17. Brook Farm

During the 1840s, the commune movement reached a height it would not attain again until after the Second World War. Ventures at least calling themselves communal were started at the rate of from five to ten a year. Most of them were extremely short-lived, and many, for instance Amos Bronson Alcott’s, were not really communes at all, but a kind of impoverished community boarding house occupied by a handful of eccentrics.

It was a decade of revolutionary ferment throughout the Western world, a time described by Marx and Engels in terrifying chapters on the primitive accumulation of capital. When the Satanic mills came into their full power, civilized human beings everywhere recoiled in wrath and horror at the consequences of primitive industrialization, and they were answered by economists and philosophers who said that unbridled individual freedom would guarantee that the misery of each would result in the good of all. In 1848 revolution swept Europe. It was suppressed, but the ruling classes were frightened; and movements of reform were permitted to gain a few of their objectives on a slow, piecemeal basis.

In the United States, it seemed for a while as though the American dream of a free cooperative society might win. That hope is most clearly embodied in the work of Walt Whitman. Amongst the New England Transcendentalists and on the fringes of the abolitionist movement the demands for widespread changes in society in clothing, sexual relations, government, economics, education, a total transvaluation of values, were universally the accepted commonplaces of America’s first radical intelligentsia. (The founding fathers were radical intellectual gentlemen.)

From the panic of 1837 on, a series of economic crises established a cycle of boom and collapse that lasted until the Civil War. The economic instability and the growing struggle over slavery intensified the sense of crisis and alienation, not only amongst the intellectuals, but spreading to the general population. Louis Napoleon’s Second Empire, with its primitive gestures toward a corporative State, aborted the revolutionary movement in France. In America the Civil War ended a time of revolutionary hope, but it is too often forgotten today that the intellectuals, the radicals, and the abolitionists not only went into the Civil War under the impression it was the revolution, but came out of it thinking they had won. Whitman was not the only person who had to learn slowly and painfully that the American dream was not going to be realized in his lifetime and possibly never at all. America has fought not two but three great wars, each the bloodiest in history, to make the world safe for democracy. It is important to understand that the radicalization of large sections of the educated population and the skilled working class was at least as intense and as widespread proportionately as the similar movement in the 1960s. Most of the ideas so popular in the latter period were part of the accepted ideology of the earlier.

Brook Farm owes its historical importance to the fact that it was not an experiment of obscure eccentrics, or what most people would call religious fanatics, but rather was a carefully considered attempt to secede from the dominant society by representative members of the intellectual elite.

In the summer of 1841, the Reverend George Ripley, who was an editor of The Dial, a member of the Transcendental Club, and a recent apostate from the Unitarian Church because he found even its vestigial dogmatism too confining, proposed in the circle of Boston Transcendentalists to found a communal society. The project would be financed by the sale of stock at a hundred dollars a share. Each shareholder would become a member. Ripley had been visiting the Shaker and other religious communities and had questioned closely former members of New Harmony and other secular communes. He hoped to avoid the mistakes that had led to failure and to incorporate on a secular basis those methods that had produced success. The colonists would combine in each member mental and physical work. Initially everyone would work on the farm and in the craft shop and at small manufacture, which it was hoped would be developed, and all would share in the domestic labor of cooking, housekeeping, and child care. One of Ripley’s proudest boasts was to be that they had “abolished domestic servitude . . . we do freely from the love of it those duties that are usually discharged by domestics,” a statement whose naïveté would indicate the class composition of its membership. All work was to be paid for at a rate of a dollar a day to men and women alike, whether physical or mental. Housing, fuel, clothing, and food produced on the farm or cooperatively purchased was rationed at cost.

As in most secular communes, there was a strong emphasis upon the radical reform of education, with “perfect freedom of intercourse between students and teaching body.” There were no rigid study hours and the children’s time was divided between school and work in the fields or about the house. In the course of events, the colony attracted experienced farmers, carpenters, shoemakers, and printers, as well as several teachers, but initially the directors of agriculture were Charles A. Dana and Nathaniel Hawthorne, neither of whom knew anything about farming and who found the physical work so exhausting that it made intellectual effort impossible.

At first there were only twenty members. Most of the leading Transcendentalists, except for John S. Dwight, Minot Pratt, George Partridge, and Bradford and Warren Burton who were amongst the original shareholders, were skeptical; and Ralph Waldo Emerson remained antagonistic to the end, referring to Brook Farm as “a perpetual picnic, a French Revolution in small, an Age of Reason in a patty pan,” a completely unjust statement. Most of the people had known one another before coming to the farm, and although the gospel of Transcendentalism — a combination of radical secession from Unitarianism and Universalism mixed with evolutionism, monism, pragmatism, humanism, and an interest in the just discovered mysticism of India — might seem to us to have been too amorphous a faith to inspire binding commitment, it did not seem so to them.

To the strait-laced puritan farmer in the neighborhood, Brook Farm was a secret iniquity, a Babylon set down in his midst. To colonists who came from strait-laced Congregationalist backgrounds, their fellow members seemed totally irreligious. They played croquet or went on picnics on the Sabbath, and the more abandoned female members even knitted and sewed. Ripley himself was an intensely religious man with a good deal of wisdom gained from his pastoral experience. He was imperturbably good-humored in the face of contentions and frustrations amongst his followers. In his quiet way he seems to have emanated a powerful charisma strong enough to hold the colony together and keep it on an even keel.

At first there were only twenty members and there were never more than eighty, but those who stayed worked together with enthusiasm and a surprising minimum of contentiousness. It could be said of Brook Farm that it was not a communist, but a cooperative enterprise; but the cooperative aspects were largely administrative, and the smallness, cohesion, and enthusiasm made it in fact a commune. Economically Brook Farm never became self-sustaining — even in agriculture — much less profitable; but the difference was made up by the school, which took in students from the outside, and which became not only successful and profitable but produced a number of moderately famous people, amongst them George William Curtis, Father Isaac Hecker, the founder of the Paulist Fathers and one of the first Catholic Modernists, General Francis C. Barlow, and a large number of well-balanced adults, who looked back on their school days at Brook Farm as amongst the happiest of their lives.

Although Brook Farm was on the border between a religious and a secular colony, and although its sophisticated members were far from being superstitious or “primitive” or dogmatic in their beliefs, the governing philosophy was certainly millenarian. In his early conversations with Channing, Ripley spoke of his failure as a minister because his congregation lived one life on Sundays and another, manifestly in defiance of Christian principles, on weekdays. He wanted, as it says of heaven in the ancient hymn, a society of perpetual Sabbaths. As plans for the colony matured, Ripley, Elizabeth P. Peabody, and Margaret Fuller began to speak in The Dial of Brook Farm in typical millenarian terms as an apostolic community modeled on the life of Jesus and his disciples. Further, it would come out of the doomed cities and establish a community of love to set an example to the world — in short, a saving remnant.

Hawthorne found the work too hard and left. He had come there hoping to find ample leisure to write. Others were offended by what they considered the irreligion or paganism. The colonists who stayed really seemed to have found a perpetual Sabbath. They worked hard part of the day and the rest of the time was spent in games and self-improvement. In the evening there was musical entertainment, discussions, and dancing, or people walked the nine miles from Brook Farm to Boston to attend concerts and lectures. Partly perhaps it was because of the abiding sweetness of temper, so uncharacteristic of most charismatic leaders, which emanated from George Ripley, that the Brook Farmers seemed to have had a continuous good time.

The colony was family-based and most of the personal relationships had been established beforehand. There seems to have been a certain amount of free love, as it would later be called, but very far from as much as its hostile critics imagined. Sexual problems never seem to have played much of a role. The members were also modified vegetarians. True Bostonians, they refused to give up a piece of pork in their baked beans, and they killed and ate the rabbits who invaded their crops. The men wore a little cap, a sort of blouse, and trousers, and the women short skirts and pantaloons.

In comparison with Owen’s New Harmony, Brook Farm seems to have been free of the more outrageous cranks and eccentrics. Hawthorne’s Blithedale Romance gives a false impression. It is obvious on the face of it that he was outraged by the feminism of the leading women members, most especially of Margaret Fuller, his character “Zenobia.” Sexual equality probably antagonized more male intellectuals, visitors, and novices or postulants than sewing on the Sabbath antagonized females.

Even with the school, however, the colony always operated at a slight loss, made up by contributions and the purchase of additional shares by members and their friends. There was a marketable surplus of farm products, but it was not enough, and the projected “manufacturies” never really got off the ground.

In 1844 Ripley became converted to Fourierism; and after prolonged discussion, the colony turned itself into a Fourierist phalanstery with a rigid, bureaucratized departmentalism envisaged by Fourier for a colony of some two thousand people, but totally unsuited to the seventy-odd Brook Farmers. Membership was thrown open to anyone who considered himself a Fourierist. The original membership slowly declined, to be replaced by the cranks and loafers who, fortunately, seldom stayed for very long. But for two years most surplus time and labor was devoted to the construction of the central building of a planned phalanstery with dormitories and apartments, class meeting-rooms and classrooms, an auditorium, and community recreation and dining rooms. On March 2, 1846, it was completed, and the colony and all its friends joined in a celebration. That night the building burned down.

Brook Farm never recovered. The disaster seems to have destroyed the morale of the colonists as well as ruined them financially. Brook Farm struggled for awhile, but “the enterprise faded, flickered, died down, and expired,” and the land and buildings were sold at auction on April 13, 1849, contemporaneously with the consolidation of the power of Louis Napoleon in France and the dying out of the last embers of the Revolution of 1848 in Europe.

Emerson had been supercilious and Hawthorne embittered, but records indicate that almost all the Brook Farmers who stayed with the colony took a different view. They formed an association for ex-members and purchased a camp in the foothills of Mount Hurricane in the Adirondacks, which they called Summer Brook Farm, and every year they gathered to live again the Brook Farm life. Sixty years later the aged surviving members were still coming to the camp.