly as possible, achieve universal harmony. One of the governing principles was to do no harm to living things, including the environment (the founders were also fervent abolitionists).

But it was also a comedy of self-interest and self-importance, and the author doesn’t pull punches. Alcott and Lane often went gallivanting across the country on their penniless pilgrimages to recruit members, leaving everyone else (especially Abigail, the only permanent woman member) to do the heavy lifting. Francis doesn’t bully through any conclusions, but he does share this: in conversation with Henry James Sr., Alcott once asserted that he had never committed a sin. Perhaps it was the weight of maintaining such perfection, and trying unsuccessfully to impart it to his family and peers, that led to his eventual breakdown, and to the fermenting of Fruitlands.

The community experiment, while extreme, was not at its philosophical heart all that unlike ideals and worldviews still active today, whether based on diet, or sustainability, or on preventing exploitation of the labor and lives of the voiceless. It was born of a passionate curiosity about what society might look like if it adhered to certain principles of harmony. Except at Fruitlands, the tenet of doing no harm was not extended as graciously to one another as to nature.