Diving into Transcendentalism via Fruitlands

Talk about jumping off a cliff! That’s what I feel like I’ve done with Richard Francis’ Fruitlands: The Alcott Family and Their Search for Utopia . I wanted to learn more about Transcendentalism and feel like I’m practically drowning in it. But oh is it ever interesting!

Disclaimer: I am writing as a student, just learning. I am hardly an expert on Transcendentalism!

Transcendentalist thinking can be quite incoherent at times. Francis has a wonderful way of taking their way of thinking and summing it up on one pithy concluding sentence often punctuated with his dry wit. Because of this, I have a greater understanding (though I may still have trouble writing about it!).

The idea of Fruitlands developed in a fascinating way through connections made between Europe and New England. Here are the main players:

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And here are the main points:

  • Beginning with German philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the Swiss educational reformer Johann Pestalozzi, the movement germinates in England with James Pierrepont Greaves, Henry Gardiner Wright, William Oldham and Charles Lane.
  • Meanwhile across the Atlantic, Ralph Waldo Emerson has rejected Unitarianism for a different way of thinking and Bronson Alcott has founded Temple School, based upon this same Pestalozzi.
  • Alcott releases his book about Temple School (thanks to the hard work of his unpaid assistant Elizabeth Peabody) called Record of a School ; this is how Greaves learns of the school. As the Temple School is failing (due in part to the release of a second controversial book, Conservations with Children on the Gospels), Greaves writes to Alcott.
  • Greaves, having been totally taken with Alcott’s work with the Temple School, developes his own school, naming it Alcott House, and invites Alcott to England to see for himself. Francis writes:

[Greaves writes to Alcott] ” . . . thus triggering a transatlantic cross-fertilization of ideas that ultimately led to Lane and Wright joining
forces with Alcott in Massachusetts to conduct their experiment in
living a good life.”
(page 5, Fruitlands: The Alcott Family and their Search for Utopia)

  • Thus, the founding of Fruitlands.

You may notice a use of words in this post relating to plants and vegetation (“germinates”, “cross-fertilization”) – this is no accident. In the next post, I’ll get into how much Transcendentalism was based on plants and vegetation, and why becoming a vegan was such an important part of it, especially for Bronson Alcott.

As crazy as Transcendental thought can sound, there are some interesting truths in it and many parallels (albeit contorted) between it and Christianity.  Francis’ book makes a case for the relevancy of Fruitlands in its recognition of the worth of the vegetarian diet and in caring for the land which we’ll get into in future posts.

Bronson Alcott continues to be the most confusing and difficult character I have ever come across. His brilliance as a thinker is offset by his overt narcissism, causing a criminal neglect of his family’s needs. He is the man I love to hate to love, if that makes any sense! 🙂

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4 Replies to “Diving into Transcendentalism via Fruitlands”

  1. Bronson Alcott seemed to have a very large blind spot, didn’t he? He only survived and his family only survived because others took the responsibilities he held aloof from. It’s only be human to be irresponsible (at times), but it is irritating that he made a virtue of it.

  2. This will be fascinating to read about! I too both love and hate Bronson Alcott, and am curious to learn more.

    (I just ordered my copy of American Bloomsbury because of your coverage on this blog. Can’t WAIT to read it — or your coverage of Fruitlands.)

    Or my Margaret Mitchell biography!! 😛

    (Love the slideshow.)

    1. Fruitlands will be the death of me 🙂 I love that the author has a sense of humor. You’d have to to deal with this subject, it’s so maddening. But also fascinating. 🙂 Wait till I start talking about vegetables and how it figured into the Transcendentalism, it’ll blow your mind!

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