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Magazine, 1842

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Brook Farm Historic Site in West Roxbury.
 

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Utopians Purchase Brook Farm
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      ...in 1841, a group of Boston-area utopians purchased Brook Farm in West Roxbury. The writer Nathaniel Hawthorne spent six months there and later wrote about his experiences in his satirical novel Blithedale Romance. Although the venture was short-lived and imperfect, its members made a serious effort to create an alternative to a society increasingly marked by inequality. Brook Farm required everyone to share equally in the work of the community. Cooperation was to replace competition, and hard work was to be leavened with stimulating intellectual and social activities. When fire destroyed the main building in 1847, the group was forced to sell the farm. In 1988 the Commonwealth acquired the property, and today it is a state park.

In 1826 the United States celebrated its 50th birthday. But not everyone was satisfied with the state of the young republic. Particularly in New England, many reformers, ministers, intellectuals, and writers found much to criticize. They saw inequality and injustice in the conditions endured by slaves, the poor, women, and other disenfranchised groups. A division was growing between the "haves" and "have nots." And the authoritarian, tradition-bound Protestantism of earlier generations failed to satisfy many citizens of the new nation.

In Boston and nearby towns, especially Concord, men and women of like mind met to discuss what to do about these problems. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Bronson Alcott, Margaret Fuller, and other Transcendentalists sought to create a society in which individuals could enjoy true freedom of mind, body, and spirit. In 1840 George and Sophia Ripley, a former Unitarian minister and his wife, who had spent several summers living on a farm in West Roxbury, began planning to start a utopian community there.

Joined by about 15 other Transcendentalists, they set out to form a community based on individual freedom and egalitarian relationships. They regarded commerce as evil and planned to make their communal farm self-supporting and independent of outside markets. With all members of the community sharing equally in the work and the rewards, there would be no "wage slavery." Cooperation and mutual support would replace the competitive spirit of the marketplace, and work would be mixed with opportunities for intellectual discussion, education, and socializing.

In April 1841 the Ripleys arranged to rent a farm in West Roxbury. Calling the idyllic spot Brook Farm, they transformed the buildings into communal housing, kitchens, classrooms, eating, and social spaces. Over the course of the summer, many Transcendentalists and other interested people from the Boston area visited the farm, and by autumn the number of residents had swelled.

Convinced that the experiment would succeed, in October George Ripley committed the fledgling organization to buying the 192-acre farm. Each person who had joined the community purchased at least one $500 share. Mortgages covered the remainder of the sale price. Nathaniel Hawthorne invested in two shares, hoping that Brook Farm would be an ideal place for him to write. He left after six months when it turned out that the hard work left him too tired to write.

The Brook Farm community thrived for several years. In spite of poor soil, the farm was self-supporting. Community members chose their own labor and worked hard, but their long days — ten hours in summer, eight in winter — were shorter than the 12- and 14-hour days factory and farm workers were compelled to work. When the work day was over, the residents of Brook Farm would gather in the common areas for conversation, music, dancing, card playing, charades, dramatic readings, plays, and costume parties. When weather permitted, they gathered for picnics, sledding, and skating.

Members valued the peace and tranquility of the country setting, the intellectual stimulation, the socializing, and especially Brook Farm's experimental school. The school, in fact, was the most successful element of the venture. It provided a progressive atmosphere and ideas based on learning from experience. Like the rest of Brook Farm, the school was informal,with hours adjusted to the needs of the farm, open discussion and debate encouraged, and discipline minimal. There was a nursery school, a primary school, and an advanced section for older students. The enrollment grew steadily from both within and without the community, and tuition became an important source of revenue.

In spite of it early success, Brook Farm lasted only six years. The group's finances were strained by the marginal farming operation and by a smallpox scare that drove away tuition-paying students. Three years into the experiment, the leaders decided to adopt a new form of social organization based on the ideas of the French reformer Charles Fourier. They built a massive, three-story building to be the social nucleus of a reorganized Brook Farm community, and ended up deeply in debt. In the final weeks of construction, the building burned to the ground. The group never recovered, and George Ripley was forced to sell the farm.

In 1966 Brook Farm was designated a National Historic Landmark, and in 1988 the state of Massachusetts acquired the property. Today, visitors can imagine how it appeared to those utopians who hoped to make it the site of a perfect society.

Sources

Brook Farm: The Dark Side of Utopia, by Sterling F. Delano (Cambridge, 2004).

"Brook Farm: A 19th century Social Experiment," by William F. Hennessey in CRM (Cultural Resource Management) Online Journal, Vol. 24, No. 9, Preserving America's Utopian Dream.


 
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