Home Life of the Brook Farm Association
WITH all our pleasant social intercourse, our industrial powers were not idle, and if in any way one could add a little to the treasury it was cheerfully contributed. All who had skill in any kind of fancy work made it useful, and every effort was used to enable us to continue our life at Brook Farm; and we murmured at no retrenchment that was thought necessary. Baked pork and beans were to us a Sunday luxury, and to hard workers they were not injurious; but an English baronet, not young, and more daintily nurtured, once dined with us on a Sunday, and the consequences were sad to him, for he died of apoplexy that same night. He had placed a man with us in whom he was interested, I do not know from what cause. Perhaps he had been his servant, but a nearer connection was whispered among us; at any rate he was better educated than most of his class at that time in England, and was a close observer and not an unwise thinker. His quaint remarks were very amusing, and there was no peculiarity of person or mind that escaped his observation. One lady, who was tall and very thin and remarkably erect, he always addressed as “your perpendicular majesty,” and she good-naturedly answered to the title. He amused us much by his shrewd sayings, which often contained more wisdom than words of more pretension. He was a favorite with all, and particularly with the children on the place, for he had always a kind and merry word for them.
One evening, when we were still in the dining-room, after our tea, I was startled by the appearance at the door of what, for a moment, I really thought must be a ghost, so unearthly seemed the vision ; and with dilated eyes and blanched cheeks I turned to Mr. R——, wondering if it were visible to him. His amused smile reassured me, and he whispered, “ It is Horace Greeley.’ ’ My mind was very much relieved, and I became able to study the singular apparition before me. His hair was so light that it was almost white; he wore a white hat; his face was entirely colorless, even the eyes not adding much to save it from its ghostly hue. His coat was a very light drab, almost white, and his nether garments the same. I so long protested that his shoes matched the rest of his dress that I cannot now clearly remember whether they were really black or not. It is impossible for me to describe the effect he produced upon me, and it was not until I became acquainted with his gentle and pleasing manner that I could entirely overcome this first impression. I remember his reading to us, when we were all assembled in the parlor at the Aerie, some paper upon which he was desirous of receiving the criticism of our literary world. I am sorry to say the remembrance of its subject has passed from me, but I have an indistinct idea that it was something in reference to our own enterprise. The modesty of his bearing, the deference with which he listened to the remarks made, impressed me strongly. He was not then a politician, but earnest in his ideas of progress; perhaps not always as practical as common-sense persons would advise, but true and unselfish.
We had many other pleasant visitors whose agreeable conversation amused us for the few hours they stayed, but who left no mark on our minds, and we could think of them only as society callers, for whom we would get up a card receiver if it were not certain they would always find somebody at home. This summer an amusing though rather annoying incident happened. The house I lived in, the Cottage, had been built without a cellar, and it was thought it would be more healthy and less damp if one could be dug under it; so one of our members undertook to have it done. The necessary workmen were procured, and when I remember the result of their work I feel happy to say they were not residents of the place. We have been often laughed at for our unpractical efforts, for our strange vagaries, and for the want of average common-sense actions, but these outsiders entirely outdid us and overcame us on our own ground. The mover of this enterprise was called away, but supposed he had left his instructions plain enough to be understood by those whom he left to do the work. The work went on with apparent smoothness, and we had no doubt as to its being rightly done, until one day, sitting in the parlor, I heard a strange noise, and looking up was horrified to see a yawning chasm where there ought to be and had been a fire-place. My room, which was over the parlor, was half filled with bricks. The chimney on the other side of the house shared the same fate, but fortunately for the lady who occupied the room she was not present, for her parlor fared worse than mine, the whole chimney having apparently taken possession of it. The workmen did not understand that chimneys without any foundation to support them could not stand, and by digging underneath them and leaving them hanging in the air they prepared the way for their inevitable fall, fortunately in this instance with no more consequence than a little disturbance to the nerves of a few of us. We amused ourselves on the return of the professor in congratulating him on the success of his experiment.
I have spoken of music as being one of our evening recreations at the Aerie. We had some pleasant voices amongst us, whose singing we enjoyed. The piano was also well played by one of our members, although not in the most popular style, and we listened to it with much pleasure. Happily for us, Brook Farm proved very attractive to a lady whose cultivated and sweet voice added much to the enjoyment of our lives. She visited us often, and at last became almost a permanent resident among us; although she was never a member of the association, we loved to think of her as belonging to us. I cannot speak of all the friends who came to us during this summer, but among them Mr. R. W. Emerson must not be forgotten. His mere presence bore a charm with it which all must feel who have the privilege of associating with him, and I think he did us much good by his visits; the sweetness of his nature reached our hearts. He had always something interesting of his own to read to us, and there was a general feeling of delight when one of his visits was announced.
Although dancing was a very popular amusement, we varied it by others in which the intellect was more called into play. Tableaux were favorites with us, and during this time we had several exhibitions of them, some ludicrous, but oftener pictures in which beauty was aimed at, and sometimes produced in them. Much ingenuity was exerted in manufacturing our costumes and in arranging the groups. As we had no pictures for studies, the composition was entirely our own, and many of them did us credit. History was studied for our subjects, and one can easily imagine that Scott’s novels supplied us with many for our most pretentious exhibitions. Charades and proverbs were also frequently acted, and our wits were called into requisition by our impromptu dialogues. These last were entirely unstudied, often our words not having been selected until the moment of performance, and only a rough idea given the actors of the manner in which the meaning should be conveyed to the spectators. There were often brilliant conversations which made one forget they were only for dramatic effect. To those who were entirely unacquainted with any of us it would be impossible to convey an idea of the brilliancy inclosed within this little circle. To be sure, it was a circle within a circle, and was destined hereafter to mar the entire unanimity which now existed among us.
One day two or three gentlemen came out to visit a member of the association, and as in showing the attractions of the place to strangers the pine woods were almost always visited on such occasions, they were escorted thither. One or two of our gentlemen accompanied the party, and one of them, attracted by something on the other side of a fence, without much thought jumped over it, and to his great surprise sunk in a quagmire to the waist. He struggled to release himself, but ineffectually, for some time. Another of the party, oblivious to the reality and dreaming only of beauty, with his mind filled with musical or poetic visions alone, called to him, “What is it, a flower? " Our poor friend in the mean time was anything but a flower himself, when the more practical members of the party succeeded in assisting him from his very disagreeable situation to firmer ground.
I like to dwell upon this summer, for it was one of the pleasantest in my life. The members of this nucleus are now widely scattered, and, what is still more sad, not more completely separated by length of space than by the total dissimilarity of feeling and opinion which now divides those once so closely bound together. The present generation, to whom Brook Farm is entirely unknown, can never realize the excitement it once produced in its effort for social reform. Human nature must be remodeled before its bright visions can be realized. If social reformers would begin by elevating the moral natures of their followers, instead of exciting their passions, we might feel that in the course of ages Utopia could be a reality on earth; but I fear human nature, as it is, has much to overcome before such results can be obtained. What I have now said docs not in the least apply to Brook Farm, for its one idea was to elevate and cultivate all that was good in every one, and a noble ambition that should govern men’s moral and intellectual life and lead them to perfection. The so-called social reforms of to-day have a much more worldly object in view, and a spiritual life is very secondary to a material one.
As autumn approached, and a long winter was before us, much anxiety was felt by our leaders as to what the result might be before the spring opened upon us, and whether it might not end in the dissolution of our little community. The immediate benefits from our industrial pursuits did not meet their hopes; unused to commercial pursuits, the slow process so often needed to establish and successfully prosecute a business was to them a mystery; and I really believe that some of us thought that to place men in a workshop was sufficient to make our fortune. We were children in the ways of the world, financially speaking, and we could not compete with the sharper, trained heads of lifelong workers. I think also that most of our mechanics were those who had not had much success in the world, and the same reason which probably prevented their being able to overcome the difficulties of a struggle which needed more energy than nature had given them was also the cause of their failure with us. I wish to throw no reflection on them, for no one can judge what they had to overcome but those who have been similarly placed. I can only say they did not succeed with us as we had anticipated, and the prospect before us was anything but cheerful. I must here remark that we had several skilled in their own line who under different circumstances would have been of material assistance to us, as has been proved by their after success when again thrown into the world to work their own way in it. It is pleasant to think that whilst with us they may have felt some influence which acted on their after lives. At any rate, success has attended them, and they are now valuable members of society. If at this time of our great need we could have had a good practical, experienced head, with full power to direct the industries of the place, who understood thoroughly the details necessary to insure success, he might have placed us in a situation to overcome the difficulties which beset us. As it was, we still worked on, and did not dare to whisper to each other what we dreaded to hear confirmed.
Our amusements went on as usual, and as the long evenings advanced we added Shakespeare readings to our other recreations. We had several very fine readers; and these were evenings which we elder persons particularly enjoyed. I can recall many amusing incidents connected with them, such as very bad reading from Romeo, by one who was fully capable of rendering the part to the satisfaction of all, because the Juliet was excessively distasteful to him. For the credit of the place I will say that Juliet did not belong to us, but was an occasional resident. Coasting, during the winter, became a favorite amusement with our young people, and even the older ones joined in it. The hills around us afforded every facility for the exercise, and the moonlight evenings were pleasantly employed in this merry recreation. One evening I remember as being a particularly jovial one, as the boys had collected tar barrels and other materials for bonfires, and all “ went merry as a marriage bell ” until the runners of an old sleigh were introduced, with seats affixed to them, and three of our ladies were induced to place themselves on this rather risky conveyance; the remainder of the improvised sled was covered with boys hanging on wherever they could get a hold, and in this way was begun the descent of a steep hill. There were no means of guiding the vehicle, and it can easily be seen how dangerous was its progress. It was started all right for its destination, but unfortunately it swerved a little in its descent, and a cry burst forth, “ They will go on to the rock! ” The boys who were clinging to the mammoth sled threw themselves off, but the three ladies could not extricate themselves; one was thrown immediately on the rock, which was very large, almost making a small hill; another fell beside it, and the third, without knowing how she came there, was picked up on the other side of the rocky elevation. She must have been thrown over it, as she was on the opposite side from where the sled struck; she was totally unhurt. The only sufferer was the poor girl who was dashed on the rock; she was taken up senseless. She was soon carried home, but did not fully recover her consciousness until towards morning. Wonderful to say, her injuries were very trifling and she was only stunned for the time, and was able to pursue her avocations, or at least a part of them, on the following day. This accident of course broke up the coasting for that evening, and we were rather a doleful returning party. The danger was soon forgotten, and coasting was as much in favor as ever, though sleighs were not again substituted for sleds.
I am writing entirely from memory, with no notes to guide me, for I kept no journal of those days, so I will not be positive that I may not commit some inaccuracies in the placing of incidents. All the facts I state I can vouch for, and the matter-of-fact way in which I have related them will absolve me from any accusation of having drawn on my imagination. I have tried to give some idea of what Brook Farm really was, and to show how quietly our lives passed there. I have said but little of our farming, for its details were unknown to me. Whether our cows were even commonly good I do not know, but I am sure they were not Alderneys. Our head farmer was indeed the only person on the place who really understood what farming should be, and I know that he did all that was in his power to make it profitable for the association. He was one of the most straightforward, upright, honest, and, let me add, industrious persons I ever met with; a man of few words, but what he said was to the purpose, and you knew they might be depended on. Gentle in his manner, I never heard of a rough word escaping him; there was no servility of manner; his nature was mild but with no lack of manliness; and when I met him lately at a social gathering of the remnant of Brook Farmers, I looked upon him as one who had been a guiding star among us. If he had had some half dozen men equal to himself to assist him in his labors, Brook Farm might have been a success; but to depend on men for digging, hoeing, mowing, etc., whose only implement of labor heretofore had been a pen, one could easily see would result in failure. As I look back it does not seem to me difficult to see why we did not succeed; but at the time our enthusiasm made the most of us believe that failure was impossible, and that in some way, very indistinctly seen, our endeavors would end prosperously. I do not speak of those who held the reins of government, for they knew better, and whilst we romanced and idealized they were anxiously and almost hopelessly endeavoring to avert a catastrophe. I think the idea of only following one’s impulses must by this time have received a check in their minds, if it had ever existed there, which I very much doubt, for however visionary they may appear, they must have known that a higher motive than mere self-gratification was necessary to overcome the distaste in many minds for active occupation. Among our more recent inmates, I fear there were many who held this idea, and consequently they were not as useful as had been hoped for. In vain a remedy was sought after. True, they might have been voted out of the association, but who would fill their places? — and labor was absolutely needed in every department, except in that of teaching. No wonder these were dark days for us.
Among the new-comers there had been admitted a man strongly imbued with Fourieristic ideas. He endeavored to inculcate the doctrine, but at first little heed was paid to him. Fourier’s works had never reached us, and very vague notions of their contents dwelt in the minds of the most of us. But this ignorance was not to last; sufficient reached the ears of our chiefs to stimulate their curiosity and make them wish to look farther into this philosophy of the French social reformer. His works were procured and an earnest study of them commenced. The regular routine inculcated— continual labor, varied in its character, which would act as a recreation on the laborer—seemed a revelation to those who longed to bring order out of the existing desultory method of conducting our industries. For once New York had taken precedence of Boston in an “ ism,” and in a small clique of that city Fourier’s writings had been much studied. Intercourse was opened with the leader of this clique, and much information obtained from him as to the working of the system. As he had never practically tried it himself, his knowledge must have been based only on the ideal visions of the author. I believe he was sincere in his own convictions of the good which might result from this mode of life according to his own ideas of what life should be, and his subtle reasonings, if they did not entirely convince, had at least the power to overcome any reluctance to change the entire organization of our association. The determination to do so was no doubt influenced in a great degree by the absolute necessity there was of some bold effort to enable us to exist, and there seemed no other alternative than either to adopt this course or to dissolve the association. To many of us this would have been as a dissolution of family ties, for although much had crept in during the last six or eight months which was distasteful to the æsthetic natures of many of the associates, yet the remembrance of what had been clung closely around them and bound them firmly together. These were weary times; a great change was before us. For myself, personally, I did not at all enter into the Fourieristic movement. Visionary as our past life may have seemed to many, it was really reasonable compared to the one before us. The small details of the Fourier system were, to be sure, extremely dry and unpoetical, but the higher flights to which it pointed soared far beyond reasonable belief or scientific knowledge of the solar system.
I have before said that when I first entered the association it was not from any sympathy with the peculiar views of its members, but because I became so attached to them personally that imperceptibly I dwelt more on the real beauty of their lives than on what had appeared to me fantastic. At first a strong sense of the ludicrousness of my position had been the dominant feeling, and even now I think it wonderful how soon this feeling melted away. At this time I thought much of this change which had taken place in me, and it influenced me in my resolve not to leave the place, as I at one time had serious thoughts of doing. Perhaps curiosity had also some influence in my remaining. As spring approached, a movement was made towards commencing our new organization. I was notified that my quarters were to be moved to the building known as the Pilgrim House. The reason of its being so named was that it was built by two brothers from Plymouth, who were interested in the first association formed, and who at one time intended occupying it themselves with their families. I do not know why this project was abandoned, or on what terms the house was ceded to the association. Neither externally nor interiorly did it possess much attraction.
Having originally been intended for two families, it had none of the quaint appearance of even a common country house. It was very much like two houses placed dos à dos instead of side by side, and was a very uncouth building, with many rooms in it which were useful for our increased numbers, but did not satisfy an eye for symmetrical proportions. Among them were two large parlors, joined by folding doors, which became our ball room whenever we were inclined for a dance, and were occupied on all convivial occasions. As very little furniture was needed at such times, chairs were the only decoration of the rooms, and their every-day appearance was desolate enough, very different from the cheerful parlor of the Aerie.
In speaking of the buildings I would mention one which, although not belonging to us, yet entered into our history, being, excepting for a very short interval, occupied by some of our community. It was directly opposite our entrance and was called the Nest; why so named I do not know, except that among its first occupants was a family with small children. It was a pleasant little place, but somehow those who lived there seemed in a degree separated from us, living more entirely by themselves, more like a separate family who visited us as neighbors, and even in that way seldom joining us in our social meetings. It was as if the atmosphere which encircled us did not reach beyond our gates,
and the moment that we crossed the road we had left Brook Farm far in the distance. I cannot invest with poetry our domestic life, which was, of course, monotonous, for we could not carve out any very original way of making beds, cooking, and washing dishes, all of which fell to our lot, unæsthetic as it may sound. Excepting the cooking, all the domestic duties were generally performed by the younger females on the place, and a more willing set of workers could hardly be found. Among them was one of whom I wish to say a few words. She was uncommonly pretty and had already gained the love of one of the foreign pupils. She was devoted to the ideas which first brought the associates together, but felt no sympathy with the new ideas which afterwards became the governing principle, and left us when the whole nature of the place was changed. She has since become known by her charming stories, which illustrate many of the truths deep-seated in her mind. I remember her as one of the most active in our lighter domestic work, and with five or six of her own age she gave grace and brightness to our life. I cannot call them a merry set, for their lives were deeply impressed with a thoughtfulness beyond their years; yet youth, with the usual happiness attending it, must always give a brighter color to its surroundings than falls to the lot of maturer years. I think there is not one of them now alive who would not say that was one of the happiest periods of her life. Some of them, I have heard, have had greater trials than often occur to us dwellers on earth, but they have nobly borne them and lived them down. There were no feeble spirits among these first members of Brook Farm. Their lives were earnest and their aims noble, and if they did not attain the life they hoped for, their natures enabled them to bear the hardships of life with fortitude. I would once more speak of these young girls and their work. They felt it no grievance to toil for the general good, and their neatness and activity were pleasant to see. To be sure, our rooms did not contain the elaborate adornments of a fashionable lady’s toilet, and their simplicity made the task much easier. There were no carpets excepting on one or two of the parlors, therefore sweeping was easy, and curtains we had none. I am almost ashamed to own that a hired cook ruled in the kitchen when I first became a resident of Brook Farm, and she continued there for five or six months afterwards. Whether the task was considered too arduous, or none felt themselves sufficiently competent to undertake it, I do not know, but think it must have been the latter feeling, for I never knew any one shrink there from work that must be done, if she or he were able to do it. When reduced expenditure became more apparently necessary, a noble woman came forward and offered to undertake the duty. She had had but slight experience and must have felt many disheartening doubts of her capacity, but, with a will to succeed, what cannot be achieved ? She conquered all obstacles, and kept her post until our final dissolution. Wages were saved, but her strict economy sometimes caused a small rebellion; still she continued unwaveringly on her course, and if we missed some few delicacies our food was always ample, and we had no right to complain. The laundresses were always of the residents, and Mrs. R——, as I have already said, was among the most efficient. The ironing room was moved to the Pilgrim House as soon as it was finished, and occupied the two kitchens, which were thrown into one. This was a very pleasant, cheerful place, at least inside, and we forgot its lonely exterior in the merriment with which we filled it. I would like to say a few words on one phase of our life which may be interesting to some. I have spoken of our amusements. This was not all our life. We all felt incited to study by the learning which surrounded us, and formed ourselves into different classes, some taking up one study and some another. Botany was a favorite among us, and we had able teachers, who, if they would sometimes pull my well-arranged bouquets to pieces, were nevertheless fully able to repay the desecration by the pleasant knowledge they imparted. German was a favorite study, and Greek and Saxon were not neglected. Pleasant readings, with annotations, especially of classical authors, were very frequent, and Brook Farm, if it answered no other purpose, was a school for all who entered it.
The Pilgrim House was placed in a very barren spot, with no trees near it, and altogether the change was not pleasant to me. I had always lived at the Cottage, which was in itself a beautiful little home, and I had become attached to it. Of course I must yield my own personal comfort for what was thought to be advantageous for the good of the whole. The educational plan was to be remodeled, at least so far as concerned the smaller pupils on the place, who before had never been strictly confined to hours and rules. This was evidently a very good move, as it had always appeared wonderful to me how they had ever gained any book knowledge at all, and a more systematic course would certainly be an advantage to them, if it were only for the sake of acquiring orderly habits, which are a great help in the routine of common life. The Cottage was looked upon as the proper building to be appropriated to educational purposes. As it was decidedly the prettiest house on the place, it was thought the youthful mind would be impressed by it and lessons become easier; and it was held that every means should be employed to make the hours of school discipline pleasant, so that the pupils should forget it was not an agreeable recreation. This view is delightful in theory, but in my compulsory move I could not help remembering the state of the desks in a school-room, as well as the more immovable parts of the apartment, such as I had seen in my youth when attending an academy for both sexes. However, go I must, and I was soon domiciled in my new apartment. The new Fourierite system began to be organized, and the poetry of our lives vanished in what we hoped would prove more substantially advantageous.
Of the Cottage and its inmates I must add a few words. It was the next building erected after the Aerie, and was altogether the best finished house on the place. The form was something like a Maltese cross, the centre being devoted to the staircase and each of the four points containing a room. It was very pretty to look at on the outside, but as three sides of each room were necessarily exposed to the weather, the Cottage was warm in summer and cold in winter, picturesqueness having been more studied than commonplace comfort. Still it was a very pleasant place to live in, bright and cheerful, and I was very loath to leave it when the necessities of the association destined it for other purposes.
The two most prominent occupants of this house were so very different in their natures that the wonder is they could have belonged to the same species. Mr. ——, the elder of the two, was of a most delicately sensitive organization, and discords of every kind were as antagonistic to him as were false chords in music. His whole life seemed one dream of music, and I do not think he was ever fully awake to all the harsh gratings of this outer world. We were indebted to him for much of the pleasure of our evening social life. He was too really musical to endure the weariness of teaching beginners the first rudiments of his own art, although for some time he was our only teacher. I must say he was wonderfully patient, considering his temperament, in the task he had assumed, for his nerves must have been most fearfully taxed in some of his labors; but his outward demeanor did not bear testimony to what must often have been his earnest desire to tear his hair out by the roots. Mr. ——, the younger, was so entirely different in his physical construction that even his tread told you that his nerves as well as his muscles were of iron. Both these gentlemen were fine classical as well as German scholars, but the latter had more power in imparting his knowledge and was one of the finest teachers at Brook Farm. The pupils dreaded coming with an imperfect lesson to him, for although not harsh in his manner towards them, they respected his power and did not like to come under his censure. He was exceedingly pleasant in his social intercourse with us, but entered less into it than the others; yet when he could be induced to join in any amusement, no one added more to the enjoyment of the evening than himself, and it was a real pleasure to engage him in a charade.
In closing my description of this first period of Brook Farm I wish to mention the very pleasant reunion which took place since I first commenced writing my reminiscences of this exceptional part of my life. To me it was a great pleasure to meet even a small gathering of my former associates, and the mutual wonder expressed on the faces as we were made known to each other was very amusing. Many of us had not met for at least thirty years, and in that time wonderful changes had taken place. Young girls who were then in their teens were now grandmothers, and middle-aged persons were white with age. But we were none of us too old for our eyes not to brighten as we warmly shook hands and uttered our greetings. It was a good thought of those who originated this festival, and from my heart I thank them. Pleasant letters were read from many of those who from various causes could not be present, and for a time space was obliterated and we again felt ourselves Brook Farmers.