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Hawthorne and the Brook Farm Community

A peek into Hawthorne’s time in an experimental society

Many fans of Hawthorne will have learned about his reclusive years in Salem, keeping to himself during the day and wandering the streets at night. It may then come as a surprise that, for the space of about half a year in his late 30s, Hawthorne joined a very remarkable community.

Photo of a painting of young Nathaniel Hawthorne, known as the Handsome Hawthorne portrait.Brook Farm was an experimental Utopian community, the brainchild of former Unitarian minister George Ripley. Located in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, the Brook Farm Association for Industry and Education was founded by some of the leading minds of the Transcendentalist movement. “Our objects, as you know,” wrote Ripley in a letter to Ralph Waldo Emerson, November 1840, “are to ensure a more natural union between intellectual and manual labor … 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 … 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.”

Hawthorne, having recently left his position at the Boston Custom House in January 1841, joined Brook Farm as a founding member in April 1841. At this time, he was engaged to Sophia Peabody, and he invested $1000 into the farm in hopes that it would prove to be the ideal setting to begin their married life. At first, he enjoyed the manual labor, but he soon realized that farming was a full-time occupation, which left him little time to write. By September, Hawthorne had serious doubts about continuing at the farm, and by November he had left the experimental community for good.

While Hawthorne never recouped all of his investment in Brook Farm, he used his experience as a basis for his novel The Blithedale Romance. Published in 1852, readers instantly drew parallels between the characters and prominent residents of Brook Farm, despite Hawthorne’s insistence that his protagonists were entirely works of fiction.

Brook Farm staggered on in various forms until 1847. This short-lived attempt to fuse Transcendentalist ideals of self-reliance and emphasis on personal reform with the Utopian concept of community and social reform was perhaps doomed from the start. The project was underfunded and lacked the support of leading Transcendentalists such as Emmerson and Bronson Alcott. Alcott, in fact, started his own Transcendentalist Utopian farm, Fruitlands, in this same time period. Fruitlands disbanded after only seven months. While these idealistic communities were ultimately deemed failures, they represent the spirit of reform and social consciousness that was central to the American Transcendentalist movement. Hawthorne may not have lasted long at the farm, but the traces of these philosophies found in his writing are one of the elements that make his books American classics.

Date: July 1, 2022

Author: Holly Watson

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