The Brook Farm Experiment

4 Hi!

I’ve been invited to write a guest post for my friend Steve for his fascinating WordPress site,

… and since Intentional Communities around the world is an interest of mine,

I thought I’d share some information on a particularly fascinating one —

….. that of Brook Farm, near Boston, Massachusetts, in the U.S.A.   

Thanks again to Steve for asking me to do this– I hope his readers enjoy it.

The Brook Farm Experiment

Social experiments during the 19th Century were common throughout the world, particularly in Western Europe —

But nowhere could this trend be seen more clearly than in the United States.

The era of the 1830-1840’s was a time of an intellectual renaissance in American social philosophy.

The ideas of Europeans like Immanuel Kant, Samuel Coleridge, and Thomas Carlysle had strongly influenced many of the era’s American thinkers, in New England particularly…

Writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson, saw in these concepts the potential for a new, better way of understanding man’s relationship to his environment:

A man contains all that is needful to his government within himself…All real good or evil that can befall him must be from himself…There is a correspondence between the human soul and everything that exists in the world; more properly, everything that is known to man. Instead of studying things without, the principles of them all may be penetrated into from within him…The purpose of life seems to be to acquaint man with himself…The highest revelation is that God is in every man.”

Ideas like this came to be known as transcendentalism…

In 1836, Emerson, along with George Ripley and Frederick Hedge, started a discussion group that came to be known as the ‘Transcendental Club’ — to discuss these and similar ideas.

The anonymous pamphlet “An Essay on Transcendentalism“, (generally thought to have been written by Charles Mayo Ellis ) explained their emerging philosophy :

Transcendentalism… maintains that man has ideas, that come not through the five senses, or the powers of reasoning, but are either the result of direct revelation from God, his immediate inspiration, or his immanent presence in the spiritual world,” and “it asserts that man has something besides the body of flesh, a spiritual body, with senses to perceive what is true, and right and beautiful, and a natural love for these, as the body for its food.”

There developed a strong urge on the part of some to take these philosophical concepts of ‘transcendentalism’ out of the libraries– and into practice in society.

A bold experiment was undertaken in 1841, by George Ripley and Sophia Dana Ripley, his wife, to do just that —

2They, and with twelve others, established a “Practical Institute of Agriculture and Education” at the 175 acre Ellis “Brook” Farm, near Boston.

Ripley explained what he was trying to accomplish to Emerson in a letter:

“Our objects as you know, are to insure a more natural union between between intellectual and manual labor … 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 … 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 pressures of our competitive institutions.”

3Brook Farm residents published their own newspaper “The Harbinger” , which featured articles written by some of the illustrious people who lived there or visited.

They sold produce and light manufactured goods to the surrounding community, and were generally well regarded.

The schools at Brook Farm took in students from the outside, and these schools would end up being their single most consistently profitable enterprise .

Press coverage of Brook Farm could be quite savage, but was mostly favorable.

During the first three years of the Brook Farm’s existence, life seems to have been rather idyllic and intellectually challenging–

Residents during that time included Nathaniel Hawthorne, Charles Dana, Isaac Hecker, John Dwight….

Among the frequent visitors were Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Bronson Alcott, and Horace Greeley.

The original plan for Brook Farm was based on a loose framework of egalitarian communalism,

but as 1844 rolled around, Ripley came to believe a much stricter organizational structure was needed, based on the Fourierist Phalanx:

“…. the systematic organization of labor, to make it more efficient, productive, and attractive; in this way to provide for the abundant gratification of all the intellectual, moral, and physical wants of every member of the Association; and thus to extirpate the dreadful inequalities of external condition, which now make many aspects of society so hideous; and to put all in possession of the means of leading a wise, serene and beautiful life in accordance with the eternal laws of God and the highest aspirations of their own nature.”

Fourier believed that human suffering was caused by faulty social institutions–
The rigidly controlled social structure he advocated would supposedly lead to “Attractive Industry”

— whereby people would live in a blissful state of harmony and brotherly love.

brook farmThe system called for a structure called a “Phalanx”, with the citizens working in one of several industrial and commercial cooperatives, while living, working, and dining in communal areas.

Size of the community would be strictly controlled, and taken from all classes of society–

One of the more draconian aspects of the Fourierian Phalanx was the requisite ‘parade ground’ , where workers would “ celebrate the harvest, to honour the hardest workers and ridicule the less motivated ” .

In the early years of Brook Farm, there seems to have been some grumbling in the community about the division of labor and such….

But once the Fourierist model was in place, there wasn’t near as much time for the leisure and intellectual pursuits the community had been set up to provide, and the Farm lost it’s appeal for many.

Several leading residents left, including Nathaniel Hawthorne, who sued to get his investment back.

The strict Fourierist organizational plan had called for the construction of a large (175′ x 40′) three story, central building, called the ‘Phalanstery’, which would house the kitchens, meeting rooms, library, dining rooms, and assembly hall.

Unfortunately, this uninsured project went up in flames before it was finished, and the community was plunged into a fatal debt spiral from which it could not recover.

This, combined with the unprofitability of the Farm’s other ventures, meant the end of Brook Farm, in 1847.

No one, however, could justifiably call the experiment at Brook Farm a total failure.

Much was learned about the nature of social structures, and the inherent strengths and weaknesses of intentional communities at large–

Several pieces of literature were directly inspired by the Brook Farm experience during the 1850’s, such as “The Blithedale Romance“,

And at least one famous psychologist (BF Skinner) used the model of Brook Farm as a basis for his own “Walden Two” work…

Which in turn, inspired the establishment of another intentional community, in 1967, “Twin Oaks” in Louisa County, Virginia.

Most of the farm structures have not survived the intervening 160 years since..

But the Margaret Fuller Cottage still stands, and the grounds of the Brook Farm site are now recognized as a National Historic Landmark.

Below, you’ll find the visitors brochure… just click on it to read it in full resolution .





4 thoughts on “The Brook Farm Experiment

  1. I thought about adding my own comments in the body of this post but thought it would be better to just say I’m very glad to have had “The Muscleheaded blog” post his thoughts here. Social experiments seem to lead to heavier control over time, as it occurred in Russia and in this fascinating American experiment as well. We talk about the great “Social experiment” in America as well. I can see that if it’s allowed to thrive with out excessive meddling (over-control) I believe it will survive, but it seems to be challenged in this fashion. The Brooks Farm Experiment and Socialism in Russia didn’t work, why does America believe differently now?

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