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April 1, 2005

Bleak Farm

Sabrina Leigh Schaeffer on Brook Farm: The Dark Side of Utopia by Sterling F. Delano

Sterling F. Delano. Brook Farm: The Dark Side of Utopia. Belknap Press. 448 pages. $29.95

In a time of social unrest — as women struggled to redefine their role in society, abolitionists sought to dismantle the shackles of bondage, and working men organized collectively against shared grievances — Rev. George Ripley’s congregants took comfort in seeing him as a “spiritual guide” rather than a crusader for change. So when the Unitarian minister removed his pulpit gown in 1841 after 15 years at the Purchase Street Church in Boston to pioneer Brook Farm, a secular utopian community, his congregation wept. Ripley and his wife, however, “did not shed so much as a single tear that day” as they embarked on a new life that rejected Enlightenment rationalism in favor of Transcendentalist idealism. The Ripleys believed they could transcend traditional conceptions of gender, class, and material wealth by pursuing a life in which “the supremacy of the mind” surpassed all matter.

Sterling F. Delano’s Brook Farm: The Dark Side of Utopia captures a facet of American history that has been largely overlooked by historians. While utopian literature has deep roots — from the Judeo-Christian tradition to Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis to Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward — scholars have paid little attention to the mostly failed attempts to establish utopian communities in the United States. In the wake of the American founding and the creation of the first functioning republic (often considered Edenic in itself), these sidestream communities have remained, until recently, on the periphery of historical research. Delano has done a great service with his comprehensive history of Brook Farm and deserves recognition for helping to fill a noticeable void in the literature. An English professor at Villanova University, Delano offers a deeply researched, animated narrative of America’s most famous nineteenth-century utopian experiment — gracefully transforming elusive themes into clear and eloquent prose.
The launching of utopian communities was just one attempt at social reform in the mid-nineteenth century. A half-century after the nation’s founding many Americans remained on the margins of society and continued to seek for themselves the freedoms won by the Revolution. Women, African-American slaves, Christian reformers, and laborers, among others, emerged from the shadows of society to share in the Enlightenment traditions of liberty and equality. Women reformers like Catherine Beecher and Elizabeth Cady Stanton sought greater agency both within the home and in the political arena, while abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass emphasized the consent of the governed in their fight to end slavery. Christian reformers like Peter Cartwright and Lyman Beecher preached the importance of religion in society, arguing that faith protects against societal ills and regenerates the human spirit. Activists differed in their conceptions of society and their approaches to reform, and some retained more traditional values than others; but each of these movements remained consonant with American republican ideals — reinforcing notions of self-government central to the founding — and each was characteristic of the Jacksonian period’s preoccupation with the popular will.
Delano has produced a rich account of life at Brook Farm that is rooted heavily in primary material and overflowing with detail. His study, however, is overly narrow — failing to locate Brook Farm adequately within this broader social reform movement of the mid-nineteenth century. This is not just a subtle insufficiency of his work. Delano’s presentation of Brook Farm glosses over a period — as if it were almost unconnected to its time — in which Americans revisited the principles of their founding and sought to bring the liberal tradition to its logical conclusion. By overlooking common societal trends, Delano fails to point out a significant similarity between Brook Farm and social reform groups more generally: Their success depended on the compliance of their audience. Brook Farm, like abolitionists, feminists, and moral reformers, faced the challenge of balancing a coercive inclination with the nation’s traditional commitment to individualism. Improving society while preserving its values was a delicate balancing act that confronted all social reformers, yet for Brook Farm this challenge was the unspoken, shadowy, and ultimately fatal underside of utopian bliss.
The difficulty Brook Farm faced in bridging social reform with the liberal tradition is often noted by critics on the left who charge that moral reformers threatened individual autonomy. Christine Stansell, a women’s historian writing on the antebellum period, focused on the work of northern bourgeois women who introduced their working-class sisters to Christianity and middle-class values, arguing that their “charity” was “not a golden age of humanitarianism.” While charity suggests that one sought assistance, Stansell implies that middle-class reformers were imposing an unwanted set of beliefs on the working class. Her viewpoint reflects that of many on the left who argue that in seeking to change behavior and belief systems, religious reformers or temperance organizers infringed on individual agency. Although those on the right may embrace the goals of this more traditional activism, there is indeed an inherent conflict between coercive aspects of social reform and respect for individual liberty.
What critics on the left are not inclined to acknowledge, and what Delano fails to address, is that utopian communities faced the same challenge. There is a striking similarity between the actions of antebellum middle-class Christian moral reformers and the leadership of Brook Farm. Delano paints a warm picture of Brook Farm in which the residents “were the servants of each other.” Each of the members, he writes, chose this way of life, which, like their daily labors, “was embraced freely and happily.” Delano acknowledges the voluntarism of Brook Farm but overlooks the coercion that was a necessary piece of the community’s loftier long-term goals.
The success of Brook Farm required not only achieving what George Ripley described as a “more simple and wholesome life,” but also spreading the “universal and eternal laws” of Associationism and Fourierism, which condemned traditional institutions and promoted utopian socialism. Communicating these ideas and values became at times a central function of the society. The decision in 1845 to begin publishing the Associationist newspaper The Harbinger, for example, was an attempt to spread the Associationist gospel — offering instruction on labor, education, and even sexual relations. The motto of the newspaper, “Devoted to Social and Political Progress,” summarizes the intent not only of The Harbinger, but of Brook Farm’s leadership, which aspired to create the “model phalanx,” or planned community.
While Brook Farmers, like other social reformers, were motivated by good intentions, their success depended on society’s willingness to reject mainstream “competitive institutions” and embrace an environment that valued the social good over the individual. Stansell’s discomfort with Victorian moral reformers has merit, yet historians often view these tensions through an unacknowledged political lens. Whether helping to improve living conditions for the poor, bringing an end to slavery, or establishing an egalitarian society rooted in frugality and secular philosophy, many nineteenth-century social reform movements challenged the basic American tenet of individualism. This objection, often raised by the left to devalue the work of middle-class reformers, reflects a dark side of social reform that the author seems unwilling to recognize. Delano’s work would have been enhanced had he stressed the persistent tension between the republican-democratic and liberal strands of American thought.

A  black and white photograph of Brook Farm’s original residence, the “cottage,” sitting abandoned and alone, graces the front of Delano’s book jacket. The photograph, which evokes a sense of isolation and even danger, reinforces the book’s subtitle, “The Dark Side of Utopia.” But while Delano spares no detail about the complexities of running a farm and the difficulties that ensued, he fails to reveal the truly dark side of utopia. Fire, sickness, and financial insecurity were serious challenges for a self-reliant community, and each misfortune cast a shadow over Brook Farm. The ailments that devastated Ripley and his followers, however, were generally common adversities of nineteenth-century life and reveal nothing of a hidden mystery or unexplained tragedy.

In pointed contrast to the front cover, the back displays a pair of paintings depicting an idyllic, flourishing existence at Brook Farm. The dark side of Brook Farm — recounted by an author whose sentimental sympathies color the narrative — is simply the tragic failure of the ideal in the face of an unforgiving reality. Delano’s tone echoes that of many other historians who identify and lament the loss of a golden moment in which the trajectory of the American experience might have been altered. Delano mourns Ripley’s defeat as other historians have mourned the loss of a yeoman, agrarian culture to the onset of the nineteenth-century market revolution. The success of Brook Farm, as Delano understands it, could have altered the course of American history, perhaps helping to prevent the Civil War and avert the inequalities and alienation that resulted from industrialization and urbanization in the decades to follow.
Delano seems unable to distinguish between immediate obstacles, such as fire or illness, and the serious intellectual contradictions that weakened and ultimately destroyed the utopian experiment. For beyond the direct, but ultimately superficial, setbacks that ushered Brook Farm toward its demise, the farm’s leadership failed to confront the obvious difficulty of retaining respect for individuals in a collective environment. The willingness to sacrifice personal needs and ambitions for the benefit of the community weighed heavily even on Brook Farm’s earliest recruits. Ralph Waldo Emerson, who had been a member of the Transcendentalist Club with Ripley from 1836 to 1840, was a natural associate for Ripley to turn to for support of his experiment. Both men conceived of themselves as Transcendentalists, sharing similar religious, philosophical, and social beliefs. Emerson’s Transcendentalism, however, meant the pursuit of “secular individualism,” while Ripley’s philosophy rested on “religious egalitarianism,” a divergence in thought that undermined Brook Farm’s very foundation.
When Ripley approached him, Emerson was intrigued by the proposed experiment, noting, “I look at him with great curiosity & hope”; but right from the start, Emerson questioned the need for “such a radical step.” Trying to decide whether to support Brook Farm, Emerson had “to confront the problem of society versus solitude” — an issue that caused a rift between the two men. While Emerson admitted that “no one should take any more than his own share,” he also adhered to a democratic understanding of society, writing, “it is only as a man detaches himself from all support & stands alone, that I see him to be strong and to prevail.” Ripley’s disregard for Emerson’s concerns at a meeting early on in the planning stage reflected the larger stress threatening the success of the farm. Despite their common values, Emerson was uncomfortable with an existence where “everyone would work and live together harmoniously” — a lifestyle he feared would stifle “self-improvement” and his desire to “do alone.”
Nathaniel Hawthorne, another friend of the farm, was similarly skeptical, worried collective living would threaten his “private and personal motives” — a reference, perhaps, to the $1,000 he invested in the community. Hawthorne confided in his friend David Mack, also an early supporter of Ripley who later questioned the future of the farm and left the community, revealing in a letter concerns about personal limitations. He recalled that Mack had spoken “very despondingly, or perhaps despairingly, of the [financial] prospects of the institution” and expressed his worry about “the improbability that adequate funds will be raised, or that any feasible plan can be suggested, for proceeding [with the community] without a very considerable capital.” Mack and Hawthorne were sympathetic, but ultimately disengaged, friends, and their apprehension reflected the persistent misgivings — in the community’s ability to establish a means of financial security, for example — over Brook Farm’s difficulty in reconciling individual ambition with egalitarian principles.

Delano’s work is a wonderful addition to a woefully inadequate literature, offering a window into the lives of a few Americans who were determined to improve the society in which they lived. Through a careful sifting of sources that have not been considered in over a century, he paints an engaging portrait of individual relationships and emotions. The story of Brook Farm, however, is more than a history of kinship — it is a history of ideas. While Delano discusses Unitarianism, Transcendentalism, Associationism, and Fourierism, he does not explore the way in which these ideas, and not mundane misfortunes, were the true source of Brook Farm’s ultimate demise. There is a dark side to utopia, as the title of this book suggests, but it lies deeper than any one disaster, and it is even more profound than the difficulties experienced by the members of Brook Farm alone. Delano might have illuminated the truly dark side of utopia through a fuller treatment of the philosophical conflict between liberty and reform that is inherent in all reform-minded projects and by locating Brook Farm in the larger context of the social reform tradition.

Although Brook Farm ultimately failed, it was one of the most durable, and the first of the secular, utopian communities established in New England. The pioneering community did not have other utopian experiments to which it could refer. John Humphrey Noyes’ utopian Oneida community, known largely for bizarre sexual rituals and manufacturing flatware, had a long lifespan — from 1844 to 1881 — in upstate New York, but it was founded three years after Brook Farm. Religious communities, such as Shaker villages, were scattered throughout the northeast and Pennsylvania, but only one previous attempt — British industrialist Robert Owen’s “New Harmony” in Indiana — had been made to establish a utopian socialist community, or phalanx, and it survived only two years past its conception in 1825. Brook Farm briefly bathed in attention from the nation’s intellectual elite, including such leading lights as Hawthorne, Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, and Emily Dickinson; but the fawning of romantic intellectuals helped obscure a lack of careful organization and long-term planning, and it could not supplant the work required to develop and maintain the community.
It appears that what Ripley lacked in experience he made up for in enthusiasm. Delano paints Ripley’s portrait with a sympathetic brush, suggesting that the reverend’s deep convictions blinded him to the imprecision of his plans. “Ripley embraced his new way of life with the zealousness of a new convert,” Delano says. It appeared early on that Ripley’s missionary determination would be enough to keep the farm running. But good intentions could never make up for the fact that Brook Farm’s leader was woefully unprepared to manage the community. His ignorance of farming, his financial insecurity, and his generally poor judgment haunted Brook Farm for the better part of a decade. While to some extent the failure of Ripley’s experiment can be traced to immediate calamities — most notably an outbreak of smallpox and a devastating fire —ultimately it rests with the dark side of utopia, the imperfect reality of a utopian community and its all-too-human leader.