The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I.

VIII. Transcendentalism

§ 10. Ripley; Brook Farm

George Ripley (1802–1880), the leader of this enterprise, was a graduate of Harvard and a Unitarian minister. A wide and increasing knowledge of European writers, however, gradually led his interest from theology into the sphere of social reform. He accordingly gave up his pastorate, and in 1841 he and his wife and a number of loyal friends established the Brook Farm Institute of Agriculture and Education on a farm at West Roxbury, nine miles from Boston. The association was a joint-stock company and financially it was inaugurated and conducted with considerable practical sagacity. On its theoretical side the enterprise, while the product in a general way of the speculations and example of Owen and Fourier, was not, especially at the beginning, in any precise sense an experiment in socialism. The hope of its founders was merely to make Brook Farm a self-supporting group of men and women, where all should share in the manual labour, the leisure, and the educational and cultural advantages, a place of “plain living and high thinking” where life might be lived in an atmosphere of fraternity, free from the strife and burdens of ordinary competitive society. That the attempt was far from being unsuccessful is revealed by many anecdotes which have come down showing the hearty and genuine spirit which prevailed among its members, a spirit to the happy influence of which on their later lives more than one of the survivors of the enterprise has borne witness.

The adoption in 1844, with some modifications, of the principles of Fourier seems, however, to have put an end to some of the more Arcadian features of Brook Farm; and this, together with the fact that the efforts of inexperienced farmers on a rather poor farm yielded insufficient financial return, was enough to doom the experiment to ultimate failure. The disbanding of the members was immediately occasioned by the burning in 1846 of the unfinished “phalanstery,” upon which seven thousand dollars had already been expended and which was wholly uninsured.

Brook Farm, being the most tangible and visible product of this whole New England movement, has come to stand in the public mind for a perfect incarnation of the transcendental spirit. This is an error. Brook Farm was characteristic of transcendentalism in its belief that the material factors of life should be subservient to the spiritual and ideal and in its conviction that right thinking would lead toward better social conditions—in the end, indeed, to a perfect society. But it is important to notice that Ripley alone of the original members of the Transcendental Club had an active share in the enterprise and that while Emerson, Alcott, Theodore Parker, and Margaret Fuller were interested and on the whole sympathetic visitors, they were too thoroughly individualistic, too distrustful of the institutional factor in life, to be completely satisfied with the experiment. In not a few respects incidents more characteristic, in their individualism, of the transcendental spirit were Alcott’s sojourn with his friends at Fruitlands and, still more so, Thoreau’s experiment on the shore of Walden Pond.