Minimalists in History: Brook Farm

brook farm

“[W]e should have industry without drudgery, and true equality without its vulgarity.”

– George Ripley

Unitarian minister George Ripley founded Brook Farm, a transcendentalist utopian communal experiment, in 1841 in West Roxbury, Massachusetts (just outside Boston).

Early members of the Brook Farm Association for Industry and Education included Nathaniel Hawthorne, John Sullivan Dwight and Charles A. Dana. Membership eventually rose to more than 70.

As founders prepared to buy land for the farm, Ripley wrote to Ralph Waldo Emerson to try to convince him to join.

Our objects, as you know, are to insure a more natural union between intellectual and manual labor than now exists; to combine the thinker and the worker, as far as possible, in the same individual; to guarantee the highest mental freedom, by providing all with labor, adapted to their tastes and talents, and securing to them the fruits of their industry; to do away the necessity of menial services, by opening the benefits of education and the profits of labor to all; and thus to prepare a society of liberal, intelligent, and cultivated persons, whose relations with each other would permit a more simple and wholesome life, than can be led amidst the pressure of our competitive institutions.

 “As for these communities, I think I had rather keep a bachelor’s room in Hell than go to board in Heaven.”

 – Henry David Thoreau, after a visit to Brook Farm

Ralph Waldo Emerson chose not to move to Brook Farm, in part due to his belief that the world’s “beaux esprits” should disperse to “leaven the whole clump of society,” not live together outside of society.

He, however, made extended visits to Brook Farm, as did other transcendentalists, including Margaret Fuller. Thoreau visited too, but as you can see from the above quote, he had no interest in becoming a member.

Nathaniel Hawthorne was a founding member of Brook Farm. Initially he seemed happy, writing that shoveling manure “defiles the hands, indeed, but not the soul.”

Several weeks later, though, he wrote, “It is my opinion that a man’s soul may be buried under a dung heap or in a furrow of the field just as well as under a pile of money.” The Blithedale Romance is Hawthorne’s fictionalized account of his time at Brook Farm.

“Men and women, boys and girls, drawn together in groups by special likings for the work to be done, made labor not only light but really pleasant.”

 – John Van Der Zee Sears, a boarder at the Brook Farm school

Ripley believed Brook Farm would be an alternative for Americans oppressed by competition and capitalism. He planned a “city on a hill” and hoped to offer “all the elegances desirable for bodily and spiritual health.”

The community provided to all members, their children and family dependents, housing, fuel, clothing and food. Brook Farm paid members at the same hourly rate regardless of the member’s gender and type of work performed. There was an infant school, a primary school and college preparatory course.

Though it lasted only 6 years, Brook Farm was far more successful than Fruitlands and served as an inspiration for later idealists interested in communal simplicity.

“[Phalanxes] will render Industry attractive and end the evil distinction between Producers and Consumers.”

– Charles Fourier

In early 1844, the officers of Brook Farm voted to reorganize as a Fourierist phalanx. Fourier was a French social theorist who advocated transforming society into self-sufficient, independent “phalanxes.”

As a result of the reorganization, all workers were organized into groups and series. Although this was a much more formal arrangement than had existed at Brook Farm, the community was still unable to sustain itself financially, in part due to its heavy debt burden.

It went bankrupt in 1847, after a smallpox outbreak and a fire that destroyed a new building.

Visiting Brook Farm

Today, all of the buildings of Brook Farm are gone, but the land has been preserved as a state historic site. Trails lead visitors through a mix of wetlands, meadows, fields, and woodland.

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