Sunday, November 7, 2010

Richard Francis' "Fruitlands: The Alcott Family and Their Search for Utopia"

Richard Francis has taught at universities on both sides of the Atlantic and has written on Ann Lee, founder of the Shakers, and on the Salem witch trials. He is also a novelist.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Fruitlands: The Alcott Family and Their Search for Utopia, and reported the following:
Page 99 finds the Alcott family living in their house, Concordia Cottage, in Concord, along with two supporters who have joined them from England, Charles Lane and Henry Gardiner Wright. It mostly consists of the reaction of Ralph Waldo Emerson, neighbour and sponsor of Bronson Alcott, to this ménage.
Enjoying the quiet of his own study as he did, Emerson was appalled at the thought of [their] endless gabble. “All day, all night, they hold perpetual parliament.”
This immediately foregrounds two important issues in the book. The first is that these utopians were addicted to theorizing at the expense of being practical, and the second is that Emerson was alert to their limitations.

As a result he offers Lane the chance to move out and live with him and his family. His motive is described as follows:
He was hoping to disrupt the utopia at the very moment of its inception. The real point was to thwart Lane’s desire to re-establish the Garden of Eden by re-enacting, on a limited scale, humankind’s subsequent expulsion from it. The idea was to use his house as “a sort of cooling furnace, or a place where he might be partially corrupted & fitted for the grossest realities of the Yankee land.” The grossest realities would of course include square meals, apples from the forbidden tree.
This passage takes us to the central issue of the book, which was the attempt to achieve reform of the world through correct diet, consisting of an extreme vegan regime. Emerson’s imagery picks up one aspect of this project, its revisiting of the story of the Garden of Eden. The Fruitlanders believed that the Fall of humankind was triggered by eating the wrong food – the fruit of the tree of knowledge rather than of the tree of life. Therefore, if we correct our diet we can re-enter the Garden. Emerson wanted to sabotage that plan by feeding Lane with forbidden fruit. (The other aspect of their thought is not mentioned here. The Fruitlanders were very concerned about environmental degradation and believed that correct methods of husbandry and proper nutrition would ensure that the earth remained unpolluted and that human beings would enjoy spiritual and physical health. In this respect their ideas are relevant now.)

Lane refused Emerson’s blandishments, however. The rest of the page is devoted to Emerson’s grave doubts about the viability of the proposed utopian community – scepticism which is utterly vindicated by the book as a whole - and by his slightly comic, slightly paranoid, sense of the threat they posed and of his need to be rid of the reformers.

On the whole, I believe that Fruitlands passes the Page 99 Test.
Learn more about Fruitlands at theYale Univrsity Press website and Richard Francis' website.

--Marshal Zeringue