Fruitlands: The Alcott Family and Their Search for Utopia by Richard Francis - review by Elaine Showalter

Elaine Showalter

Paradise Unachieved

Fruitlands: The Alcott Family and Their Search for Utopia


Yale University Press 321pp £25 order from our bookshop

In June 1843, Bronson Alcott, his small family, and three of his Transcendental disciples from Alcott House in England – Charles Lane, who financed the project, his eleven-year-old son William, and their friend Henry Gardiner Wright – went to live in a utopian commune in Massachusetts called Fruitlands. Their six-month effort at being a ‘Consociate Family’ was traumatic and almost tragic. The philosophers knew nothing about agriculture, disapproved of the use of ‘noxious’ manure, and did not wish to oppress animals by ploughing the fields. They were extreme vegetarians (what we would call vegans), and by the winter were half-starving on a diet of apples, water and rough bread. For some of the thirteen members, Fruitlands was too fanatical; for others it was not fanatical enough. Gradually some decamped to more sociable environments, while the Lanes went off to a stricter Shaker community nearby, who later did not want to release William: as a celibate community, they needed every child they could get. The Alcotts soldiered on alone – father, mother Abigail (‘Abba’), and the four daughters Louisa, Anna, Elizabeth and May – until Bronson had a severe, almost suicidal breakdown. The entire enterprise was a disaster, what Richard Francis calls ‘one of history’s most unsuccessful utopias ever’.

At the same time, Fruitlands is also one of history’s funniest stories of utopian miscalculations and male ideological vanity. Louisa May Alcott wrote a hilarious satire of the failed experiment in Transcendental Wild Oats (1873), calling it ‘Apple Slump’. In it, Bronson is the innocent visionary Abel Lamb,

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