Transcendental Ideas: Social Reform
On Brook Farm
Georgiana Bruce Kirby
from Years of Experience: An Autobiographical Narrative, 1887
V. BROOK FARM.
One day in the spring following my journey to
Melbourne Mr. G. came home with a written copy of
the constitution of the Brook Farm Association in
his hand. He called me into his study and explained its purport, remarking that he had no doubt that the society would admit me, and also make
terms for my brother. There I could readily acquire
the arithmetic in which he understood me to be deficient, and I could remain a longer or shorter time as pleased me. If I wished they would take a drive
to West Roxbury and see Mr. George Ripley, the
I confess to a remarkable slowness of comprehension, and my conception of this scheme for the institution of justice in the world was quite vague until I
had gone through a practical initiation. At the farm
Mr. Ripley said, as illustrating the spirit prevailing
there, that Wm. A., a young farmer from New
Hampshire, and recently an employe of Theodore
Parker's, was going into Boston the next day, and
that nothing would give him, Mr. R., more pleasure
than to black his boots before he left. This was not
intended as an insinuation that this member's boots
were in a bad state most of the time, but that Mr.
R. had reached a point in brotherly love which had
swept the class feeling entirely away. Such facts
were almost incredible!
The friendly faces of the few who passed through
the small oil-clothed reception room, while we were
there, promised just the spiritual hospitality I had so longed for; and Mr. Ripley further declared that it made no difference what I wished to learn, as the
association was composed largely of cultivated persons filled with a missionary spirit, who were more than ready to make over their intellectual wealth to those who had hitherto been deprived of it. The speaker, while below middle size, had a handsome face and a fine physique. He was then about forty, a scholarly-looking man of most genial disposition. A ready smile lurked in the corners of his eyes, and contrasted well with the comprehensive
brow above, which seemed to have pushed back his crisp, dark curls. Any casual observer would have taken him for a professor of philosophy in some
learned institution, which, as I afterwards knew, was
"his proper place in the universe."
An understanding, with respect to my affairs, was
arrived at without any difficulty. My brother, now
a stout lad in his fourteenth year, was to go to the
Farm at once as pupil-worker, while I was to remain where I was until the fall, in order to earn money for our clothes. I was then to work eight hours a day for my board and instruction. I hoped that a year would find me well prepared for a public-
school teacher, and that my path. to the wild West would be lighted and smoothed.
The Brook Farm Association was the outcome of
the advanced religious thought of a number of Unitarian clergymen. Mr. George Ripley, who was the leader, Theodore Parker, Samuel Robbins, Orestes
Brownson, John S. Dwight, Warren Burton, and the
greatly beloved Universalist minister, Rev. Adin
Ballou, met frequently at the rooms of Miss E. P.
Peabody, to discuss the desirability of a reorganization of society on unselfish principles, and the feasibility of carrying out a plan to that effect. Each of
these gentlemen, at the time, presided over some religious body, but they had, one and all, come to the conclusion that preaching Christianity, or the
doctrine of brotherly love, was up-hill work, while
the entire social fabric was based on the selfish principle of competition. To any reasoning mind it was evident that the good of one was the good of all, and
vice versa; but our aggressive system, which pitted
every man born into the world against his fellows,
ignored this in toto.
It was argued that labor, far from being a curse,
was, and had been, the greatest cause of our continuous development ; that it conduced to the health of mind and body, when equally divided among all.
But that in our present state, the artisan and laborer
were degraded to only one step above chattel-slavery,
in order to maintain a few in luxurious idleness.
Defrauded of these refined conditions, which he himself had created, the workman lost courage, self-respect, elasticity. The truth had been discovered,
that conditions decided character. It was a duty to
institute just conditions.
Mr. Ballou believed that success in practical reform
would be furthered by an avowal of convictions on
the part of those so uniting. They should declare
themselves abolitionists, anti-orthodox, opposed to
war and intoxicating drinks, etc., and in favor of
woman's equal rights.
Mr. Ripley, on the contrary, wished to avoid the
least appearance of coercion, and to depend altogether on the spirit of fraternity. In consequence, a friendly separation took place. Mr. Ballou headed a
company of substantial reformers, who established
themselves at Hopedale, Mass., while Mr. Ripley and
his friends proceeded to West Roxbury, and a third
body of friends was soon settled at Northampton, Mass.
All these organizations rejected communism, as
unfavorable to individuality, if not to order, in
nature. They desired honest co-operation, so that
if, for example, a man wanted to indulge in foreign
travel, he might do so, by working more and fore- going more for some time beforehand.
A farm of a hundred and seventy-five acres, one
side bordering the Charles River, was purchased by
the united means of those interested, for $10,500.
It is proverbial that clergymen are ignorant on the
subject of land and of horses. They should have
called on some bent old farmer for an opinion, before
purchasing that much gravel. But the mistake was
not discovered immediately, and we,--the younger
converts to association, found the pine-woods, the
river-side, and brook a pleasant framing for the wealth
of our social felicity, even though they were not
profitable. But I anticipate.
The happy day came late in September, when I
found myself and my effects on the West Roxbury
stage, which would convey me to a station in that
small village, whence I must reach the farm on foot.
My baggage was to be fetched later. My half-mile
walk was a restful one. The dew lay on the grass
by the roadside, and the sun was not too bright for
the eyes to take in the landscape, which was made
up of straggling, leaf-bestrewn pastures, with low,
gray stone fences cropping out here and there, and
then disappearing beneath brushwood and vines. I
was alone, but not lonely, for I was free, and returning to the world after a three years' absence.
I held anticipation in check, but there was no subduing the exhilaration of the hour.
Presently I was on the bridge, metaphorical, as well as literal, which led me to the new era. From there I could see the long, bare arms of the old sycamore, which, in summer, shaded the Hive, swaying restlessly to the breeze, and the brown terraces below where a few
autumn flowers struggled for existence. Carlo,the large Newfoundland dog, announced
my approach by a low, satisfied bark.
It had been decided that I should reside at the Nest, a small dwelling rented by the association, and within a stone's throw of the original farm-house.
This cottage was presided over by Miss R--_, a maiden sister of the president, a lady between forty and fifty, tall, straight, large-featured; exact, formal, unattractive, but well-meaning and conscientious.
In short, she was the typical New England teacher of the olden time,--the very last person one would expect to invest her hard earnings in an experiment of this kind. But she loved and reverenced her brother, and with him it was no Utopia, but the outpost of an assured reorganization of society.
Miss R-- had several small boys under her sole care and tuition. Among them were two sons of
George Bancroft, the historian, "Johnny and Geordie Ban," as they were called for short. Francis Barlow (now Gen. Barlow Of New York) recited in her classes. His mother, Mrs. Elmira Barlow, and her three boys boarded at the Hive. Mrs. Barlow had figured in her native place (Cambridge) as the personal beauty, where Margaret Fuller was the intellectual
magnet. She had not been baptized into the spirit of democracy, but her debonnaire disposition and sprightly ways and speeches made her an agreeable guest.
Two Spanish youths from Manila, with Loyd Fuller, Margaret Fuller's youngest brother, were
also domiciled at the Nest.
I now began to make acquaintance with the history of the United States, and to take lessons in arithmetic, but as my teacher lacked insight and had no atmosphere, nothing went right. I detested arithmetic under her instruction.
Lucas and Jose piled up their Mexican dollars on
either side of their mantle-shelf,and left their ill-
finished jewelry lying round in all directions. They
made signs to me, for as yet they knew scarcely any
English, to put the small cylindrical pillow with the
pink-lined case on the left--Jose's side of the bed,--
and the flat, larger one, with the embroidered ruffles,
on the right.
" What good! What for!" I asked, looking my question.
Upon which Jose clasped the long roll in his arms and leaned his cheek against it, saying:
"So, sleep, Muchachito uno poquito; hombre big
one"(little boy has a very small one, man a big one).
Loyd Fuller was a large-headed, loose-jointed lad of sixteen, with some down on his upper lip. He would never know the meaning of the phrases "savoir faire,
savoir vivre." He kept a diary principally, it would seem, for the purpose of letting others understand his opinion of them, for he tore pages out occasionally and dropped them where those he had criticised severely would be likely to pick them up.
"Rose at six," the journal ran, "dressed, and said my prayers. Fed the chickens. The sweet apples were not well baked this morning. I hate Mr.-- (he gave the whole name) more than I ever detested anyone in my life. He always finds fault with my algebra. He 's no gentleman."
Then he had quite a faculty for story-telling, and would sit in the large entry with all the children in the establishment around him and invent fairy tales by the hour together,--always with great assumption of dignity, which the audience took in and understood as well as they did the fables.
By degrees I made acquaintance with the larger family at the Hive somewhat against Miss Ripley's wishes. I was both surprised and pleased to find among the number my young friend with the lovely hazel eyes. She came on easier terms than I, as half her board was paid. She introduced me to Sarah S., Mr. Ripley's niece, to Mrs. Ripley. and the excellent Mr. Minot Pratt and his wife with their children, to Mr. George P. B., Charles N., and his friend William C--, to Ellen S. and Jonathan R. The entire number did not exceed thirty at that time, but it rapidly increased, in fact just as fast as additions and new houses were built for accommodation. The girls I found were delightfully companionable, and I sought
their society every day as soon as my uninspired duties and lessons were finished. They entreated me to stay with them altogether, and I was eager to join them.
Poor Miss R-- was indignant at my desertion of her, and her wrath, however, justified my action, since she had no power of attraction and I was bound to her by no ties of blood. After an outburst of indignation it seemed impossible for me to remain
with her, and I moved my appurtenances, to wit, my horsehair trunk with its contents, to the Hive. Mr. Ripley was about to make up a class for the study
of moral philosophy, using Victor Cousin as textbook, and I joined it on the instant.
The evenings spent in that class were delightful and inspiring. No sermons had ever appealed so effectively to my intellect. All my past experience now became valuable in the consideration of large propositions. Mental problems were spread out before us by this eloquent metaphysician, whose lucid and forcible exposition of the various systems of
philosophy called forth all our intelligence and illuminated our past experiences. Cousin in hand, he led us into wide fields of thought hitherto undreamed of. That author's statement that evil was not a principle in itself, opposed to good, but simply
inharmonious, undeveloped good, constantly rectifying itself, was so in accordance with our belief in the possibility of a perfect human society, that we considered the writer a prophet of the new order.
After a few months Mr. Charles A. Dana joined us. He was just from Harvard, where his eyes had been over-taxed, but he could teach, if not study. He was already an enthusiastic linguist, and his first move was collecting a class for the study of German.
This class consisted of seven, but all of whom were in sympathy with each other and with the teacher. What a royal time we had ! The whole progress
from Follen's "Reader" to Schiller's "Song of the
Bell," "Pegasus," Goethe's "Hermann and Dorothea," and "Faust," was a delight. Dictionaries were scarce, oil lamps dull, hours too short, and the student often over-weary from labor, but in our youthful zeal all things were easy. I was to have learned arithmetic. What nourishment would I find in that, or even in American history? The latter recorded
a revolution which overthrew a king and did not abolish slavery. Contained no romances except those relating to fugitive slaves, and to Washington and Mrs. Martha Washington,
worn decidedly thread-bare. It were better to study Rhine legends
and live a poem for later chroniclers to indite.
All the studies pursued at the Farm were made preeminently living. We chose those congenial to us and kept to them earnestly, but without the dangerous pressure so often felt in a college course.
The instructors took time to enlarge on favorite themes, and thus made what might have been dry and tedious full of interest. What was acquired was assimilated and became part of ourselves for all time. Who that was there initiated into Greek, German, Italian literature will not bear me out in this? A quiet but potent and contagious enthusiasm entered into all we did, or were, and no Adventists ever believed more absolutely in the second
coming of Christ than we in the reorganization of society on a fraternal basis.
For the full accomplishment of this we allowed, not to be guilty of
impatience, twenty-five years. By that time the
entire civilized world would be drawn into the movement and become a part of it.
I should also mention that I joined with some others in reading modern European history with Mrs. R--.
But this was altogether a different
affair, as this lady, though well informed, was wholly
uninspired, and without any power of enlisting the
interest of her class.
And now the days were full of affection and sunshine. The community, as every one insisted on calling it, was steadily increasing in size.
There might be forty, counting the children and the middle-aged. Besides the flattering regard of my two friends, I received a most cordial recognition from all others. The very air seemed to hold more exhilarating qualities than any I had breathed before.
Democracy and culture made the animus of the association, Had the world denied you opportunity for education? Here your highest needs should be satisfied. Able scholars were at your service. I could have cried with gratitude, when one of these, the modest G. P. B., sent word to me that he should be happy to teach me anything he could. What a heavenly world this was getting to be!
A large addition was being made to the Hive, and a quadrangular edifice was in
process of erection on higher ground, in the vicinity of the pine woods.
From this point there was a view of the Charles River.
On entering the association my duties were threefold: ironing on the afternoons of certain days ; preparing vegetables every morning, for the noon meal; and helping to wash the cups and plates after supper.
Sylvia A. assisted me in paring the huge pans of potatoes, scraping the carrots, etc., while, at my request, she sang stirring Methodist hymns, in her full,
and clear, but undisciplined voice:
The chorus poured joyously through the half-open windows, at which one and another, who had had experience of this kind, stopped to listen, and perhaps to nod approval.
"Oh, I 'm bound for the kingdom :
Will you go to glory with me?
Oh, Hallelujah ! Praise ye the Lord."
On the dreariest of winter days, when the sleet and biting wind detained at the Hive the few women who ventured down the hill to supper, and caused quite a bustle in tile kitchen putting up meals for those who had remained behind, the omnibus arrived with no less a person than C. P. Cranch, the preacher, poet, musician, and painter. How a
simple affluent individual puts one at ease! We apologize to the impoverished and dull-witted, alone. The furniture of the little reception-room was beginning to look exceedingly shabby, but I am sure no one noticed the fact, when that evening, our
visitor sang to the notes of his guitar:
"Here 's a health to ane I lo'e dear."
"Take thou, where thou dost glide,
This deep-dyed rose, O river,"
melting to tears the more susceptible of his sympathetic audience. That night no one of us doubted that we, who were permitted to hear, were the most favored of the gods. No after quartettes on the violin, in which Mr. Cranch took part; no weird
passages from the Erl-King, with mysterious, awe- inspiring piano accompaniment; no charming caricatures (from his note-book) of "The Experiences of the Child Christopher down East," or of the Harvard mill grinding out ministers, could efface the tender impression made by the ballads which he sang in the poor little parlor on that first evening.
The day was less inclement when Miss Fuller
made her first appearance. She was attired in a
warm cloak which a friend had just given her, for
she could not afford to buy one. She had been previously described to me as one in whom the woman, saint, and scholar were united, and my great reverence, for one whose being was consecrated to the highest purposes, and who was greatly in need of rest, made me keep myself at a careful distance, lest I might intrude on her. At a later day, however, I
met her accidentally in the woods, and, at her request, permitted myself to engross a moment of her precious time. After this interview, brief as it was, when she was to favor us with a visit I claimed the privilege of giving up my room to her. I used to
prepare it for her presence by the burning of pastilles
begged from Cornelia H. Nothing gave me greater pleasure than to carry up her breakfast, using for the coffee the only decorated cup and saucer to be found
in the china closet. Now helpful she proved to me afterwards in my hour of trial! Mow wise her counsel ! How generous her hand and heart! As I was younger, and so far from her equal, I of course felt proud of her regard for me. She was too noble in herself to create any sense of obligation. At this time she was giving private instruction in the classics
and German, and had commenced to hold her famous "Conversations." She made money enough, but used it, as she had promised herself to do, for the college education of her brothers.
Hawthorne, after spending a year at the community, had now left. No one could have been more out- of-place than he, in a mixed company, no matter how cultivated, worthy, and individualized each member of it might be. He was morbidly shy and reserved, needing to be shielded from his fellows, and obtaining the fruits of observation at second-hand.
He was therefore not amenable to the democratic influences at the community, which enriched the others and made them declare in after years that the years or months spent there had been the most valuable ones in their whole lives.
The mischievous Ora G. (the first syllable of her given name had been clipped off as not according with her speaking eyes) would now and then draw him out of himself by her daring badinage, and I am sure he must have been grateful for her doings,
but the brisk encounter over, he shrank back into his shell and was again the cold looker-on.
In the Blithedale Romance, Hawthorne adapted various characters to suit his purpose in the tale. There was at the Farm a pretty black-eyed girl who,
before coming there, had been used as a clairvoyante for examining the patients of a certain physician in Boston. Young in knowledge, as in years, she yet gave the result of her clear-seeing in scientific terms.
I never knew whether her powers gave out, or whether her confessor (for she was a Catholic) forbade her to pursue her profession. I think it was she who suggested "Priscilla" to Hawthorne. "Zenobia,". a friend of Miss Peabody, was a resident at the Farm.
She died lately at Florence, Italy.
John S. Dwight, the exponent of music in America, joined our circle, and a piano-forte was bought in his honor. He was in hearty sympathy with the associative movement, and proved an earnest worker both with hand and brain. Through him we heard much conversation on the meaning and uses of music,and much delicate improvisation. He arranged a class of children. Later on an older class was formed, who attacked the glees in " Kingsley's Choir," and again Mozart's Seventh and Twelfth Masses.
It was chiefly through the writing and lecturing of Mr. Dwight, aided no doubt by articles from Margaret Fuller's pen, that a desire for a better order of music was awakened in a fraction of the Boston concert goers. It would hardly be credited now, how difficult it was to convince even a portion of the public, that Beethoven's symphonies and Mozart's masses
were the grandest creations of genius, and as such, their performance should be demanded by all lovers of the divine art. It was no small task then to assemble and drill the talent which would fulfil the new requirement and increase the desire for that
class of music. At length the audience became large enough to warrant an orchestra of eighty instruments in rehearsing the best classes and modern compositions, and a new era in the musical world of New England was inaugurated. It became necessary however to apprise the younger portion of the said audience, through the papers, that those capable of appreciating classical music never indulged in conversation while it was being rendered.
Late in the spring following my admission to the community, word was brought us that a company of sweet singers--three Hutchinson brothers with their sister from New Hampshire, who were beginning to attract public attention--desired to visit us if agreeable and give us one of their entertainments. Their
offer was accepted, and a boat was sent up the river to fetch them from Dedham, where they had been singing at an anti-slavery meeting.
Abby Hutchinson was then a pretty brunette of
thirteen, an innocent child and quite picturesque in her bodice of scarlet velVet. The brothers were genial young farmers, all alike pledged to help along social reform.
The perfect unison attained by the four rich, mellow voices constituted the peculiar charm of their singing. They made such good impression, notwithstanding the unmusical character of the selections, that we could only wonder that they did not seek to
do their powers justice by attempting a better class of music. However, they touched the hearts of the masses and inspired moral enthusiasm in the cause
of reform, while they allayed the bitterness and rage of the pro-slavery adherents. Who shall say this was of less importance than classical music!
It was easy to discriminate between members of the association--boarders, half-boarders, and pupils --by the air of business or leisure observable in each. Mr. Charles N., for instance, whose room adjoined mine at the Eyrie, was a full boarder. I was
sure of this from his habit of reading Greek aloud long after the working members of the household had retired, and not infrequently breaking out solemnly with the church litany in the middle of the night. The falls of the rooms were not so thick but his invocations were audible through them. He was a young man with large, devout eyes, which had an
absorbed expression. There was a want of firmness in his gait, and his long black curls deserved more care than he bestowed on them. Mr. N. was highly esteemed by Emerson because of his rare intuitiveness and his love of nature. He stayed at the community to escape the distractions and formalities of society. He had a genius for penetrating to the
very core of a subject, so that a few words from him often impressed his hearers more than an hour's talk with one more healthily balanced. In every way he was eccentric.
His high, small room, with its French window, which had a view across the meadows to the edge of the woods, was generally adorned with nature's
trophies--stately bulrushes, weird-looking, moss-covered
branches, ferns, and brakes. As he was inclined, from some temporary sentiment, to enjoy
certain Catholic emblems, he kept an unpainted wooden cross on his table, at the foot of which generally lay a few violets or other wild flowers. On the walls were engravings of Jesus, Ignatius Loyola, and Xavier, framed with wreaths of the creeping pine.
All this was most unique and romantic in my eyes.
At the time I am thinking of Fanny Ellsler appeared in Boston. I longed to see her myself, and one day as I was placing clean towels on the rack in Charles N's room, I asked him if he had ever seen her dance.
" Georgie," he replied, with a reproachful look in
his deep eyes, " how can you, how dare you venture
to put such a question to me? You shock me
extremely. Don't you know that she is--a vile creature?"
I felt humiliated, cast down. What girl does not shrink from having her delicacy impugned? I was glad that the next day took the recluse to Boston, whence he did not return for a week. But when I again had occasion to enter his room I was both
amazed and amused to find a lithograph of the celebrated danseuse pinned up between Jesus and Loyola, and carefully framed like them.
"Then you saw her after all! Do tell me how she appeared," said I.
"Yes, Georgie; and she's divine," he returned, momentarily raising his eyes from the Greek play he was reading. I thank God for such an illustration, or, I should say, embodiment of universal grace and spirituality. You should see her, by all means."