Copyright Kim Wells, 1998


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"Somebody once described Fruitlands as a place where Mr. Alcott looked benign and talked philosophy while Mrs. Alcott and the children did the work" -- Isaac Hecker, Fruitlands participant, qtd. in Becker 59.

      "Transcendental Wild Oats" (1873) is Alcott at her finest-- it is funny, insightful, entertaining, and partially autobiographical. It is best known in scholarly circles as one depiction of the Transcendentalists' experiments with their sometimes radical philosophies, but it can also be seen as a feminist statement on the differences between what is deemed necessary labor for men and for women. It can be argued that through this roman à clef, Alcott illustrates that the esotericism of male philosophy is at least partially responsible for adding burdens to women's lives. While men can seek freedom to intellectualize, women are forced to bear each new whim patiently, and yet they must be relied upon to come to the family's rescue when these whims fail. Men can afford to travel, lecture, and write about scarcely thought-out romantic ideals, and they may neglect all in their quests for the Oversoul, but women must teach the children, cook meals, keep the dinnerware white, and get the overlooked crop of haphazardly sown oats under cover before a storm can destroy it and hasten starvation. In short, women must be responsible for the well-being of society, represented by their families, and must not fail, while men can propose radically idealistic changes to that society, which may work or not without harming anyone.
      "Transcendental Wild Oats" is a record written by an older and wiser woman about a time when she was not completely aware of the struggles between her father's philosophy and her mother's practical nature, a stubborn and sometimes frustrated nature that is partly revealed in this excerpt from Abba's diaries:

They all seem most stupidly obtuse on the cause of this occasional prostration of my judgement and faculties [her anger and fear that the experiment would drive her, literally, crazy]. I hope the solution . . . will not be revealed to them too late for my recovery or their atonement of this invasion of my rights as a woman and mother. Give me one day of practical philosophy. It is worth a century of speculation and discussion. (Qtd. in Saxton 137)

Louisa's satirical discussion of this episode in her family's life reflects the judgment of years of reflection, and it reveals how Abba's experiences are pivotal in the formation of Louisa's philosophies.
      If we look at excerpts from the "Fruitlands Diaries" that the young Louisa wrote while the experiment in communal living was actually taking place, we see few indications of the struggle between philosophy and practicality that inhabits the pages of "Transcendental Wild Oats." It is clear that young Louisa is most concerned with her own daily playtime activities. She describes "playing horse" and "fairy," "going berrying" and having many "pleasant days" ("Fruitlands Diaries" 65-70). She notices what the adults are doing, but usually her discussions of them are limited to a child's perspective, focusing primarily on the ways that the adults change her activities. She also notes her Bronson-driven struggles with her emotions-- for instance, "Father asked us in the eve what fault troubled us most. I said my bad temper" (75). Aside from those observations, when Abba or her father are gone for a while, she either misses them or is glad of their absence (Saxton 138), and she often describes and dislikes her studies ("Fruitlands Diaries" 75). She is not too concerned with the practical nature of daily living, and exclaims once that she "loves cold water!" (69) with the enthusiasm that only a child can muster. Young Louisa's main concerns as reflected in these journals are naturally with herself. The Fruitlands diaries, thus, are a child's view of the world, but "Transcendental Wild Oats" is that child's grown-up judgment about that world. Louisa examines her mother's experiences with the hindsight of twenty years as a woman herself. Clearly, the story is meant as a mixture of satire and explanation, for despite the humor present in every incident, there is considerable resentment lurking just under the surface.
      Louisa was about six years old when Bronson and Charles Lane decided to try living on a communal farm which, they believed, would be full of happy people contemplating life's higher goals while they brought forth fruit and vegetables in abundance from the naturally and simply cultivated land. It was an experiment in "primal living" that had obviously been designed by men who had no idea of the work that experiment would entail. Bronson may have been a farmer's son, but he would prove incapable of dealing with the daily responsibilities and chores that farm living required. In fact, the title of Louisa's work suggests an example of the farmers' impracticality. The men, as they are preparing the fields, discover that they have each been sowing a different grain, but it is too late to change anything. They are not even organized enough to discuss their plans for planting the field, let alone the cultivation of the products of their inefficient labor. So the title implies an ironic dig at this incident. Just as the philosophers' impracticality is shown in their actual farming procedures, we know that ultimately the men are not even practical enough to reap the "wild" oats that Transcendentalism was capable of inspiring. Variable and unstable young men "sowing wild oats" could be another implication. This variability can be seen when both Bronson and Lane redefine their wavering beliefs so often that many people who admired their ideals still could not pin them down enough to put them into the recommended daily practice. Either way, their harvest of oats is very limited, and even their fellow Transcendentalists see them as impractical and somewhat extreme.(3)
      The experiment was first described in a letter that Bronson Alcott wrote to the noted Transcendentalist magazine The Dial in 1843, wherein he discusses the land upon which their "effort to initiate a family in harmony with the primitive instincts in man" took place, describing it as "picturesque" and beautiful, as it probably was ("Fruitlands Diaries" 83). The land was approximately three miles from the village of Harvard, and it contained a small tributary of the Nashua river. Bronson touts its "fertility and ease of cultivation" and brags that the land is easily "capable of spade culture"(83), which, he believes, will make their plans to avoid using fertilizer work without much difficulty. The experimenters' intent is to "adorn the pastures with orchards, and to supersede ultimately the labor of the plough and cattle, by the spade and the pruning knife" (84). They have chosen the name Fruitlands in anticipation of the mixture of literal fruit from these fledgling orchards and the spiritual fruit that they also hope to harvest in the future. Bronson is firm in his conviction that hard work will be good for the minds of those who wish to contemplate "the living spirit within the soul," and he asserts decisively that "the land awaits the sober culture of devout men" (84). Louisa describes the efforts at farming that the community makes with a wry humor, and it is evident that the farmers, despite their enthusiasm, have very little knowledge of real farming practices. In mid-June (hardly the best season to begin a garden in the temperate zone of Massachusetts),

the garden was planted with a generous supply of useful roots and herbs; but, as manure was not allowed to profane the virgin soil, few of these vegetable treasures ever came up. Purslane [a trailing weed that is sometimes cooked as a vegetable or used in salads] reigned supreme . . . the orchard was laid out, a little grafting done, new trees and vines set, regardless of the unfit season and entire ignorance of the husbandmen, who honestly believed that in the autumn they would reap a bounteous harvest. ("Oats" 41)

Bronson hopes that the experiment will provide much-needed security for his family in addition to creating a utopia and inspiring its subsequent recreation by others.
Similarly, Charles Lane describes the idealistic intent of the experimenters in a letter to the Herald of Freedom, spending most of his space discussing the evils of cattle and swine cultivation, along with his contention that no animal food must be consumed if man is ever to escape the brutal slavery of the flesh. Lane believes that the community will grow and that he and Bronson will be the forefathers of a benign new lifestyle of freedom and intellectual superiority. One ironic note, in light of the depiction of the experiment drawn by the adult Louisa, can be found in the letter when Lane asserts that "no hope is there for humanity while woman is withdrawn from the tender assiduities which adorn her and her household, to the servitudes of the dairy and the flesh pots" (88). Despite this noble and seemingly feminist argument, the reader need barely skim through the short sketch of the events at Fruitlands to know that the "servitudes" that Abba Alcott had to endure were irrelevant to the men, overshadowed by other, more lofty concerns. The philosophers' main domestic concern is that Abba use no animal products in her daily cooking. Actually, one could argue that for Abba (and consequently, for her counterpart in "Transcendental Wild Oats"), life was made much more difficult by the rejection of these easy-to-procure foodstuffs. That there is very little consideration for Abba's battles, so vital to the colony's success, accounts in part for the resentment that can be found in adult Louisa's satire. As a child, she simply played and enjoyed helping out in the kitchen, but as an adult woman, she realized how difficult the situation was for her mother, and that it was made even more difficult because of Lane's influence over Bronson.
      Despite his assertions on behalf of women in general, Lane could be seen as somewhat antifeminist, believing as he did that women were too distracting to male philosophers; he was certainly anti-Abba. In Abba, Martha Saxton argues, Lane recognized an enemy, since "her fierce mother lion devotion to her cubs betrayed all the deficiencies of mere human love and inhibited the growth of a detached, exalted, and improving sentiment such as the moral regeneration of society demanded" (136). In a less antifeminist but still somewhat self-centered manner, Bronson also imposed restrictions on Abba because of his philosophies. Bronson believed that if external pleasures were given up it would make the sacrificer more pure, and that "outward abstinence is a sign of inward fullness," but Abba was not fond of the rigid diet that Bronson touted: "she found the coarse-bread-and-apple diet inadequate. Her teeth hurt and the apples were sour. . . . cooking apples and bread for two Lanes and six Alcotts made it impossible for her to 'consume that which cost me so much misery to prepare,'" and she often felt physically ill after a day of preparing the "family's" food (Saxton 136).
      In addition to imposing dietary restrictions, Bronson and Lane admired and often visited a Shaker community nearby, hoping to model their own community on the Shakers' lifestyle. Abba reveals a somewhat prophetic feeling about her own workload when she visits the Shakers and speculates about the manner in which the other community remains "neat" and "ordered." She observes that "there is servitude somewhere I have no doubt-- there is a fat sleek comfortable look about the men and among the women there is a stiff awkward reserve that belongs to neither sublime resignation or divine hope-- wherever I turn I see the yoke on woman in some form or other" (qtd. in Saxton 144). This prophecy would be borne out by Abba's own workload at Fruitlands, lightened only slightly by others, but full of "heavy washes, [the] kneading [of] an endless succession of batches of bread . . . [and lessons for] the children" ("Oats" 45). It seemed, ultimately, that Abba was the community's only servant, subject to the daily chores the others could not bother to consider doing; her distrust of the Shakers' ultimate success in practicing what they preached was eventually confirmed as correct.
      Both the men and Abba thought of domestic duties as rightfully belonging to women. Just as the Shakers did, the men saw no hypocrisy in juxtaposing the ideals of a communal family of equals with the unilateral imposition of "celibacy, dietary regulations, household schedules, and a host of other restrictions" and thought that Abba's workload "could be lightened by recruiting more women for domestic chores" (Elbert 61). Unlike the Shakers' community, though, Abba had no other women (beyond Anne Page/Jane Gage) to look to for the support that such a large task required.
      Abba's representative in Louisa's story, Hope Lamb, is first described as "an energetic-looking woman, with a benevolent brow, satirical mouth, and eyes brimful of hope and courage" ("Oats" 25). This description of her never really changes, though her patience is sorely tried. Bronson/Abel is simply described as "a serene man with a serene child upon his knee" being led by a more "sharp-featured man, in a long blue cloak" who "stalks" ahead of the wagon, paying little attention to the young girl "trudg[ing] along beside him through the mud as if she rather enjoyed it" (26). Abel's, as well as Bronson's, serenity will change before the experiment is over; ultimately, both fictional and "real" man will react with the hysteria that is supposed to be a woman's tendency. Still, in this first scene, the men seem manfully prepared to pretend no awareness of any possible discomforts, and indeed, they even seem to take perverse pleasure in them as a fog rises and rain begins to fall. At this occurrence, "the cheery woman tried to cover every one but herself with the big umbrella" and the children take the scene in stride, playing and sleeping.
      It is only Hope who seems somewhat flustered here, and the children fade into the background as the battle between domestic concerns and philosophy rages. One has to look elsewhere to know that the young girl who frolicked "ducklike" (26) next to Lion is meant to represent Anna Alcott-- it is not clear which of the children is supposed to depict which.(4) This is not the case with the adult characters; it is obvious who is who, despite their pseudonyms. In fact, their names reveal Louisa's somewhat Dickensian tendency to use names to describe inner characters. Lane, as a "Lion," leading a serene group of innocent "Lambs," no matter how "Able" or "Hope"-ful, is destined to be tyrannical, and possibly even dangerous. There is also the suggestion of a certain Biblical tragedy in Bronson's pseudonym, for not only does it remind us (ironically) of the homonym "able," it also recalls the first murder victim. The Biblical Abel's murder by a jealous brother anticipates the worst for the brotherly devotion the two men seem to share in this opening scene. Thus, not only are these earliest descriptions of the adults immediately revealing; they also predict future conflicts. The conflicts may not ultimately be as severe as the allusions suggest, but the reader's expectations are piqued nevertheless.
      The narrator describes Lane's purpose to be that of fathering a "colony of Latter-day Saints" (28). He hopes that both the reputation of the colony and the "saints" whose lives will be bettered will glorify his name for years to come. This is an interesting bit of fabrication on Louisa's part. Critics have assumed that she changed Lion/Lane's intent to starting a Mormon enclave in the midst of Protestant country in order to make him seem disreputable and somewhat scandalous, but there is no specific explanation of why she lists his intentions thus (Elbert 65). Perhaps it is only a misunderstanding of Lane's religious beliefs, but it seems that Louisa bore no love for her father's associate. There might not be any intent to depict Lane as a Mormon; the phrase might also be a sarcastic reference to the group's "saintly" attitudes, including their idealism and virtuous intent. Whatever her reason for using this phrase in reference to Lane/Lion, Louisa credits Bronson/Abel only with wanting to "plant a Paradise" (29), and Abba/Hope is here "unconverted but faithful to the end" (29). There is no real implication of Mormonism for these fictional Alcotts, just the impression that Bronson/Abel is an impractical follower and dreamer, "a soul full of the purest aspirations, most unselfish purposes, and desires for a life devoted to God and man, too high and tender to bear the rough usage of this world" ("Oats" 46). Abba/Hope is portrayed as suffering loyally, as a good wife should, and it seems clear that both of them are prepared to sacrifice much to make Abel's castles in the air concrete realities, even to the point of associating with a disreputable religious movement and/or overly ambitious tyrant.
      The first conflict between the unconverted Hope's "practical" nature and the pious self-sacrifice of the men shows up when the she tries to protect "various household goods from going overboard" and observes aloud that the path to the house is not easy going (30). Rather than help her keep her domestic necessities safe, the men either remain oblivious (as is the case with Bronson/Abel) or use the occasion as an opportunity for a high-handed and judgmental lecture. A pattern is set here, as we see the story's main antagonists defined in this, Hope and Lion's earliest confrontation. Lion replies condescendingly that all good things are hard, just before he steps on the pieces of the mirror Hope has accidentally dropped. He seems happy at the destruction of this one "womanly" possession, and says "with a grim smile . . . we want no false reflections here" (30). Given Abba's nature, this statement would have annoyed her greatly-- as she did not consider herself a vain woman and the implication that she was would have been very insulting.
      It is clear that Abba's representative, Hope, must exert a great act of will and determination not to disagree with Lion when, instead of arguing, she looks "wistfully" at the house that is to become her home (looking, presumably, for "real" reflections of some kind). Her quiet assertion that the difficulty of the path must explain why so few ever get there remains unremarked, and she does not press her opinions. This woman is clearly "hoping" for the best rather than dwelling on present discomforts. Louisa describes Hope as a patient, long-suffering wife who holds her peace when she knows it will do no good to argue, and who spends much of her time supporting the group's effort with her labor. This description clearly describes those traits Louisa found most admirable in Abba, who spent years defending Bronson to her family, working as a seamstress, and taking in boarders so that he would not have to do physical labor.
      During the first night at the "consociate family's" new home, the plans for what to wear, what to eat, and what to do are haphazardly sketched out by the group. Louisa's clear remembrance of her own childish reaction to the experiment is apparent in a reference to the children, who "heartily enjoyed this foretaste of what they believed was to be a sort of perpetual picnic" (31). Obviously, the children are unaware of and unworried about any trials that may lie ahead. This is not the case with the adults. Hope's concerns, and any questions she voices, such as her inquiry as to whether "whiting will be allowed in the community" to keep the "graceful cups and vases of Britannia ware" clean, are dismissed "sharply" by Lion as "trivial," even though Abel has declared decidedly that "every meal should be a sacrament, and the vessels used beautiful and symbolical" (32). Abel seems to mean well, but he is completely unaware of the extra work these "sacramental" meals will take. Hope knows, however, that such beauty is bought at a price, and she worries that they are the "hardest things in the world to keep bright" (32). Her sighs are unheard, though, and the reader realizes that this is only one of many descriptions of Hope's giving way to prospects of difficult work, without much protest, in order to make her husband happy. Obviously, the daily running of the kitchen is less important than whether the philosophers can find a way to wear clothing that has not "caused wrong or death to man or beast" (33).
      However, we soon find one place in the discussion where Hope's determination to rebel when necessary becomes clear. She declares that neither she nor her girls will ever go barefoot while a substitute for shoe leather is found. She is willing, it seems, to compromise her own needs, but never those of her children. This is a picture of motherhood that Alcott clearly feels strongly about-- we can see this sort of motherly determination in Marmee's careful guidance of her girls in Little Women as well, and such a firm repetition must represent a truth of Abba's demeanor that Louisa admired.
      The only real consideration the men seem to take for Hope's daily routine is to make sure that she does not do any of the things they have forbidden her to do-- such as milk a cow or use spices. The founders are dead set against depriving the cow of her natural right to her own milk and have forbidden even the presence of a milk cow on the property. When Joseph Palmer/Brother Moses sneaks both an ox and a cow to the property, and then, in a "dark proceeding," sneaks milk in "forbidden draughts in the barn . . . the children regard him as one set apart for destruction" (40). Nevertheless, Abel and Lion do not demand the cattle's removal, and the reason for their lenience in this regard is that, after two days of backbreaking work, their "blistered hands and aching backs suggested the expediency of permitting the use of cattle" ("Oats" 40).
      There is no such concession made to Hope's difficulties, however. Despite extreme restrictions on diet, no suggestions are offered as alternatives to the forbidden daily staples of "milk, butter, cheese, tea or meat. . . . Even salt [is] considered a useless luxury and spice entirely forbidden by these lovers of Spartan simplicity" (37). When frustrated hostesses at the many interested Boston houses that Abel and Lion appear at ask the two preachers of vegetarianism "what they should eat, they got in reply a bill of fare consisting of 'bowls of sunrise for breakfast,' 'solar seeds of the sphere,' 'dishes from Plutarch's chaste table,' and other viands equally hard to find in any modern market" (52). Clearly, these reformers' idealism extends only to what should not be done in the kitchen, and no practical solutions to the problems of feeding a family, or any other "womanly concerns" at hand, are even seriously considered.(5) Abba fought these restrictions in the "real-life" kitchen of Fruitlands; she looked wherever she could for compromise, and succeeded at least in adding "nuts to the house diet" (Saxton 139). The closest indication we see of her frustrations in Louisa's illustration of the experiment is the comment that "any housewife can imagine [her] emotions when she took possession of a large, dilapidated kitchen . . . and the peculiar stores out of which food was to be evolved for her little family of eleven" ("Oats" 37).
      The experimenters' concern for diet can be traced to the reform movements that stressed that food influences the moral character of the consumer, a belief of which Bronson Alcott's brother, William Alcott, was one of the main proponents. Radical philosophies were touted, from Benjamin Rush's recommendations of "a stimulating diet of meat, wine, hot spices, and opium in cases of hypochondria . . . [and] a 'low diet' of vegetables for mania and excessive sexual appetite" (qtd. in Nelson 11) to Sylvester Graham's insistence in the influences of food on the organs (especially the genitals). Graham touted omitting various foods to limit "LASCIVIOUS DAY-DREAMS, and amorous reveries," (qtd in Nelson 12) and subsequently created bland graham crackers in order to stifle the sexual urges of young men. As Claudia Nelson points out in her essay "Care in Feeding: Vegetarianism and Social Reform in Alcott's America," "historians today often dismiss Graham as a crank who . . . sold greater intellects than his own a 'bill of groceries' . . . [but still] the connection between diet and desire that he helped to articulate had widespread influence" (12). While most people today have forgotten the origins of a favorite baby-snack, Graham's impractical and sometimes unusual ideas were similar to those responsible for such long-lasting events as the founding of Oberlin College, of the Seventh Day Adventists, and of the Kellogg corporation in an early "cornflake crusade" (Nelson 12).
      The belief in different foods' ability to influence, for better or worse, the human body's moral state, mingled with the unshakable conviction that women are largely asexual, creates the belief that women, as angels of the kitchen, are responsible for the moral well-being of the entire family (Nelson 13). By cooking foods that are strictly in accordance with natural and moral health for the body, Hope must guard all of her small "family" of eleven from even the slightest thoughts of sin. The restrictions on food consumption were not really about controlling nutrition; in some ways, they were also about controlling sex, and consequently reproduction. Hope's counterpart, Abba, was used to practicing the Grahamite restrictions on sexual activity (and after eight pregnancies and four children may not have been all that upset about the limits on sexuality it preached), but during the period that "Transcendental Wild Oats" portrays, the food restrictions were not Bronson's most extreme deviations from the normalcy. In true reformist spirit, Bronson often ranged between advocating complete celibacy and "abandoning the institution of marriage in favor of free love" (Saxton 149), a domestic inconsistency that Abba and the girls found hard to accept.(6)
      The consequences of a woman's deviating from the dietary plan set down by the founders of Fruitlands are clear in the explanation for the necessary departure of Jane Gage, the only other adult woman present at Fruitlands. While Brother Moses' dietary indiscretions can be carefully ignored because of the labor-saving benefits to the men in having cattle on the property, Jane Gage's "lapse of virtue" when she "partook of fish at a neighbor's table" results in her public reprimand and subsequent "return to a world where fishes' tails were not forbidden fruit" ("Oats" 47-48). As women, Jane and Hope are expected to be moral guides, and Jane's behavior at the colony has gained her some disapproval even before this event. That she could not resist a carnal urge pushes her out of the community.
Whereas Hope responds to the question "Are there any beasts of burden on the place?" with the fitting reply "only one woman" but still works on, Jane takes "no shame on herself, but laughed at the joke and let the stout-hearted sister tug on alone" ("Oats" 47). The narrator describes Jane as "a stout lady of mature years, sensible, amiable, and lazy . . . [who] had vague yearnings and graspings after the unknown . . . [and who is] set to instructing the children in the common branches" ("Oats" 46-47). It is particularly revealing of the double standard of expectations for the community's men and its women that Jane is considered lazy for her shameless desire to concentrate only on "sleep, food, and poetic musings" (47). Jane is condemned for her lack of willingness to help with "the domestic drudgery" ( 47), yet any male resident, "allowed to mount his favorite hobby and ride it to his heart's content" (42), is not reprimanded in the least if he does no work. To be sure, the one male who does help, Forest Absalom, is seen as "an excellent example of brotherly love, justice and fidelity" for his attention to small duties and his "upright life" (45).
      Hope, unlike Abba, does not rebel openly against the dietary restrictions, but there are other incidents wherein the fictional Alcott sets a deliberate tone of passive resistence. Louisa labels an example of Hope's rebellion "mother's lamp" (39). In the nineteenth century, there were very few ways of providing light after the sun went down, and most common options were whale-oil (which the community deemed harmful to the whale's interests) and beeswax (unjustly robbing the bees of the products of their labor). Alcott tells us that "the vexed question of light was settled by [Lion or Abel] buying a quantity of bayberry wax for candles; and on discovering that no one knew how to make them, pine knots were introduced, to be used when absolutely necessary" ("Oats" 39). Thus sleep and quiet contemplation of the darkness are the only recommended nightly activities. Hope, we are told, "rebelled, [since] evening was the only time she had to herself, and while the tired feet rested the skilful [sic] hands mended torn frocks and little stockings, or anxious heart forgot its burden in a book" (39). Hope's rebellion in keeping a forbidden oil lamp for her nighttime efforts is compared unfavorably to the philosophers' ability to respond to "inner light" through conversation and self-introspection. However, it is clear that, after a long day of keeping the house going, Hope must find time to devote to something of her own. It might seem different if she were sitting idly, but she still devotes the time she considers her own to sewing for her children or to reading. She is not cultivating idleness and dwelling in the "devil's workshop," yet there is obviously community disapproval at her insistence in keeping her lamp, evident in the fact that she considers this small act a major rebellion.
      There is no community discussion of the bayberry candles, even though those who purchased the wax knew that they could not make candles; it is probably assumed that Hope can make them. Also, no one decides to improve him or herself by learning this domestic skill for the good of the community, so the wax is a waste of money and time. This sort of impracticality is yet another example of the childish manner in which the important decisions of the community are made. Louisa mentions that most of the community is too tired to stay up late, anyway, but the issue of choice is relevant here. Hope, despite being tired from a day of hard work, chooses to stay up in order to have some time that she can call her own. We also know early in the story that most of the inhabitants of the society choose for themselves how their day is spent; their freedom is in sharp contrast to Hope's servitude, as she can only choose how her night is spent, and must do so in open rebellion. Even the community's patriarchs generally choose inactivity, as most of their time is spent writing in journals (Saxton 142). In response to a query by Hope, Lion replies, "I shall wait till it [the sort of work he will do] is made clear to me"("Oats" 35). Mrs. Lamb's sigh at this reply is "audible," as she has spent a year with Lion already, and has found his practice of "being, not doing . . . both an expensive and unsatisfactory process" (35). The others of the community are so busy cultivating "queer" habits, such as eating only uncooked vegetables, running around naked, cursing by way of greeting, engaging in fits of happiness and despondency (a behavior that modern readers might see as indicating a need for psychotherapy), and "discussing and defining [such] great duties that they forgot to perform the small ones" (45, italics mine).
      Nowhere is this lack of purpose and neglect of the important details more evident than when it is completely up to Hope and the children to save the crop of grain or suffer its loss. The narrator tells us that "about the time the grain was ready to house, some call of the Oversoul wafted all the men away" ("Oats" 53). Apparently, their responsibilities end as soon as they have sown their grain. As a storm approaches, Hope and all of the children improvise linen sheets and clothes baskets into harnesses; they bring "in the grain and saved food for her young, with the instinct and energy of a mother-bird with a brood of hungry nestlings to feed" (53). It is unclear whether Hope would have been chastened for her failure by the absent men if the crop had been lost, and no mention is made of any grateful apologies on the part of those who were supposed to share in the soil's "sober culture" ("Fruitlands" 88). In the actual Fruitlands experiment, the crop was much smaller than anticipated, and was abandoned, thus making the effort wasted (Saxton 144). As winter appeared, and following this event, the "butterflies" of the community who have "sunned themselves" choose to leave the community. Obviously, it is just too much work to be intellectually stimulated, in addition to suffering the consequences of an idle summer spent only on "being." The few "bees" who are left must take stock of the provisions for winter, which are sadly lacking. This is when the final conflict between Lion and Hope takes place, and when Abel proves to be far less than "able" to cope with disappointment.
      Saxton points out that "as the weather grew colder, chills and sickness plagued the Fruitlanders, who had little insulation, physical or emotional" (148). Alcott describes the "option" left open to those who are left at Fruitlands after Lion, "much disgusted with the failure of the scheme," decides to leave, as "a chance to try holy dying" ("Oats" 54). Abel is pictured as almost childishly petulant and "heartbroken at the bursting of his lovely bubble," and Lion is depicted as a tyrannical landlord who even forbids them the right to cut any more wood or grind any more corn since "all must be sold to pay the debts of the concern" (54). Hope demands of an unhearing and unsympathetic Lion, "Are we to have no return for this, but leave to starve and freeze in an old house, with winter at hand, no money, and hardly a friend left, for this wild scheme has alienated nearly all we had. You talk much about justice. Let us have a little, since there is nothing else left" (54). Lion's reply is "It was an experiment. We all . . . must bear our losses as we can," as he leaves Abel, the girls, and Hope to fend for themselves.
      At this point, the boundary between reality and fiction is blurred and sketchy. The director of the Fruitlands museum, William Harrison, claims that the deathbed scene in which Abel/Bronson rejects everything in depression and disappointment "was probably fabricated for a reading public with an insatiable appetite for the sentimental and melodramatic" and argues that "we find no mention of this incident elsewhere . . . [and that] the conduct described in this story does seem uncharacteristic of the ever-hopeful Alcott" (Harrison, qtd. in Oats 5). Still others, such as Saxton, describe the scene much as Louisa does in the fictionalized account:

When Bronson returned from Boston he fell into an angry depression. He refused to eat and Abba was worried for his recovery. The failure of Fruitlands had overwhelmed him. . . . He blamed his family for inhibiting his ascension and took it out on them by making himself dangerously ill. . . . his demeanor was gloomy and "sepulchral." Abba suggested they take a "little quiet journey in a chaise" . . . but Bronson said no . . . [and] added that he wanted to rest for the present and that when he did journey "it will be a long one-- and alone." (Saxton 151)

Abel returns from his self-imposed "deathbed" inspired by the faithfulness of his wife and children; he willingly takes refuge in his wife's "arm that never failed him," she has "sold all we could spare" and "engaged four rooms at . . . neighbor Lovejoy's" ("Oats" 60). Upon leaving, the disappointed philosopher declares, "Poor Fruitlands! The name was as great a failure as the rest," and his wife is given the last word: "Don't you think Apple Slump would be a better name for it, dear?" (62). This is Louisa's small way of granting ultimate victory to Abba, for, in her satire on the experiment, her mother (who in real life had little control as part of the community) is able to label and define that rigid world during the community's dissolution.
      Abba's experience during the Fruitlands experiment was to have a profound effect on Louisa's philosophy of life. Abba's conflict with her own role as wife to Bronson's inadequate husband gave Louisa more than just fodder for a funny story. That Abba found the "role" of kitchen goddess dissatisfying and difficult was to have an effect on Louisa's perception of women's roles in general. As a result of her observations of the struggles between her practical mother, with whom Louisa shared a strong bond, and her father, who proved to be an inept and somewhat ridiculous figure, Louisa was to become an outspoken proponent of a woman's right to economic freedom. While suffragettes were worrying and marching and holding meetings over the right to vote, and condemning Louisa for not appearing often enough in public support of the cause, Louisa declared that she was "so busy just now proving 'Woman's Right to Labor' that I have no time to help prove 'Woman's Right to Vote'" (Letters 178). As critic Sarah Elbert argues: "Having grasped the meaning of her mother's experience, she began to realize that women who lacked a voice in community government were powerless to extend their spheres of activity beyond the household. . . . Louisa was awakened to a new link between domestic reform and women's rights" (66). Louisa became unmistakably aware of the idea that, in a world where a woman's role was one of subservience and she was subject to the whims and failures of her husband or father, women must seize control of their own economic destiny. Alcott was to exercise her own "right to labor" with the writing of her fiction. In many of her stories, there is a self-conscious awareness of the necessity for women to play whatever role can secure the most financial independence possible. Her characters illustrate this knowledge, from her most sensational femmes fatales to her seemingly more passive "little women."

On to Chapter Two

 Notes (numbering begins in Introduction)


Because the various high-flown lectures and written discussions of their ideals are often inaccessibly dense, the "movement" is known today to the general public mostly through the works of Henry David Thoreau. Since Thoreau was somewhat out of favor for what Lane and Bronson saw as his "sensualism in his love of nature . . . 'the most dangerous of sins; a refined idolatry'" (Saxton 138), the group would probably not be thrilled with this legacy.


This adventurous child would, at first, seem to represent wiry Louisa, but Saxton claims that it is Anna (140), whom Lane admired for her selflessness and desire to imitate Bronson's passivity.


Indeed, one wonders what the men would do if there was no bread-- in these pre-bread machine, wood-burning stove days, it took hours to make a single loaf-- when Abel and Lion are described as content with apples and bread as their only meals. This diet may be fine for a while, but any modern dietician will describe it as sorely lacking in the nutritional content required for daily life, and anyone who has ever baked bread would argue that the daily needs of a family this large would consume much of the preparer's day.


The children were undoubtedly kept out of the discussions of celibacy, but they were very afraid of splitting up the family. Louisa comments in her journal, "I was very unhappy, and we all cried. Anna and I cried in bed, and I prayed God to keep us all together" ("Oats" 76).