George Ripley

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“He found the remains of Margaret Fuller lying on the beach in her nightgown.”

Margaret Fuller (1810-1850) was the Susan Sontag of her day–America’s original Susan Sontag, actually. The first female book critic of great acclaim, Fuller was not exactly modest about her brilliance. “I find no intellect comparable to my own,” she offered to all who would listen. She was a prominent member of Brook Farm, George Ripley’s failed experiment in Utopian living, and reportedly inspired the “Zenobia” character in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance, who commits suicide by drowning. Fuller herself died by water, perishing in a shipwreck that she seemingly could have escaped but chose not to. Her body was never recovered. Some 35 years after her death, an odd (and likely apocryphal) story appeared about her in the Boston Traveller, which was reprinted in the September 6, 1885 Brooklyn Daily Eagle. The article in full:

“As every topic comes up at the elegant lunch and dinner tables of Newport, so I was not astonished to hear a lady say that she ‘knew of the grave of Margaret Fuller.’ Mrs. Julia Ward Howe, who was present, and who had written a life of Margaret Fuller, was astonished, as it is reputed in all the lives written of that extraordinarily resurrected person, the Marchesi Ossili, that her body never reached land. An old fisherman at Fire Island, however, told a lady who was in the habit of going there several years ago, that he found the remains of Margaret Fuller lying on the beach in her nightgown, which was marked by her name, and that he wrote to the brothers Fuller and Horace Greeley about it, without receiving any answer; that he went up to New York to see Mr. Greeley, but he seemed to take no notice of the fact; and that he then buried Margaret Fuller at Coney Island; and could identify the spot.”

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George Ripley had the best of intentions.

In 1841, the Transcendentalist social reformer and journalist founded the short-lived Massachusetts collective, Brook Farm. Established along with other progressives of his day, including Nathaniel Hawthorne, the communal space was to be a haven for workers who longed for industry, not toil. The profits would be shared fairly. But there were no profits, just debts. Brook Farm didn’t experience a moral collapse, but a financial one. The kinetic never was able to match the potential. Hawthorne got a a novel out of the experiment (The Blithedale Romance), but what did Ripley gain from this bitter failure apart from heartbreak? He said of the experience at its end in 1846: “I can now understand how a man would feel if he could attend his own funeral.”

But here’s the thing: Maybe Brook Farm wasn’t the unmitigated disaster it seemed at the time. Massachusetts today is the leader among American states in both education and health care. Ripley can’t claim responsibility for those developments, but perhaps he and other idealists help lay a foundation for the state’s magnanimity. Utopias can distort reality, yes, but they give us a goal in the distance.

This classic photograph of Ripley, taken by Mathew Brady, is dated somewhere from 1849 to 1860. A brief article about the original promise of Brook Farm from the February 1, 1899 edition of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

“‘The Brook Farm Experiment’ was the subject of a lecture given before the Long Island Historical Society last night. The lecturer was Mrs. Julia Ward Howe. The hall of the society, on Pierrepont and Clinton Streets, was so crowded that many stood in the aisles during the whole discourse.

“A tract of arable land was purchased, Mr. Ripley pledging his library for a part of the necessary payment.”

‘The story of what actually took place at Brook Farm,’ Mrs. Howe said, ‘is soon told. A tract of arable land was purchased, Mr. Ripley pledging his library for a part of the necessary payment. A dwelling house already on the premises was altered and enlarged, and other buildings of cheap construction were added from time to time, as the growth of the association made it necessary. Farming must have begun in 1841, as in 1842 Orestes Bronson writes of the community existing and flourishing. The work of the great family was carefully apportioned, Mr. Ripley taking upon himself some of the heaviest and least pleasant part of it, such as the daily cleaning of the stables. Justice was the ideal of the infant association. Within its domain, all labor was equally esteemed. Brain work should enjoy no preference over hand work, and the hand which guided the pen should be ready when so ordered to guide the plow. At times all the members of the community gathered to wash the dishes, and the male members did their full share. The first object in the administration was naturally the support of  life. Every effort was made to improve the land, which made but an ungrateful return for such labor. A practical farmer directed agricultural operations, much of what was produced was consumed on the premises, but milk and vegetables, excellent in their kind, were sent to the market. Mr. Ripley once mentioned to me a Boston conservative who used to say that he didn’t like Ripley’s ideas but he did like his peas.'”

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Transcendentalist and literary editor George Ripley founded Brook Farm in Massachusetts. It was no Utopia.

From “Utopia & Dystopia,” Paul La Farge’s excellent 2010 BookForum essay about the horrifying nature of Utopian settlements (both fictional and actual), from Sir Thomas More forward:

“The history of real-world utopias bears his observation out. One of America’s best-known utopian experiments was performed at Brook Farm, in Massachusetts, where members of the Transcendentalist intelligentsia, among them Nathaniel Hawthorne, tried their hands at a communal life inspired by the writings of Fourier. The Brook Farmers lacked the funds to live well and the skills to live cheaply; they went into debt and argued about doctrine, and when their half-built phalanstery burned down in the spring of 1846, the community went into a decline from which it did not recover. The most enduring monument to Brook Farm is Hawthorne’s novel The Blithedale Romance (1852), which, far from praising the experiment, describes a group of city folk going obstinately to seed, their minds numbed by work, their hearts ablaze with impractical and ultimately tragic romantic combinations.

The Brook Farmers’ misfortune was small compared with that of the Icarians. It’s hard to see how Cabet’s novel could have inspired anyone to serious activity; nevertheless, in 1848, sixty-nine French people, dressed in black velour uniforms, set sail from Le Havre for Texas, where they were to establish a colony. They settled on the Red River, where they caught yellow fever; by the time Cabet arrived with the second group of colonists, a year later, their society had fallen apart. The Icarians relocated to Nauvoo, Illinois, whence the Mormons had just been chased: Presumably the real estate came cheap. Fifteen hundred Icarians gathered in Nauvoo, but they accomplished little, aside from printing a tract in which Cabet described how nice a society he could make if someone were to give him half a million dollars. The group split; Cabet and his loyalists departed for Saint Louis, where Cabet died a few days later. The remainder of the group bought land in Iowa, which so depleted their resources that they lived for years in mud houses and walked around in wooden shoes. Their splendor was all in their ‘somewhat elaborate’ constitution, drafted by Cabet, ‘which lays down with great care the equality and brotherhood of mankind, and the duty of holding all things in common; abolishes servitude and service (or servants); commands marriage, under penalties; provides for education; and requires that the majority shall rule.’

Eventually the Icarians built a schoolhouse and a dining hall, but their society failed to enchant the outside world. Of the sixty-five members who moved to Iowa in 1856, thirty were gone by 1860; the last Icarians disbanded in 1898. Most utopian societies met similar ends: The Harmonists of Pennsylvania lost their money in a lawsuit; the Separatists of Zoar dwindled to nothing. The Oneida Perfectionists, notorious in their day for practicing institutionalized polyamory, fell into scandal and squabbling, then reformed themselves into a silverware company that left its members to form their own matched sets.” (Thanks Essayist.)

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