Back in October I took a trip to Fruitlands in Harvard, MA, only about 40 minutes from my home. That visit sparked a long period of binge reading on the subject which is why, in the dead of winter, I’m only getting around to writing about that visit now.
Having immersed myself in Louisa’s life over the past two and one half years, Fruitlands is pregnant with meaning. It’s a paradox – beautiful and open yet oppressive as I reflect on past events. In the summer of 1843, a new kind of family representing the hope of Utopia moved into the then red, ramshackle farmhouse nestled in a valley, at the end of a primitive and steep drive, deliberately isolated from the outside world.
Accompanying Bronson Alcott and wife Abba were their daughters: Anna, Louisa, Elizabeth and May. Charles Lane came with his young son William. Other members of this “consociate” family were Joseph Palmer, Isaac Hecker, Samuel Larned, Abraham Everett (aka Abraham Woods or Wood Abraham) and Samuel Bower. The only other woman to join, Ann Page, came later.
Clara Endicott Sears is the foundress of the now Fruitlands Musuem, having bought up the land in the early 1900s and written a book about the experiment, Bronson Alcott’s Fruitlands. Her book is one of the few (if not the only one) that includes the journal writings of different members of the group beyond Alcott and Lane.
It also includes Louisa’s take on the experiment, the satirical Transcendental Wild Oats, plus diary entries from Anna and Louisa during their time there.
These books led to a young adult novel, Becoming Little Women: Louisa May at Fruitlands by Jeannine Atkins (see previous post) and finally Richard Francis’ tour de force, Fruitlands: The Alcott Family and Their Search for Utopia. This last book is densely packed with information and as a result, riddled with sticky notes which I still have to sort through. Eventually I will share what I learned from this marvelous book (see previous posts).
Louisa’s diary entries reveal a ten year-old girl who was already reform-minded, introspective and conscious of her faults. There are numerous references to her quick temper and deep regret as in this passage from September 1, 1843:
“I felt sad because I have been cross to-day and did not mind Mother. I cried, and then I felt better …” (pg. 107, Bronson Alcott’s Fruitlands by Clara Endicott Sears).
And yet in the same passage, she shows her astuteness:
“Father asked us what was God’s noblest work. Anna said men, but I said babies. Men are often bad; babies never are.” (Ibid, pg. 106)
Louisa was not afraid to speak her mind and possibly earn the disfavor of her father; Anna however always wanted to please him.
The same passage also demonstrates how reform-minded she was becoming in her reaction to a story read to her by Bronson which demonstrated why the rich need to be kind to the poor. Louisa wrote, “I liked it very much, and I shall be kind to poor people.” (Ibid)
She finds a moment at bedtime up in her cramped attic room to appreciate the natural world: “As I went to bed the moon came up very brightly and looked at me.” (Ibid, pgs. 106-7)
Other journal entries describe hours of play spent running up and down hills, gathering nuts and berries and pretending:
“I ran in the wind and pretended to be a horse, and had a lovely time in the woods with Anna and Lizzie. We were fairies, and made gowns and paper wings. I “flied” the highest of all.” (Ibid, pg. 107)
Change of weather
When the climate was agreeable, Fruitlands was a paradise (except perhaps for Abba who had to do the lion’s share of the work). Beautiful mountain vistas, rich forests, sparkling streams and long walks in the fields complemented the sense of warmth and community that Bronson and Charles Lane wanted to cultivate. Despite the rigors of living at Fruitlands (among other things a totally Vegan diet without the benefit of coffee, tea, sugar and butter; scratchy, lightweight linen for clothing so as not to rob the sheep of their wool or use cotton created by slave labor; sparse usage of animals for farming; strict rules and an over-abundance of “high-minded talk” along with an under-abundance of hand to the plow) and the difficult personalities involved, the community appeared to be thriving.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, after visiting during the summer wrote, “They look well in July; we will see them in December.” (Ibid, pg. 69) He had provided financial help though later commented that “Their whole doctrine is spiritual but they always end with saying, Give us much land and money.” (Wikipedia, Ralph Waldo Emerson)
Emerson was prophetic in his assessment of Fruitlands; when the temperature cooled and the snows came, life grew unbearably austere due to a lack of food, heat and warm clothing (although there was still an abundance of “high-minded talk”). One by one, the residents of Fruitlands abandoned the community leaving behind the destitute Alcotts, Charles Lane and his son. Eventually the property would be sold, Bronson and Charles Lane would part company, and the surviving family unit of Alcotts would be sorely tested.
There is no doubt among Alcott biographers that Fruitlands was a very formative time in Louisa’s life. Nothing escaped the sensibilities of this ten year-old, most especially the burden of Fruitlands on her mother and the mounting tension between her parents which threatened separation.
She saw the amount of work Abba took of, caring for all the residents plus any visitors who dropped in, often unannounced. Bronson and Charles Lane frequently left the farm on trips to promote their utopian community (which provided no monetary income). One time they left when the grain was ready to be harvested. Louisa writes in Transcendental Wild Oats:
“About the time the grain was ready to house, some call of the Oversoul wafted all the men away. An easterly storm was coming up and the yellow stacks were sure to be ruined. Then Sister Hope [Abba] gathered her forces. Three little girls, one boy (Timon’s son) [William, Charles Lane’s son], and herself, harnessed to clothes-baskets and Russia-linen sheets, were the only teams she could command; but with these poor appliances the indomitable woman got in the grain and saved food for her young, with the instinct and energy of a mother-bird with a brood of hungry nestlings to feed.” (Ibid, pgs. 166-167).
Louisa and her mother understood each other and leaned on each other. The daughter internalized the anxiety and frustration of the mother and watched as her father failed to provide, leading the family to the brink of starvation. Louisa witnessed the strength of her mother who eventually led the family away from Fruitlands to safety while the father collapsed emotionally (although Richard Francis in Fruitlands The Alcott Family and their Search for Utopia disputes this, claiming that Louisa invented or exaggerated her father’s response to the failure of the experiment to enhance the storyline of Transcendental Wild Oats – see page 259).
Assuming the family cross
An exchange between Louisa (in 1843, then eleven) and Abba in Louisa’s journal signals the unspoken promise Louisa made to take care of her mother for the rest of her life:
I enclose a picture for you which I always liked very much, for I have imagined that you might be just such an industrious daughter & I such a feeble but loving mother, looking to your labor for my daily bread. Keep it for my sake, & your own, for you and I always like to be grouped together.
Louisa responds with a poem:
I hope that soon dear mother, you & I may be
In the quiet room my fancy has so often made for thee,
The pleasant sunny chamber, the cushioned easy chair,
The books laid for your reading, the vase of flowers fair.
The desk beside the window where the sun shines warm and bright,
And there in ease and quiet, the promised book you write,
While I sit close beside you, content at least to see,
That you can rest dear mother, & I can cherish thee.
(pgs. 107-108, Little Women Letters from the House of Alcott, edited by Jessie Bonstelle and Marian DeForest)
It was a promise that would set Louisa on a course that not only achieved its goal but surpassed it beyond her wildest dreams.
Come and visit Fruitlands with me:
In the next post, I will share the impressions of some of the Fruitlands residents as detailed by Clara Endicott Sears.
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