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.
But 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 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).
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).
“… 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.
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).
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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