The Women of Brook Farm

photo of Brook FarmIn 1841, Sophia Willard Dana Ripley (1803-61) and her husband, the Unitarian minister George Ripley, founded Brook Farm in rural West Roxbury (which is now part of Boston) on a 200-acre dairy farm. Like many Unitarians, the Ripleys were deeply engaged in the Transcendentalist movement whose roots were firmly tied to Boston, Cambridge, Concord and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Brook Farm, which was to be a utopian community, “represented both a test of Transcendentalist dreams and a challenge to Transcendentalist individualism,” according to Aaron McEmrys, a Unitarian Universalist divinity school student.

Transcendentalism in New England is usually traced to the Reverend William Ellery Channing whose landmark sermon, Likeness to God, which he delivered in Boston’s Unitarian Federal Street Church in 1828, challenged, “True religion consists in proposing as our great end, a growing likeness to the Supreme Being, and this likeness belongs to man’s higher or spiritual nature. That unbounded spiritual energy which we call God, is conceived by us only through consciousness, through the knowledge of ourselves.” He encouraged his parishioners (who included Elizabeth Peabody, Eliza Lee Cabot Follen, and Maria Weston Chapman) to look inward for understanding, and outward to Nature where he found God “in the structure of a single leaf” and where his listeners could “discern more of God in every thing, from the frail flower to the everlasting stars.” He said, “True religion thus blends itself with common life,” and his followers should “strive to awaken in men a consciousness of the heavenly treasure within them.”

The Transcendentalists’ reverence for Nature, combined with a deep belief in a “transcendent” divine spark in each person, led many proponents of the movement (like Elizabeth Peabody, Eliza Follen, Louisa May Alcott, and Margaret Fuller) to take on the social ills of the nineteenth century including female education, woman suffrage, and abolition. Some, like Sophia and George Ripley, were interested in a more balanced society where equality was the norm and where class distinction and wage discrepancy were not—and, where people could live closer to the land.

The Ripleys were influenced by the French utopian socialist Charles Fourier whose book, The Social Destiny of Man, was published in English in 1840. At Brook Farm, as in Fourier’s work, there would be no class, gender, or age distinction. Men, women, and children would engage in the labor they enjoyed. A school of the highest educational standards, directed by Sophia Ripley and George’s sister Marianne, would be built to educate future citizens. Among the places where plans for Brook Farm were discussed was Elizabeth Peabody’s Book Shop on West Street in Boston, which had become a gathering place for Transcendentalists and Boston’s literati and leading thinkers.

In a letter to Emerson, George Ripley explained the philosophy of Brook Farm:

“Our objects, as you know, are to insure a more natural union between intellectual and manual labor than now exists; to combine the thinker and the worker, as far as possible, in the same individual: to guarantee the highest mental freedom, by providing all with labor, adapted to their tastes and talents, and securing to them the fruits of their industry; to do away with the necessity of menial services, by opening the benefits of education and the profits of labor to all; and thus to prepare a society of liberal, intelligent, and cultivated persons, whose relations with each other would permit a more simple and wholesome life, than can be led amidst the pressures of our competitive institutions.”

To place the founding of Brook Farm in historical context, in his biography of Emerson, Robert D. Richardson Jr. describes the “hopefulness and fervency of the reform fever sweeping the country in the 1840s. With dozens of communes being founded, with abolition, temperance, peace, and the women’s movements on the rise … it was an emotionally charged and politically turbulent decade similar to the 1790s and 1960s. All three were decades of utopian euphoria fueled by a wildly shared and wildly exciting conviction that the structure of society could really be fundamentally and rapidly changed.”

Brook Farm’s experiment in communal living, and in putting community above the individual, did not sit well with individualist intellectuals of the movement including Emerson and Margaret Fuller. According to Charles Capper, Margaret Fuller’s biographer, “Fuller’s initial interest in the community was not especially ideological. She loved nature, but her uncongenial three years in Groton seem to have soured her on the Massachusetts country communities … She also had doubts about the leadership of the courageous but ‘heavy’ preaching Ripley and his zealous but stilted wife Sophia. Nor, for that matter, did she have much confidence in the Transcendentalists’ reform capacities. ‘We are not ripe to reconstruct society yet.’” Nevertheless, Margaret Fuller made the first of many visits to Brook Farm in 1841. She also sent her emotionally troubled brother Richard to the Farm’s school. The “Farmers” even named a cottage after her although she had no intention of living there.

Brook Farm was bankrupt by 1847. While the Ripleys had sold shares in the Farm to establish the community, subsequent shareholders, tenants, or investors did not always pay what they promised—and it was never enough. The Farm itself did not make money, and incurred a growing number of expenses as buildings and other infrastructure were added. Still, the people who lived and worked on the Farm were strongly influenced by its ideals, its school, and the different way of life. Even Emerson admitted, “It was a noble and generous movement in the projectors, to try an experiment of better living.”

Today, the buildings of Brook Farm are gone but the land has been preserved as a National Historic Landscape under the auspices of the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation.

– Bonnie Hurd Smith