Fruitlands through the years in sight and sound

Recently a reader (thank you Michelle!) sent me a wonderful interview with Richard Francis, author of Fruitlands: The Alcott Family and Their Search for Utopia. Francis does an excellent job of clarifying a complex situation (anyone who has studied the Fruitlands experiment in depth knows what I mean!). It was presented on The Woman’s Hour on BBC, hosted by Jenni Murray.

Richard  Francis Interview

Fruitlands then and now

I thought too that you might enjoy a tour of Fruitlands through the ages. I combined photos from Clara Endicott Sears’ book, Bronson Alcott’s Fruitlands with photos I took on my last visit there:

Upper photo courtesy of Harriet Lothrop Papers, Minuteman National Park

Front of the house

Foyer

Kitchen

Dining room

Dining room

The study

Alcott’s bedroom

Charles Lane’s bedroom

The heart of the story

And here are pictures of the attic. I think these pictures bring home the human drama of Fruitlands more than anything. When you actually see it, you just want to sit there and ponder what went on in that dark, cramped and cold room:

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Three-part series on Bronson Alcott at Fruitlands Museum: genius or crackpot?

Last Wednesday I attended the first of three lectures on Bronson Alcott at the Fruitlands Museum in Harvard, MA, presented by Helen Batchelder, a local scholar.

Fruitlands in the dark

I have never been to Fruitlands before in the dark and it was disconcerting to see the lights over the mountains, reminding me it was 2017 and not 1843. Gazing down the road however, I could not make out the red farmhouse in the dark and for a moment, I could feel the intense loneliness and isolation of living there. The Fruitlands experiment was, if anything, high drama for two families and it was to impact them for the rest of their lives. To get a sense of the tragedy of Fruitlands, I highly suggest reading John Matteson’s account in Eden’s Outcasts.

from Bronson Alcott's Fruitlands by Clara Endicott

from Bronson Alcott’s Fruitlands by Clara Endicott

Genius, deadbeat, visionary or crackpot?

Continue reading

The unknown players of Fruitlands – finally hearing their voices

What was it like to live at Fruitlands?

Serious Alcott biographers have devoted much ink to the family’s experience during this six-month utopian experiment. Sometimes thoughtful, often absurd and always dramatic, Fruitlands is credited with both the shaping of the famous daughter, and a change in the power structure of the Alcott marriage and family life.

Richard Francis’ exhaustive study, Fruitlands The Alcott Family and Their Search for Utopia reveals extensive excerpts from the writings of Charles Lane whom, with Bronson Alcott, created the community.

bronson alcott's fruitlandsBut what about other members?

In Bronson Alcott’s Fruitlands, Clara Endicott Sears reveals the lives and writings of two such members: Joseph Palmer and Isaac Thomas Hecker. It is a rare view of Fruitlands from those who simply lived it.

Isaac Hecker

Isaac Hecker was a seeker. Feeling an urgent inner call to an ascetic spiritual life, he came over from Brook Farm to join the Fruitlands community. Born in New York in 1819 to a well-to-do merchant family, his long and winding road would eventually lead to the priesthood and the founding of the Paulist Fathers. These progressive priests dedicated themselves to spreading the Catholic faith in America using the modern methods of preaching on the road and the printing press. They stressed the personal holiness of each individual, believing that the European Church placed too much emphasis on the routine side of religious observance (Wikipedia, Isaac Hecker).

Bronson Alcott's Fruitlands

Isaac Hecker went through much torturous soul searching before deciding on the celibate life of a priest. He found separating from Brook Farm to be excruciating but the call within for the spiritual life was too strong. He writes:

“I can hardly present myself from saying how much I shall miss the company of those I love and associate with here. But I must go. I am called with a stronger voice … Here are refining amusements, cultivated persons – and one whom I have not spoken of, one who is too much to me to speak of, one who would leave all for me. Alas! Him I must leave to go.” (pg. 76-77, Bronson Alcott’s Fruitlands by Clara Endicott Sears).

Hecker’s biographer, Walter Elliot in Life of Father Hecker, attempts to clarify the use of the word “Him,” indicating that Hecker appeared to have originally written “Her,” then changed it to “Him.” Whatever the nature of the relationship, it was an attachment that Hecker felt he must break in order to achieve spiritual perfection.

He hoped to find that at Fruitlands. He adjusted well to the diet and clothing requirements and at first, seemed to be finding the life he sought. He describes conversations amongst the members:

“This morning after breakfast a conversation was held on Friendship and its laws and conditions. Mr. Alcott places Innocence first; [Samuel] Larned, Thoughtfulness; I, Seriousness; Lane, Fidelity.” (Ibid, pg. 78, from July 12).

And

“… there was held a conversation on the Highest Aim. Mr. Alcott said it was Integrity; I, Harmonic being; Lane, Progressive being; Larned, Annihilation of self; [Samuel] Bower, Repulsion of the evil in us. Then there was a confession of the obstacles which prevent us from attaining the highest aim. Mine was the doubt whether the light is light; not want of will to follow, or light to see.” (Ibid, from July 13)

It did not take long for Hecker to realize that Fruitlands would not meet his spiritual needs:

“… I cannot live at this place as I would. This is not the place for my soul … My life is not theirs.” (Ibid, pg. 82, from July 23)

While he admired Charles Lane’s unselfishness, he suspected Bronson’s motives: “I suspect he wanted me because thought I would bring money to the Community. (Ibid, pg. 84). He noted the enormous work load Abba and her daughters carried while “Mr. Alcott looked benign and talked philosophy.” (Ibid)

Hecker would move back home to New York with his family and maintain the ascetic dietary life he discovered at Fruitlands. In six years he would become a Roman Catholic priest.

Joseph Palmer

Palmer was the practical support for Fruitlands. He provided animals to plow the fields when Bronson and Lane realized they could not break the earth themselves. In fact, those animals caused somewhat of a scandal when it was learned that Abba was taking milk from the cow to give to two year-old Abby May.

Although Joseph Palmer went back and forth from Fruitlands to his farm in No Town, he was fully committed to the community, providing farming skills and tools. He also provided practical and moral support to Abba when the community was collapsing and they faced starvation and the cold of winter. He was to eventually take over the property and turn it into his own community, the Leominster and Harvard Benevolent Association (Wikipedia, Joseph Palmer).

joseph palmer

What is perhaps most remembered about Palmer though was his attachment to his fine, luxurious white beard. He was mocked and openly persecuted for it in the 1830s and was even imprisoned for a time. Relishing the opportunity to fight for his right to wear it, he remained in prison longer than was necessary until he was asked to leave. A man of principle, he never wavered and kept the beard till his dying day.

After finally leaving jail, Palmer heard about Fruitlands and being a reformer at heart, was eager to join. He offered to run the farm pro bona and provided furniture for the house. Without his practical help, Fruitlands would not have survived as long as it did. He was much more a doer, while Bronson and Lane especially, preferred to just “be.”

The legacy of Fruitlands preserved, thanks to a visionary

Clara Endicott Sears did a great service by providing her book and purchasing the property to preserve for the ages.  Looking over the beautiful vista, one can imagine the community living in the house, the girls running through the fields and the meaningful and often challenging conversations that took place. There was hope in the valley.

But one can also sense the ghosts of broken promises, the oppression of poverty, the bone-chilling winter cold, the desperation of certain starvation and the tensions that tore away at a close family. These were the things that molded and fueled a certain impressionable, highly creative little girl with great talent to dream big dreams that would take care of her family for the rest of their lives, and impact generations of women after her.

For a mere six month experiment, Fruitlands was indeed important. Thank goodness Clara Endicott Sears had the vision and the means to preserve it.

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A visit to Fruitlands where Louisa took up the family cross

at the bottom of a steep hill

at the bottom of a steep hill

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.

A paradox

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.

The players

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.

23-joseph-and-nancy-palmer.jpg

22-charles lane and isaac hecker

The books

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.

bronson-alcotts-fruitlands-cover-and-inside-with-copyright

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.

atkins-francisThese 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).

Revealing writings

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)

Playtime

The girls would often pretend they were fairies or go berry picking.

The girls would often pretend they were fairies or go berry picking.

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

views of Mounts Monadnock and Wachusett

views of Mounts Monadnock and Wachusett

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.

Impressionable child

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:

512 fruitlands - gathering the grain

Illustration by Flora Smith for The Story of Louisa May Alcott by Joan Howard

“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).

Soul mates

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:

Dear Louy,
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.
Mother

Louisa responds with a poem:

To Mother

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:

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In the next post, I will share the impressions of some of the Fruitlands residents as detailed by Clara Endicott Sears.

Click to Tweet & ShareA visit to Fruitlands where Louisa took up the family cross http://wp.me/p125Rp-1i1

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A lovely holiday visit to Orchard House, capped off by some great finds!

orchard house in winterMy husband Rich is a good guy. I thanked him several times for “indulging me” and accompanying me to the utterly charming holiday program at Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House this past Saturday.

I also had the opportunity of meeting one of you! Robin, it was a pleasure to accompany you on the tour.

An interactive Living History Holiday program, the 45 minute tour included games, skits, songs and lovely yet simple period decorations. Each room of the house featured a staff member in period costume representing members of the Alcott family and nearby neighbors. The year was 1870.

Fairies and fantasy

The theme of this year’s program was Louisa’s “first born,” Flower Fables which was published right around Christmastime in 1854. Louisa placed the first copy in her mother’s stocking inscribed with a letter that read:

2004 Orchard House edition

2004 Orchard House edition

Dear Mother,–Into your Christmas stocking I have put my “first born,” knowing that you will accept it with all its faults (for grandmothers are always kind), and look upon it merely as an earnest of what I may et ydo, for, with so much to cheery me on, I hoe to pass in time from fairies and fables to men and realities.
     Whatever beauty or poetry is to be found in my little book is owing to your interest in and encouragement of all my efforts from the first to the last, and if ever I do anything to be proud of, my greatest happiness will be that I can thank you for that, as I may do all the good there is in me; and I shall be content to write if it gives you pleasure.
     … To dear mother, with many kind wishes for a happy New Year and merry Christmas.
I am your every loving daughter
Louy (from Flower Fables, introduction, 2004 special Orchard House edition)

The theme of Flower Fables was seen through the period decorations. We were told that each room contained a snow fairy for us to find.

“Meeting” Louisa

Jan Turnquist as Louisa May Alcott

Jan Turnquist as Louisa May Alcott

In Bronson’s library, we were greeted first by Louisa, played by the executive director of Orchard House, Jan Turnquist. She, in fact, recited Louisa’s inscription as she placed a copy of Flower Fables into Marmee’s Christmas stocking. A lucky little sister and brother had the privilege of carrying the stocking throughout the house as it was filled with gifts, finally giving it to Marmee.

Angel in the house

Our group proceeded upstairs where we met next door neighbor Una Hawthorne, daughter of Nathaniel. Several of the Alcott family members were missing, bring “out and about” but May gave us a delightful tour of her room with all her sketches on the walls. Her little gift to Marmee was an angel she created in honor of her late sister Lizzie, representing the “angel in the house.” It was a very touching tribute.

Gifts and a play

Proceeding back downstairs, we met Marmee and the children gave her the Christmas stocking, filled to the brim. Marmee was delighted with all her gifts.

The Frost King, from the 2004 Orchard House edition of Flower Fables

The Frost King, from the 2004 Orchard House edition of Flower Fables

The tour ended in the dining room with a play, based on the Frost King, the first Flower Fable. The little boy in our group played the king and was crowned. He looked delighted!

It was such a wonderful way to celebrate Christmas, thinking on such lovely things. Thank you Orchard House!

Great finds!

After some Christmas shopping downtown, I came upon a couple of old books that made my day! They aren’t valuable in a monetary sense but I was sure glad to get them! Here’s what I found:

bronson alcott's fruitlands cover and inside with copyright

I read this book recently after a visit to Fruitlands (more coming on Fruitlands in future posts after Christmas). It’s in good condition and I was hot to get it because of the writings of two Fruitlands participants: Joseph Palmer and Isaac Hecker. It also includes Louisa’s Transcendental Wild Oats and diary entries by Louisa and Anna. I had the PDF on my Nook and had read it that way but to get this … whoo hoo!

And then I found this:

cheney with copyright

This is the first biography written about Louisa by Ednah Dow Cheney called Louisa May Alcott The Children’s Friend. The book was in poor condition so I got it for a song. Just the fact that it has the copyright date of 1888, the year Louisa died, made this a very worthwhile find! It’s pretty much unavailable except through sites like the University of Florida Digital Collections.

Guess my Christmas came early. 🙂 But then the best present of all was our son getting a job after 4 long months of searching. 🙂

Consider reading Flower Fables as a way of getting away for awhile from our troubled world. Louisa’s brand of moralizing through her sweet and unique fantasy tales is like drinking a hot toddy – the warmth just spreads throughout and makes you feel good.

And be sure and share these stories with your children and grandchildren – they will eat them up!

I will be writing more about Flower Fables as well after Christmas. I’ve lined up Dr. Daniel Shealy for an interview – he wrote a wonderful essay on Louisa’s fantasy tales which you can purchase at Book Rags through their Louisa May Alcott Study Pack.

Merry Christmas to you all.

Click to Tweet & ShareA lovely holiday visit to Orchard House, capped off by some great finds! http://wp.me/p125Rp-1ll

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