Fruitlands The Alcott Family and Their Search for Utopia Richard Francis

Publication date:
14 Oct 2011
Yale University Press
344 pages: 235 x 156mm
20 b-w illus.
Sales territories:

This is the first definitive account of Fruitlands, one of history's most unsuccessful, but most significant, utopian experiments. It was established in Massachusetts in 1843 by Bronson Alcott (whose ten-year-old daughter Louisa May, future author of "Little Women", was among the members) and an Englishman called Charles Lane, under the watchful gaze of Emerson, Thoreau, and other New England intellectuals. Alcott and Lane developed their own version of the doctrine known as Transcendentalism, hoping to transform society and redeem the environment through a strict regime of veganism and celibacy. But physical suffering and emotional conflict, particularly between Lane and Alcott's wife, Abigail, made the community unsustainable.

Drawing on the letters and diaries of those involved, Richard Francis explores the relationship between the complex philosophical beliefs held by Alcott, Lane, and their fellow idealists and their day-to-day lives. The result is a vivid and often very funny narrative of their travails, demonstrating the dilemmas and conflicts inherent to any utopian experiment and shedding light on a fascinating period of American history.

Richard Francis has taught at universities on both sides of the Atlantic and has previously written on Ann Lee, founder of the Shakers, and on the Salem witch trials. He is also a novelist.

"Francis brilliantly dissects it all: the diction, the false hopes, the sheer naivety... But he somehow manages to be admirably even-handed, acknowledging that many of Alcott's ideas - regarding the environment, diet, feminism and civil disobedience - were more than a century ahead of their time." -Toblas Jones, The Observer

"Until now, Fruitlands has never attracted a book-length history. With this deeply researched and gracefully written account, the novelist and historian Richard Francis fills that gap, in a biography of the chief participants that is full of bathos."—Bee Wilson, Sunday Times Culture

"Fruitlands is one of the most interesting fiascos in 19th-century America and he tells the whole poignant, puzzling tale with scholarly precision and narrative gusto." -Jonathon Wright, Catholic Herald

"In rich detail... Francis has delivered the definitive week-by-week historical treatment."—Thomas Meaney, Times Literary Supplement

"Richard Francis has no illusions about the absurdity of the Fruitlands experiment, but he also finds in the episode the origins of the modern green sensibility, as well as a form of early anarchism. Readers of Fruitlands may not regard Alcott and Lane as heroes, but they may consider them pioneers."—Rohan McWilliam, The Tribune