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Utopian Societies in America

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Utopian Societies in America
Utopian societies while not abundant were far from rare in the nineteenth century. One such version of utopianism, Fourierism, attracted at some point numbers in the range of 100,000 members during the 1840’s alone. Nathaniel Hawthorne: A Letter from Brook Farm is just one of many primary documents preserving firsthand accounts of life in these communities. There are enough primary sources in enough detail such that Sterling F. Delano was able to create a secondary source, providing some evaluation and analysis in what has been referred to as a standard for a starting point when researching these societies in the book Brook Farm: The Dark Side of Utopia. Brook Farm was actually far from singular as a utopia experiment. In The Americanization of Utopia: Fourierism and the Dilemmma of Utopian Dissent in the United States an article by Carl J. Guarneri. Guarneri points out many such communities and experiments took place in the 1800’s. The Harmonys in Pennsylvania and New Harmony in Indianna, Onieda in New York, the list goes on although daily life Brook Farm, as was experienced by one of the community members, Nathanial Hawthorne, being the subject of the primary source of this paper. Brook Farm is seen as a trivial contribution by some writers, Guarneri’s article states the contrary that while Brook Farm is one of many experiments it was an important part of the utopian experiments of the time. Other secondary sources, reviews of Brook Farm: The Dark Side of Utopia from Leigh E. Schmidt, Alison Easton and Carl J. Guarneri also indicate that Brook Farm was more than just a minor contributor to the utopian experiments of the 1800’s.
The Brook Farm experiment was designed by George Ripley in effort to create utopian society or as otherwise put Heaven on earth. The site chosen may or may not have been influenced by it being a favorite vacation spot for the Ripley’s; regardless for the reasons used in choosing the location it was ultimately a poor choice for the success of the experiment. Enough primary sources from participants regarding daily live, management and daily operations allow for a more in-depth analysis of the situation by secondary sources. While the location of the farm seemed an idealistic location based on the vistas and seclusions and protection afforded from incidental passers due to the surrounding countryside and its distance from a main road it remained less than ideal; It was inconvenient for industrious endeavors, the soil was not even marginal for farming, in fact it was of a poor grade. The efforts of Ripley to address soil quality issues appear well documented. While farmers are listed in the manifest of onsite personnel it could be questioned as to Ripley’s qualifications or the presence and participation of qualified personnel to determine effective soil remediation even if the necessary technology did exist at the time. The poor quality of the soil was a contributing factor in the decline and failure of the experiment as it caused the participant to seek other industrious efforts to maintain the community. The residents at Brook Farm still managed to maintain a somewhat festive jovial atmosphere regardless of hardship. Although they still purchased milk from local sources while located on a dairy farm; even though their meals were scaled back during times of financial difficulty to include little to no meat, coffee and or tea they only balked mildly and still enjoyed simpler pleasures. The seemingly well documented pillow fight between Hawthorne and other residents supports their continued ability to find happiness in rough times. There were other key events that lead to the eventual failing of the farm. The community was striving to find means of employment for its members through industry that eventual failed, pewter ware, foot wear among others. These efforts failed partly due to remoteness of the site being ill suited for production efforts of this type and possibly also inadequate management. Mounting expenses and debt from failed efforts continued to grow. The accounting practices appear well documented, however well documented failures are not self correcting problems and did nothing to improve the finances of the community. There are also others events that contributed to the failure. An outbreak of smallpox in the community in 1845 followed by the fire that destroyed the nearly completed Phalanstery in 1846 were heavy blows to the community and are seen as some of the larger and last events leading to the failure of Brook Farm. The number of visitors in a year at times nearing 1000 must have been an additional burden on the farms inhabitants on top of what were already less than ideal conditions. Eventually even Nathaniel Hawthorne became dissatisfied with the community, suing for five hundred and twenty four dollars and five cents to recover his investment in the experiment. The farms eventual failure from poor management, un rectified poor soil conditions, failed industrious attempts, fire and plague left creditors out on a limb in their attempts to salvage and recover what they could of their investments.
The primary document Nathaniel Hawthorne, A Letter From Brook Farm is a wonderful document in that it provides a fairly well painted image of his experience at the farm from his arrival to the writing of the letter. It’s possible that the letter was written Sophia Peabody but that is not defined beyond uncertainty in the document as she is not named. The weather from his time of arrival was quite inclement and prevented the attendance to many of the outdoor labors until the arrival of more suitable and permitting weather. In the letter he more than alludes to hard work. Describing in detail the means of manual labor involved in his daily assignments. The loading of twenty to thirty cartloads at the time of writing with an estimated three hundred additional cartloads remaining. The manure is not specified as begin used in soil remediation however given knowledge of the poor soil conditions it is likely that it was used in that endeavor. Hawthorne also describes the labors of plowing and planting and providing for livestock through the cutting of hay for feed. Hawthorne’s remarks of many other tasks requiring a great amount of effort is certainly indicative of one involved in starting or running a farm however is somewhat less descriptive other information gleaned from the document. The others present on the farm are described in ways such that they are perceived as pleasant natured and having specific roles to fill within the community. Life outside of their labors is described as pleasant regardless of the long hours necessary to achieve their goals. Little details down to eating arrangements, dress for daily activities all the way down to the construction of his shoes are given in sufficient detail to allow one to envision. A particularly interesting detail that shows the technology of the time regarding a portrait sent to replace one that is considered outdated and to be discarded.
Primary and secondary source documents have their benefits when analyzing historical events. This primary document being a very subjective one provides us with some intimate details that may have gone unrecorded had they not been in this letter and other documents as a result of Brook Farm. The document paints a nice picture of community with beautiful views and somewhat secluded location regardless of the hard work discussed. It also gives us some insight to other aspects of conditions on the farm such as their clothing. From the description their clothing including jackets and boots were probably made on location. This comes from Hawthorne’s description of the thin frock sent by the recipient of his letter as being a wonderful item, enough so that it was complimented and alluded to that it was of such quality that it could be made part of their uniform for fairer weather. Duplication of articles of clothing in this way tends to indicate that it would be produced onsite with their own efforts. The description of his boots appear that they were also most probably made on the farm, two inches of leather sole and being unique enough to say that he would wear them on his next visit seems to support this idea. While Hawthornes document contains lots of detail it is narrow in scope and vision and lacks the analysis available from hindsight. The analysis primary documents as provided by secondary sources provide a much wider view and at times details otherwise missed by primary sources. In this case the details of the fire, smallpox, financial hardships had yet occurred when Hawthorne wrote the letter however the soil quality was most likely known at that time and was not included in the letter. The secondary sources give us this information as well as other. The financial disposition of the community, information about the health and well being of the residents, the smallpox outbreak, the scale of daily work including baking upwards of ninety pound of bread, the now over mentioned pillow fight among household members.
The limits between the primary source document and the secondary sources used are large to say the least. The primary document is such that it only covers four to six weeks of the authors experience on the farm at the beginning of residency in the community. The primary document also does not provide some of the other information that may have accounted for the rosy and almost overly optimistic viewpoint in the letter. The intended recipient and perhaps ulterior motives for such an optimistic writing. Certainly he was newly arrived however secondary documents show that Hawthorne was also an investor in the experiment, could these have been partially responsible for the outlook given? The secondary sources also have shortcomings. The title of the book Brook Farm: The Dark Side of Utopia alludes to perhaps something sinister or subversive however it too has shortcomings in that the analysis provided and information derived from that do not really turn up anything other than an unfortunate series of bad events combined with poor management. As the secondary sources are based on information from primary sources, in tis case most all of the primary sources used the analysis given by the book is still lacking in that there do not appear to be many negative reports from residents or other primary sources of information regarding Brook Farm. The really interesting result regarding the book as a secondary source is that while a large number of primary sources are available for use in creating this secondary source it appears limited in the information presentation. There is a great deal of minute detail such as the pillow fight between residents and of the appearance of only mild discomforts from financial setbacks large enough to trouble the community. There is a lack of a bigger picture of the experiment.
I won’t comment on readability as at times what I would find interesting enough to read need not be considered “a nice read” to be worth reading. I am not surprised to have learned something new and perhaps even different from my original ideas on the subject; to not have would have been a suprise. Admittedly, my ideas on utopian communities, experiments etc… were somewhat of a concoction built around the communes I had heard of growing up and the concept of creating a society that appeals to the originators coming from the saying, if you don’t like something do something else. Prior to this paper I had not applied all of the considerations I would apply to locating and building a town or farm and thus severely underestimated the scope and scale of those projects. Creating a town or neighborhood of any kind has enough challenges; designing and implementing utilities, building houses and buildings while allowing for growth. It also entails all of the support infrastructure required to provide for the inhabitants, provisions for employment, education, access to goods and services. Creating a society based around shared ideal views adds a whole new level of complexity to the task. The Woodlands Texas was where I lived for more than 20 years prior to moving to Georgia. The relevance of this is that The Woodlands was also an experiment, undertaken by George Mitchell to build a real community where there had been none. Not just a neighborhood or subdivision but a town complete with multiple levels of income, employment opportunities, education, churches, stores etc… Having watched the evolution of the town from almost the beginning gives me some insight to how badly I’ve misperceived utopian experiments. I had erroneously grouped them into a category somewhere near the “free love communes” and Woodstock and completely overlooked something I enjoy; the amount and detail of civil engineering and planning, successful or not that had taken place. Undertakings of that scale in the 1800s had to require massive planning, possibly beyond those required in planning The Woodlands when the differences in time and the amount of knowledge available to the involved parties are factored into the equation. Works Cited
Primary Document:
"Nathaniel Hawthorne, A Letter from Brook Farm (1841),” Stable URL: http://occawlonline.pearsoned.com/bookbind/pubbooks/divine5e/medialib/timeline/docs/sources/theme_primarysources_Reform_3.html, Date Accessed: February 21, 2013.
Book and Three Required Reviews:
Delano, Sterling F. Brook Farm: The Dark Side of Utopia. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2004.
Easton, Alison. 2005. Review of Brook Farm: The Dark Side of Utopia. Journal Of American Studies 39, no. 3 (2005): 551-552.
Guarneri, Carl J. Review of Brook Farm: The Dark Side of Utopia. American Historical Review 110, no. 2 (2005): 477-478.
Schmidt, Leigh E. Review of Brook Farm: The Dark Side of Utopia. Journal Of American History 92, no. 1 (2005): 213-214.
Articles:
Guarneri, Carl J. “The Americanization of Utopia: Fourierism and the Dilemma of Utopian Dissent in the United States.” Utopian Studies, Vol. 5 Issue 1 (1994), p72.

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