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Monday, April 12, 2004

Transcendentalism's shadow.

Not every Transcendentalist was a "go alone" individualist like Thoreau — or like the fiercely idiosyncratic people you can find in most Unitarian Universalist congregations where Emerson and Thoreau especially still have lots of fans. I often think of the more individualistic Transcendentalists as special cases of a more general 19th-century phenomenon: perfectionism. Perfectionism took lots of forms — including abolitionism and the more evangelical reform movements — and it took explicitly communal forms, too. Among the religious liberals who took the communal route rather than setting off to find their own Walden Ponds, it would be hard to find a more famous example than Brook Farm.

Michael Kenney writes about a new history of Brook Farm (and about a new collection of letters from a Northampton, Mass., utopian community from the same period):

Brook Farm was a utopian community, one of dozens that sprang up in New England and across the Northern states in the 1840s. It is the best known of them (not including the Shaker communities), having been immortalized in Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel, "The Blithedale Romance."

The reality — the "dark side" — of its past is found in the distinguished and often entertaining history "Brook Farm[: The Dark Side of Utopia]," by Sterling F. Delano, a professor of English at Villanova University. Curiously, for all its renown, and for all the notables — Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, Amos Bronson Alcott and Margaret Fuller, as well as Hawthorne — associated with Brook Farm, Delano's is the first comprehensive study to appear in more than a century.

Brook Farm was the creation of George Ripley, who resigned as minister of a Unitarian church in what is now Boston's Financial District to establish "a social worship . . . to redeem society as well as the individual from all sin." Ripley and those who moved with him to Brook Farm in the spring of 1841 had been associated with the idealistic Transcendental movement.

After barely two years of the farm as a back-to-the-land enterprise by day and an intellectual beehive by night, Ripley proposed a turn toward industry, following the utopian socialist principles of the French social scientist Charles Fourier.

Brook Farm survived another few years, until economic obstacles and a devastating fire brought Ripley's dream to an end.

("Reform minded: Two new works focus on the rise and fall of a pair of utopian communities in Massachusetts in the 1800s," Michael Kenney, Boston Globe 4.11.04)

I wrote a brief article about another of the well-known Massachusetts utopian communities, Hopedale, in UU World last year. Hopedale was founded by the incomprehensibly perfectionist Adin Ballou (a Universalist and Unitarian minister) in 1841 — and unlike Brook Farm and many of the other utopian communities, it actually struggled along for decades until it too collapsed around the time of the Civil War.

("Adin Ballou: Practical utopian," Christopher L. Walton, UU World Jul/Aug 2003)

Copyright © 2004 by Philocrites | Posted 12 April 2004 at 5:57 PM

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Matthew Gatheringwater:

April 12, 2004 09:43 PM | Permalink for this comment

An idealistic side, a dark side, and a tragicomic side: Transcendental Wild Oats is one of my favorite night-table books--not only for its own sake, but also because it resembles in many ways my own childhood encounter with a Romanticized Nature.

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