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A Season In Utopia

July 2024
17min read

At Brook Farm a handful of gentle Bostonians launched a noble but short-lived experiment in communal living.

In the first week of April, 1841, some eight or ten thoughtful, cultivated Bostonians bundled their possessions, their children, and themselves into country-going carriages and drove eight miles to a pleasant, roomy homestead in West Roxbury. Their destination, then known as the Ellis Farm, was later to be called Brook Farm, a name they made famous as the most literary—and, in ways, the least fortunate—of American Utopias. This small band, led by Mr. and Mrs. George Ripley, aimed to establish a self-supporting community whose economy would be based on a union of labor and culture, a hope in which they were doomed to disappointment. But Brook Farm is well remembered for their efforts.

George Ripley, ranking scholar in the Harvard class of 1823, had been a Unitarian minister; but recently he had become a convert to the philosophy championed by Emerson, in Nature, which held that man can attain knowledge by intuitional processes transcending the senses. Defending Emerson’s views, in a long-drawn-out controversy with Professor Andrews Norton of the Harvard Divinity School, Ripley had quite literally “talked himself out of his pulpit.”

Ripley was also profoundly troubled by the advent of the Machine. At that time the social reformers, and he was one of them, could not foresee the benefit machines would eventually bring to mankind. Horrified by the financial panic of 1837, the reformers saw only that the working-man, who had hitherto led a comparatively well-balanced life, was now a slave to “Mammon.” Consequently, a great wave of benevolence was spreading among those who desired to improve the lot of the laborer. Among these the most eminent was Dr. William Ellery Channing, the eloquent pastor of Boston’s Federal Street Church. The younger divines to whom he denounced the “evils of competition” were captivated by the solemn fire and earnestness of his warnings—uttered with emberlike eyes glowing in a drawn white face.

When Dr. Channing presented one of his “dearest ideas” to George Ripley, the younger man was well prepared to receive it. Dr. Channing wanted Ripley to bring together a group of like-minded people, to found a community where labor would be, in Emerson’s words, “honored and united with the free development of the intellect and the heart.” Such a “noble experiment,” they agreed, might eventually lead to the betterment of mankind.

The times were in tune with the purpose. As Emerson said, “We were all a little mad that winter. Not a man of us that did not have a plan for some new Utopia in his pocket.” Three other such communities —Hopedale, Northampton, and Fruitlands—were to be founded in New England within three years.

In the fall of 1840 the Ripleys had determined on action. Now, in the following spring, they set out to found a community which would show the world that there was nothing degrading about labor and that, if everyone shared in the drudgery, everyone would have leisure for culture. With the scholarly George Ripley was his dignified, cultivated wife, Sophia—she was a niece of Richard Dana, Cambridge poet and essayist, and she had taught school there prior to her marriage—and George’s sister, Miss Marianne Ripley; also the Minot Pratts and their three small children. Pratt, a printer in the office of the Christian Register, had become a convert to Emerson’s transcendentalism while setting up Ripley’s articles in type. Elise Barker, a domestic, and William Brockway Allen—a sturdy young man from Vermont who lately had managed a farm for the nonconformist Unitarian preacher, Theodore Parker, in neighboring West Roxbury—had been sent ahead to make the place ready.

Many others joined the community in the next few weeks, so that by midsummer they numbered some thirty persons. Nearly all of them entertained high hopes for the new way of life; and the younger men and women fairly reveled in the freedom from conventional restraint. One and all went about their daily tasks in an atmosphere of serene detachment from “civilization”; and from the beginning the daily routine at Brook Farm was unique.

Year after year, when the “rising horn” sounded, vague sounds of stirring were heard in “Attica,” as the rafter room in the central building was called. Soon boys and bachelors would come tumbling down ladder and stairway and out into the yard to douse their heads under the pump. Already Mr. Ripley could be seen, milking pail in hand, on his way to the barn. He always dressed for the task in loose blue smock, broad-brimmed hat, and rawhide boots. Mr. Ripley held that milking was conducive to reflection, “particularly when the cow’s tail is looped up behind.”

The central building was called The Hive, and every morning in the smoky old kitchen Mrs. Ripley, assisted by a “Household Corps,” prepared a simple but hearty breakfast of fruit, milk, eggs from the farm, and homemade bread. Presently the clatter of tablesetting echoed from the dining hall, and soon the parents with their offspring, visiting young ladies from “Boston’s best,” unattached gentlemen—among them Nathaniel Hawthorne, who had driven out to join the community in an April snowstorm—all could be seen filing through the doorway.

The kitchen might be smoky but the long, low dining room was scrupulously neat. Everything was white —the walls, the tables, even the dishes. Mr. Ripley sat between his wife and his sister at the further end of the room. He now wore neat pedagogical attire; Mrs. Ripley—to the astonishment of a southern visitor who was amazed to see a lady dressed like a female slaveappeared in the freshly starched homemade calico she always donned when engaged in household tasks. Most of the pupils at the Brook Farm Institute of Agriculture and Education, as the school was officially called, ate at the Ripleys’ table; and Mr. Ripley loved to talk with them at breakfast, “his gleaming eyes seeming to reflect their brilliancy on the golden bows of his spectacles.” Mrs. Ripley—tall, graceful, and slim—was, like her husband, nearsighted; but only on occasions would she raise “a gold-bowed eye-glass to look at some distant object.” As the company dispersed, red-headed young Charles Anderson Dana—destined to become the distinguished editor of the New York Sun but now chief of the “Waiter Corps —would signal to his assistants to remove the dishes to the pantry, where a “corps” of young ladies would wash them.

School kept, for the small fry, in a house across the road, tall, angular Miss Marianne Ripley, George’s sister—to the children she was known as “Her Perpendicular Majesty”—shepherded them to their schoolhouse, The Nest. Mrs. Ripley chose laundry work for her “labor,” and after supervising members of the Household Corps, she spent long hours each morning pressing such frivolities as pleated night caps; then she taught older pupils in the afternoon.

Except at the Nest, school hours were somewhat irregular. Neither animals nor crops would wait for attention, and pupils and teachers had to arrange their classes accordingly, Fortunately for the pupils, the Brook Farm teachers were skilled pedagogues. Both George and Sophia Ripley were scholars, and by instinct as well as training they knew how to arouse children’s interest. George P. Bradford of Concord, scholar and close friend of Emerson, taught literature; in addition, he had the happy gift of opening the eyes of the young to the scientific aspects of nature, and when he thought they had seen enough of shells, grasses, insects, and the like, he would turn to the heavens and give them a night lecture on the stars.

Music-maker John S. Dwight, who had just stepped down from his pulpit in Northampton, soon had all the Brook Farmers organized in groups and choirs. Frail little Mr. Dwight was often so exhausted by work in the fields that he had to lie down on a sofa after giving a music lesson. Later he was to lead public taste away from sentimental ballads and bell-ringing, both much in vogue in the 1840s, to the great lieder and symphonies of the German composers.

Nathaniel Hawthorne shared none of his associates’ zeal for social reform. He had joined Brook Farm impulsively, rashly investing $1,000, all his hard-earned savings from his labor in the Boston Custom House, with the expectation that membership in the community would enable him to marry Sophia Peabody. The Peabody sisters of Salem were an arresting trio of young ladies—Elizabeth, the educator and philanthropist; Mary, who would become the wife of Horace Mann; and Sophia, who possessed a gentleness that stout “Lizzie” and somber Mary lacked, and” to whom Hawthorne had been engaged for the past two years. (See “The Hawthornes in Paradise,” by Malcolm Cowley, AMERICAN HERITAGE, December, 1958.)

He expected that in exchange for half a day of manual labor he would secure bed and board, and leisure in which to write. To Nathaniel Hawthorne, frustrated by his slavery as a clerk, the prospect of commanding a whole half-day in which to hammer out a page must have seemed as if fate had suddenly offered him a ride on the winged horse. But his dream of leisure was never fulfilled; he had little privacy, and the manual labor so exhausted him that he could not write.

Several of his letters to his fiancée reflect the idyllic mood in which Brook Farm began. He makes us see the men, bent on wearing out old finery in the fields, sowing crops, working “our gold mine”—the manure pile—and then the sly smile of William Allen, the only professional among them, at the awkward enthusiasm with which the “philosophers” wielded the pitchfork.

The terrain of Brook Farm was delightfully varied in those days. Opposite the front door of the Hive, in a dell sheltered by graceful elms, flowed the “brook clear running,” in Sophia Ripley’s phrase, that gave the farm its new name. Rising in an arc, the drive led to the two houses built when the community, in its second and third years, seemed established. You came first to Pilgrim House, so named because it had been the gift of one Ichabod Morton of Plymouth. Above, on a knoll with a field sloping up to it, stood the Cottage, the only community building that has survived. A woman member who donated it had the building built in the form of a Maltese cross, with four gables, the stairwell in the center. Reserving a set of rooms for herself, she put the rest of the house at the service of the association.

To the west and north of the Brook Farm acres there towered in those days a magnificent stand of virgin forest, and deep within it stood Pulpit Rock, where John Eliot, the “Apostle to the Indians,” had addressed his savage congregation. In their Sunday mood the Farmers often gathered here in summer and early fall to listen to the “Christian Socialist” Dr. William Henry Channing, nephew of Dr. William Ellery Channing. His celebrated uncle no longer was able to preach, but the nephew had lifted the torch from his hand to lead reform, both as a Christian minister and an “Associanist,” as persons who endorsed such communities as Brook Farm were called.

The setting in itself was impressive—the shattered granite boulder rising from a heap of smaller rocks, with a canopy of birch trees above to serve as a sounding board. Wild columbine and mosses grew in the fissures, and the sunshine, filtering through the pines, shed a golden radiance. At the conclusion of the services, Dr. Channing would descend into the congregation and bid them all join hands to make a circle—the symbol of Universal Unity, and of the at-one-ment of all men and women”—to “form the Church of Humanity that shall cover the men and women of every nation and every clime.”

Leaving the wood, the sweep of the drive passed the long flight of steps leading up to the Eyrie—a wooden structure on a ledge of stone that was the highest point of land on Brook Farm. The smooth-matched boards were painted gray; but the severity of the building was relieved by a deep, ornamented cornice and three graceful French windows that opened on the upper of two terraces. The Ripleys moved in as soon as the Eyrie was completed, in the fall of 1842. They occupied the chamber over the parlor, and the smaller dormitories were given over to a carefully selected group of friends and pupils. The Eyrie, with its surrounding prospect—there was a grove in the rear and an orchard in front, and glimpses of the Charles River could be seen from the upper windows—was considered the most desirable lodging, and its inmates represented the “aristocracy” of Brook Farm.

After lunch, the morning students became afternoon workers, and the leaders of the community who had practiced some form of manual labor all the forenoon assembled their students for the afternoon session. The roster of pupils is ornamented with names that became illustrious—George William Curtis, one of the first occupants of “The Editor’s Easy Chair” in Harper’s Magazine, Isaac Hecker, founder of the Paulist Fathers; Francis Channing Barlow, New York secretary of state in 1869 and attorney general in 1871, in which capacity he prosecuted the Tweed Ring; and Charles Dana.

At tea time, the day’s work over, the Farmers were refreshed by “brewis,” a corn meal mush baked with molasses. Afterward, as the girls washed dishes, they sang “O Canaan, bright Canaan”; one Farmer proposed and won his girl over this kitchen sink. When the last dish had been sung to the cupboard, one and all forgathered for the evening entertainment.

The Farmers’ enthusiasm for “sociables of discernment” never flagged: indeed, it continued into the sad days when they were compelled to disband. The nature of the Brook Farm entertainments varied widely. Many evenings were devoted to philosophical inquiry and discussion, and often a visitor—such as Margaret Fuller, Bronson Alcott, or Ralph Waldo Emerson—would lead the talk.

Each of these three notables had a detached but highly interested attitude toward Brook Farm. Margaret Fuller, reputed to be the most learned woman in America, was much fawned upon by aspiring Brook Farm girls who considered it a privilege to serve her breakfast in bed. Mr. Emerson was less popular with the young; they sensed that he disapproved of their New Freedom, and they may have suspected that he had come to look for signs of last living rather than to pay respect to the Ripleys’ benign social reform. Mr. Alcott, however, enjoyed an extensive following. When he came for a visit, as many as could be seated joined him at the “Graham table,” despite its strictly vegetarian diet.

In later life, those who were present during the first two years referred to this transcendental period at Brook Farm as the “halcyon days.” For by the third summer—1843—the idyllic atmosphere was no longer the same, and several of the Farmers left. This change was in good part brought about by Albert Brisbane, who had imbibed the philosophical system of Charles Fourier while in Paris, to such effect that upon his return he became its leading apostle here.

Brisbane’s brief exposition of Fourierism, The Social Destiny of Man, had been reviewed by Sophia Ripley in the July, 1841, issue of The Dial, the transcendentalists’ organ edited by Margaret Fuller. It is evident from Mrs. Ripley’s review, which doubtless reflected her husband’s opinion as well as her own, that the Ripleys at that time were no more interested in Fourierism than in other scientific analyses of the co-operative principle.

Indeed, Fourier’s ideas did not begin to take hold of the American imagination until March, 1842, when Brisbane persuaded Horace Greeley to give him a column in the New York Tribune. Brisbane at once displayed an extraordinary talent for propaganda. In essence, his method of selling ideas was the same as that used in commercials today—repetition—and it enjoyed great success. By the summer of 1843, groups of Fourierites—called Fury-ites by the public because of their fanatical zeal—had sprung up all over.

Meanwhile, it had become clear to the directors of Brook Farm that the community would never become self-supporting unless they enlarged their workshops. Quick to realize the high potential of leadership at Brook Farm, Greeley and Brisbane became frequent visitors. Both insisted that the adoption of Fourier’s Theory of Attractive Industry—that each person works better when the work is congenial and the program varied—would prove an infallible panacea for the directors’ financial worries.

As Brisbane presented it, this theory did not seem to George Ripley too remote from “the Union of Labor and Culture.” The reorganization was begun in January, 1845, and in March, 1845, the Massachusetts Legislature reincorporated Brook Farm as a “phalanx,” Fourier’s term for his highly integrated community.

Some of Fourier’s plans for the good life are routine today. The central building of the phalanx, as Fourier envisioned it, was a preview of the modern apartment hotel—with the difference that each “phalanstery” would stand in the center of an extensive terrain, and sustain its populace of 1,800 on the land.

There is also a modicum of modern reasoning in Fourier’s theory of “groups and series,” which held that man tires after two hours of intense concentration, but that he is able to work long hours every day if he is refreshed by a variety of occupations. Fourier thought that his system of diversified tasks would solve the knotty problem of the distribution of benefits, for if each man earned top wages in one group, he would accept a fair distribution in all. To generous-minded George Ripley, all this seemed reason itself, and he forged ahead to make Brook Farm the outstanding phalanx in the country, and himself one of the most influential leaders of Fourierism.

After the change to Fourierism, Ripley’s transcendentalist friends lost interest in Brook Farm, while Horace Greeley and Albert Brisbane came more and more frequently to supervise the newly incorporated phalanx. Greeley was always popping up unexpectedly, and everything about him—his hair, his face, his clothes—was so white that somebody complained he was as startling as a ghost. As for Brisbane, he was forever warning the young people that only Fourierism could save mankind. One night when a group was sitting by the brook in the moonlight, one of the ladies exclaimed, “What a heavenly moon! What a beautiful world!” To which Mr. Brisbane replied, “Miserable world! Damned bad moon!”

Despite this “Gloomy Apostle” the Farmers still welcomed such friends as Christopher P. Cranch, poet, painter, musician, and cartoonist—a visitor who always brought laughter with him. And after the evening entertainment, select groups still met in one another’s rooms to drink coffee, exchange ideas, and perpetuate puns—it is surprising how gay and silly the reform-philosophy-minded Farmers could become. But such innocent gaieties seem pitiful in the light of the trouble which began soon after the change to Fourierism.

In the summer of 1844 the directors of the phalanx had decided to build a phalanstery to house more workers. The decision had been made in the expectation that the Theory of Attractive Industry would begin to pay dividends at once if operations were conducted on a larger scale. But construction dragged, and the building was not finished by late 1845, when winter again intervened.

Meanwhile, scandal had come to Brook Farm, a result of other aspects of Fourier’s system. In his first enthusiasm Ripley had failed to foresee that his association with Fourierism would automatically make him—in the eyes of the world—a supporter of the philosopher’s other radical ideas, and of his very bizarre imaginings about the cosmos. Fourier’s attitude toward sex, as Emerson put it, was “very French indeed.” Young people at an early age would be encouraged in experimental marriage; and each phalanstery would be equipped with “Corps of Bacchae and Bayaderes” for the pleasure of the male “Harmonians.” In contemplating the cosmos, Fourier became convinced that the stars mated and had little ones; and that the sea was turning into lemonade, a beverage of which he was inordinately fond.

Such aspects of Fourierism were given wide publicity in the press by enemies of the Association movement, and also by political enemies of Greeley. In consequence the Brook Farm School suffered a severe drop in enrollment, which represented a serious financial loss.

The Farm itself had ever proved a disappointment, for the soil was gravelly, the climate treacherous, and the Farmers mere amateurs. But from the start the school had been a financial as well as an educational success. Parents had regarded it a privilege to commit their offspring to the care of Mr. and Mrs. Ripley. Severely plain fare and recurring financial anxiety, especially in the winter, had been the Farmers’ lot since the founding, however; and their spirits rebounded in June, 1845, when the Fourierist organ, The Phalanx, which had died, was revived at Brook Farm as the Harbinger. Then, without warning, disaster struck.

First a smallpox epidemic smote thirty out of the ninety “workers.” Then, in December, when many of the patients were tottering back to their tasks, two bitter disillusionments became generally known to the rank and file. Nathaniel Hawthorne, who had attempted to withdraw his capital investment of $1,000 when he left the community in the fall of 1841, now sued George Ripley and Charles Anderson Dana for the $530 still due him. Though the amount involved seems petty, it represented five times or more what it does today; and furthermore, in fairness to Hawthorne, it should be said that a federal appointment in the Salem customs or post office had not as yet been forthcoming, and he had been compelled to borrow from friends and dun his publisher for royalties. Hawthorne’s financial anxiety was further increased by his wife’s pregnancy. Be that as it may, Ripley was stunned. The case would not be tried until spring, but meanwhile it hung menacingly over his head.

As if this were not worry enough, there came another bitter pill for Ripley to swallow. Just before Christmas he had written to Albert Brisbane, asking him to solicit money for Brook Farm in its hour of need among the New York Fourierists—the very same men who, with Brisbane himself, had urged Ripley to change Brook Farm into a phalanx. Brisbane now replied that it would be hopeless to ask them—“you might as well undertake to raise dead men”—and he refused to do so. Both he and “the New York friends,” Brisbane declared, were now more interested in a new phalanx at Red Bank, New Jersey.

The winter of 1845–46 dragged along in the wistful hope that John Orvis and John Allen, two young newcomers to Brook Farm who had gone on a lecture tour to spread Fourierism throughout New England, might not return empty-handed. But the tour bore little fruit.

The two worst misfortunes were still to come.

On March 3, 1846, Brook Farm’s uncompleted phalanstery—the Farmers had gone some $7,000 into debt for it, expecting that the increase in personnel would pay for itself—was totally destroyed by fire. On March 7, the case of Nathaniel Hawthorne versus George Ripley et al. was tried in the Middlesex County Court of Common Pleas, and the court directed Ripley to pay the debt, plus the legal expenses—$560.63 in all.

In the reckoning the Farmers slowly brought themselves to face, the debt to Hawthorne did not count so much as the burning of the phalanstery. At first, leaders like John Dwight and Mrs. Ripley seem to have been too dazed to realize that disbandment was now inevitable. Ripley was concentrating on the Harbinger—the expected issue went to press at Brook Farm two days after the fire. Young Dana, probably the most intelligent of these idealists, was among the first to leave. He took his bride, Eunice Macdaniel, to New York, where he subsequently assisted Horace Greeley in editing the New York Tribune, and one by one all but a few remaining Farmers left.

Others benefited from what George and Sophia Ripley had made of Brook Farm, but only the Ripleys assumed responsibility for the debts. Before leaving the charred ruins of the phalanstery, George sold his precious library of foreign books to his friend Theodore Parker. “I can now understand,” Ripley remarked sadly, “how a man would feel if he could attend his own funeral.”

In August, George and Sophia moved to Long Island, New York—she to teach school, he to continue the Harbinger. To serve as editor of this organ, which survived the disasters at Brook Farm, was the only comfort to George Ripley in his hour of defeat. From an office above the New York Tribune in Manhattan, he threw all his energies into promoting the cause of Association, and abandoned Brook Farm to its fate.

Some of the die-hard enthusiasts, notably the Dwights, had lingered on. Ripley forced their hand at a meeting of the stockholders and creditors of the Brook Farm Phalanx, on August 18, 1847, when it was unanimously voted that “the President of the Phalanx, George Ripley,” be “hereby authorized to transfer to a Board of Three Trustees the whole property of the Corporation, for the purpose and with power of disposing of it to the best advantage of all concerned.” Ripley misguidedly believed that Fourierism, through his efforts in the Harbinger, might yet survive. When the Harbinger sputtered out, in February, 1849, George Ripley sickened and was silent.

Feeling, perhaps, a trifle at fault for his friend’s desperate plight, Greeley offered Ripley Margaret Fuller’s former position of literary critic on the Tribune, at a salary of five dollars a week. It would take George Ripley more than ten years to pay off the debts he had assumed for the failure of Brook Farm—paltry debts which could easily have been financed if the banks had extended loans then as they do today.

In the meantime, Ripley found his true vocation, and he was slowly gaining recognition as a man of letters. In 1857 his great achievement, the New American Cyclopaedia, was begun—actually it was the first American encyclopedia—in collaboration with his onetime pupil at Brook Farm, Charles Dana. Though published in the very midst of the Civil War, the volumes were quickly taken up by a public starved for a reference book of such authority.

Time had taken its toll of Sophia, the more religious of the Ripleys. When she moved to New York, she was too worn out to teach school. Long inclined toward the ritual of the Roman Catholic Church, she was baptized into it in 1849, and her faith brought her peace and comfort during her last days. She died of cancer in 1861.

Though Ripley revered her memory, four years later he married a young German widow, Mrs. Augusta Schlossberger. Then began for George Ripley an Indian summer. Honors piled upon honors; and when he was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery his funeral was attended by dignitaries and literary lights from all over the nation.

Brook Farmers never stayed put—at the Farm, or in their return to “civilization.” Two of them who later distinguished themselves recorded for posterity what life in the community represented to them.

George William Curtis wrote from Europe: “The effect of a residence at the Farm, I imagine, was not greater willingness to serve in the kitchen, and so particularly assert that labor was divine; but discontent that there was such a place as a kitchen. And however aimless life there seemed to be, it was an aimlessness of the general, not the individual life. As an association, it needed a stricter system to insure success; and since it had not the means to justify its mild life, it necessarily grew to this …” Curtis was referring to the disbandment.

Isaac Hecker’s reminiscence is more poetic:

How many dreamers! How many dreams realized! How many expired in its expiration. It was not lost—not all. It was the greatest, noblest, bravest dream of New England. Nothing greater has been produced. No greater sacrifice has been made for humanity than the movement Brook Farm embodied. It collected the dreamers of New England. Brook Farm was the realization of the best dreams these men had of Christianity; it embodied them.

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