March 3, 2010

Dreams of Brook Farm burn down

Though it was not expressly a literary endeavor, Brook Farm in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, was meant to foster intellectual goals. By pooling their labor on a farm, the founders believed, all members of the community would have the time for their literary, artistic, scientific, or philosophical pursuits. Proponents (who never joined) included Margaret Fuller and Elizabeth Palmer Peabody. Its biggest literary luminary, however, was Nathaniel Hawthorne, one of its founding members in 1841.

As a community based on tenets of Transcendentalism, Brook Farm's philosophies didn't necessarily appeal to Hawthorne (who, despite some false information out there, was never a Transcendentalist; if anything, he was anti-Transcendentalism). The struggling author joined in the hope of making enough money to start off his marriage to Sophia Peabody on secure financial footing. Hawthorne even became the community's treasurer for a time.

However, he soon learned that free time was nonexistent, and his farm duties (including shoveling manure) were too much for him. "Labor is the curse of the world," he wrote his fiancee, "and nobody can meddle with it without becoming proportionately brutified." Hawthorne left Brook Farm, later using his experience as an inspiration for his novel The Blithedale Romance, at a time when it still had the potential of being successful.

It never was — and most historians agree the beginning of the end for Brook Farm was March 3, 1846.

Brook Farm had recently reorganized as a community based on the ideas of Charles Fourier and spent massive amounts of money on a central community building, the Phalanstery. As Brook Farm founder George Ripley described, it would have "a large and commodious kitchen, a dining-hall capable of seating from three to four hundred persons, two public saloons, and a spacious hall or lecture room." On March 3, it caught fire and burned to the ground within two hours, before construction was completed, after a $7000 investment (nearly $160,000 today).

Uninsured, the community lost most of its money. George Ripley quietly disassociated himself from his experiment at creating Utopia in America. Other participants, who had been very happy there despite financial difficulty, slowly broke away too. Today, most of the land that was Brook Farm is a series of cemeteries.

*The image above is "The Hive," a building which served as the main social center, library, and dining hall. The Phalanstery would have replaced many of its functions but also included living space.

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