Louisa May Alcott published her very first in 1852 in the Saturday Evening Gazette, “The Rival Painters: A Story of Rome.” Of course, we know her best for her book Little Women (1868) and The Fruitlands in Harvard, MA, a now beautiful museum and place to visit, literally in my backyard (okay maybe not literally but close enough!).
First purchased by Charles Lane, a farm of 90 acres and old red farmhouse to start a communal utopia based on principles of transcendentalism with Louisa’s father, Amos Bronson Alcott, The Fruitlands “experiment” lasted only 7 months. A total of eleven adults eventually joined Fruitlands (some sources say a dozen and of course, there were several children), but it doesn’t detract from what they thought and did.
I have always been fascinated with transcendentalists as thinkers and transcendentalism as a literary movement. Sound familiar? Transcendentalism emerged from English and German Romanticism, Biblical criticism, the skepticism of David Hume, and the transcendental philosophy of Immanuel Kant and German Idealism, to name a few. It was also influenced by Hindu texts on philosophy of the mind and spirituality, especially the Upanishads.
Here are some basics:
1. First, they were looking for literary independence from England. They deliberately went about creating literature, essays, novels, philosophy, poetry, and other writing that were clearly different from anything from England, France, Germany, or any other European nation.
2. Most of the Transcendentalists became involved as well in social reform movements, especially anti-slavery and women's rights.
3. Transcendentalists were strong believers in the power of the individual. Their beliefs were closely linked with those of the Romantics, but differ by an attempt to embrace or, at least, to not oppose the empiricism of science.
4. A core belief of transcendentalism is in the inherent goodness of people and nature. Emerson believed that people were naturally good and that everyone's potential was limitless. He inspired his colleagues to look into themselves, into nature, into art, and through work for answers to life's most perplexing questions.
5. They believed in the soul (the oversoul) as: the human soul is immortal, and immensely vast and beautiful; human conscious ego is slight and limited in comparison to the soul, even though we habitually mistake our ego for our true self; and at some level, the souls of all people are connected, and this includes everything, down to nature.
6. Emerson went further to describe nature as the closest experience there is to experiencing the presence of God. To truly appreciate nature, one must not only look at it and admire it, but also be able to feel it taking over the senses. This process requires solitude, in uninhabited places like the woods. His “transparent eyeball” is a representation of an eye that is absorbent rather than reflective, and therefore takes in all that nature has to offer. Emerson strongly espoused that the individual become one with nature.
They were also vegan. Absolutely no meat or other animal products were eaten (hence the name Fruitlands). In fact, nothing from animals (including wool, honey, wax, or manure) nor even animal labor were used by the community. The founders felt nothing should be taken from animals, for they should be “as free as humans.” Bronson Alcott’s idealism was so strong, in fact, that he would not permit canker-worms to be disturbed, and forbade the planting of such vegetables and roots as grow downward instead of upward into the air!
Furthermore, the reformers believed that spiritual freedom depended on dispensing with the labor of animals, and so, because many on the commune were philosophers rather than farmers, the experiment only lasted seven months. Many saw the community as an opportunity to be housed and fed while sitting in apple trees writing poetry or thinking great thoughts. After all, it is much easier to dream of utopias than to plant seeds on your hands and knees. Then, too, often the philosophers would travel off to lecture and spread the news of the utopia, leaving Mrs. Alcott, the children, and the only practical man, Palmer, to do all the work.
Louisa May Alcott wrote about Fruitlands in her short piece, “Transcendental Wild Oats.” Louisa was only a child at the time, but she stored the memories of Fruitlands and later wrote this story about her father’s experiment. Bronson was unable to support the family and, afterward, Louisa dedicated most of her life to supporting them. After the publication of her first story, she made a living off stories for more than two decades. And although Louisa grew up in an extraordinary political atmosphere, thanks to her father, who was friends with some of the most influential thinkers of his time — Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Fuller, Whitman, etc.--he never managed to earn a living or take care of his family.
As Louisa put it, "He was a man in a balloon, with his family holding the ropes trying to hold him down to Earth. He seemed to live on air and in the air, and had no concern about earning a living. It didn't seem to bother him that his family was literally starving" (NPR: American Lives). She became the breadwinner and the caretaker, an ardent supporter of women’s issues and spent most of her life caring for her family financially, emotionally, and physically. Her father died in March 1888, and she followed him just two days later.
So, if you’ve read this far, or even skimmed, I think it’s safe to say, that balance is essential. We may want to change the world, we may want to live out our ideals, but we do have to function in society and the real world. My favorite movie is Captain Fantastic. I challenge you to watch it. I think it does a pretty good job at exploring that very balance that is, for lack of better words, uniquely human.
Thanks for reading! xo