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Fruitlands

The Con-Sociate Family of Harvard, Massachusetts (June 1843-January 1844) was popularly known as Fruitlands because its founders planned to live off the fruits of the land. Members expected a daily schedule of farm work mixed with literary pursuits and philosophical discussion. Early rising, cold baths, and a diet of bread, fruit, vegetables, and pure water helped build body and spirit. Linen sufficed for clothing, because the community would not use cotton produced by slave labor or any animal products, including wool. In all things the members sought occupation as directed by the spirit, so the union of spirit and flesh would be made manifest.

The Con-Sociate Family was the project of Amos Bronson Alcott, noted educator, author, and philosopher from Concord, Massachusetts and Charles Lane, an English educator and reformer. Both men wished to build a "New Eden," free from traditional societal restrictions, where all persons could seek their full potential. Fruitlands was not to be simply a closed community for a few individuals, but a model on which all future society would be based. A leader in the Transcendental movement of New England, Alcott saw the world of nature as a tangible manifestation of a universal divinity. The Con-Sociate Family was to live in harmony with this divinity by eschewing trade, property ownership, the imposition of institutions, and the use of animals for food, labor, or clothing. They embraced a life of the mind, work driven by the spirit's inclination, social responsibility in all things, and universal respect for all creatures.

Although Utopian communities were common during the period of Fruitlands' founding, not everyone saw such experiments as viable. Thomas Carlyle called Alcott "a venerable Don Quixote. All bent on saving the world by a return to acorns and the golden age." Many outside of the Transcendentalist movement saw it as "high purpose and thoughtful action... beclouded by a reputation for vagary and absurdity." Louisa May Alcott, daughter of Bronson Alcott, charmingly lampooned the absurdity of her time at Fruitlands in her tale "Transcendental Wild Oats", published in 1875 in a Boston newspaper.

Membership in the community dwindled, but the crisis of food dealt the death blow. With the men off at speaking engagements, Mrs. Alcott was left alone with the children to harvest the grain as storms threatened. As the New England chill settled in, it was discovered that the Family had insufficient food to make it through the winter. Charles Lane left for a nearby Shaker community, but Mrs. Alcott refused to follow, unwilling to be separated from any member of her family by the Shakers' religious views requiring total separation of the sexes. Lane characterized her actions as selfish. Indeed, Lane wrote that the residents found Mrs. Alcott "arbitrary or despotic," which made Fruitlands no longer bearable. Others claimed that, in fact, Lane was "the serpent who sowed the seed of discord in Alcott's new Eden." Still others would blame the sheer impracticality of feeding a community with hand labor when the members preferred reading philosophy and writing poetry to land cultivation. In A. Bronson Alcott: His Life and Philosophy Franklin B. Sanborn wrote, "The rigors of a New England winter promoted the dissolution of the 'Fruitlands' Community, but did not alone break it up. A lack of organizing power to control the steady current of selfishness, as well as the unselfish vagaries of his followers, was the real cause."

Whatever the truth of personalities and power, the Fruitlands experiment was formally disbanded in January 1844, just seven months after it began.

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Last updated on Wednesday, October 26, 2011.

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