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.
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
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
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"
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
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."
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