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Whoever at any moment contemplates life is bound to find many displeasing things. He is bound to find at the same time a perceptible infusion of merit and virtue. Thus contemplating the mazed and confusing panorama of existence, some people shrink from any effort radically to alter the condition of human affairs; for bad as things are, alteration may by chance involve more destruction of good than suppression of evil. To reformers, on the other hand, the darker aspect of actual affairs seems the more conspicuous They are always for putting down the evil, trusting that the good shall survive by its inherent strength; and when reform takes up arms, we have revolutions. Transcendentalists never thought of resorting to arms; but they did eagerly inspect life, and finding there many unsatisfactory things, they eagerly welcomed any effort to make things better, without much question as to how practicable that effort was, or as to what it might incidentally destroy. A glance at the contents of the “Dial ” will accordingly show that the periodical fervently advocated two distinct reforms. The more specific, which reached its highest development later, was the abolition of slavery, a measure important enough in the intellectual history of New England to deserve separate discussion. The more general, which developed, flourished, and failed decidedly before the antislavery movement became a political force, was that effort to reform the structure of society which found expression in the community of Brook Farm near Boston.
In 1841, a number of people, — all in sympathy with the Transcendentalists, and most of them writers for the “ Dial,” among the more conspicuous of whom were Mr. George Ripley, Mr. Charles Anderson Dana, and Mr. John Sullivan Dwight, bought a farm ten or twelve miles from Boston. Here they proposed to found an ideal community, where everybody should work to support the establishment and where there should be plenty of leisure for scholarly and edifying pleasure. Incidentally there was to be a school, where children from their earliest years were to give their infantile help in the work of the community. The experiment began. At least during its earlier years, Brook Farm attracted considerable notice, and the sympathetic attention of many people afterward more eminent than its actual members. Hawthorne came thither for a while, and his “ Blithedale Romance” is an idealised picture of the establishment. Emerson, though never an actual member, was there off and on, always with shrewd, kindly interest. Thither, too, occasionally came Margaret Fuller, in whom some have discovered the original of Hawthorne's Zenobia. But if Margaret Fuller really suggested Zenobia, Zenobia is probably Hawthorne's most wonderful creation. For Zenobia is profoundly feminine; and whatever else poor Margaret Fuller seems, at least until after her passionate marriage, she seems so lost in Transcendental abstraction that nothing short of genius could connect with her the idea of sex.
Brook Farm, of course, was only a Yankee expression of the world-old impulse to get rid of evil by establishing life on principles different from those of economic law. From earliest times, theoretical writers have proposed various forms of communistic existence as a solution of the problems presented by the sin and suffering of human beings in any dense population. The writer whose principles most definitely affected Brook Farm in its later development was Fourier, a French philosopher, who sketched out a rather elaborate ideal society. The basis of his system was that people should separate themselves into phalanxes of no considerable numbers, and that each phalanx should be mutually helpful and self-supporting. This conception so commended itself to the Brook Farmers that, at an expense decidedly beyond their means, they actually built a phalanstery, or communal residence, as nearly as might be on the lines which Fourier suggested.
What marked the peculiarly Yankee character of the Brook Farmers, was their calm disregard of a vital point in
Fourier's system. There can be no doubt that a considerable part of human unhappiness is caused by the loves of men and women. This phase of unhappiness some theorists would avoid by lifelong celibacy. Fourier less austerely avoided it by introducing into his phalansteric system a decent variety of free love, whereby adult men and women should be permitted to live together as long as they found it mutually agreeable, and to separate without inconvenient formalities whenever mutually so inclined, thus perpetuating an ideal race in obedience to unimpeded affinities of nature. When the Brook Farmers arrived at this phase of Fourier's applied philosophy, they simply ignored it. Cynical contemporaries rather looked for a development of free love in a community whose principles so clearly involved this form of freedom as well as those which they openly advocated. Nothing of the kind appeared. However absurd, however eccentric and irritating, Brook Farm may have seemed to people of strong sense, it passed from beginning to end without scandal. People who were married lived there as respectable married people should; unmarried people lived there with all that unaffected purity of personal life which is so generally characteristic of the better classes throughout America. The same native trait which appears in the absence of lubricity from American writings appears again in the fact that at Brook Farm, freely given over to theoretical socialism and to the teachings of Fourier, men and women lived sweet, clean lives. You might have watched them throughout the seven years of their communal existence, you might have listened to every word which they uttered about the teachings of their revered French apostle; but unless you had turned to Fourier's own writings, you would never have found reason to suspect that among his teachings was the doctrine of free love.
Brook Farm inevitably went to pieces. Its members were not skilled enough in agriculture to make farming pay; they
found manual labour too exhausting to permit much activity of mind in the considerable leisure which their them; they discovered no new truths; and incidentally they discerned with more and more certainty that when you get together even so small a company of human beings as are comprised in one of Fourier's phalanxes, you cannot avoid uncomfortable incompatibility of temper. In 1847 their new phalanstery, which had cost ten thousand dollars and had almost exhausted their funds, was burned down; it was not insured, and before long the whole community had to
The “ Dial ” had come to its innocent end three years before. Transcendentalism proved unable long to express itself in any coherent form. Yet many of those who were connected with it never relapsed into commonplace. Emerson's career we shall consider in a little detail, and Hawthorne's, too, when the time comes. Margaret Fuller hardly survived the period of which she was so conspicuous an ornament; when Brook Farm faded away, she was already in Italy. She had gone thither by way of New York, whither she had been invited by Mr. Horace Greeley's sympathy with all sorts of New England reform. Greeley also had something to do with the settlement in New York of two eminent Brook Farmers. One was Mr. George Ripley, perhaps the chief spirit of the community. He began life as a Unitarian minister, and with the possible exception of Theodore Parker was the most cultivated Boston divine of his day. He found even the Unitarian ministry too narrow in its orthodoxy. When Brook Farm proved impracticable, he became the literary critic of the New York “ Tribune,” with which he retained his connection to the end of a long and honourable life. His wife, who began in ardent sympathy with him, became a devout Roman Catholic. Mr. Ripley himself developed into a completely free-thinking and agreeably accomplished man of the world. Mr. Charles Dana, too, was for a while connected with the “ Tribune.” After a varied career, he finally became editor of the New York “Sun,” which in his day enjoyed the reputation of being at once the most unprincipled and the most readable newspaper in America. Mr. George William Curtis became associated with the periodicals published by the Harpers, maintaining more of the purely ideal quality of his early days. Mr. Dwight returned to Boston, where, as editor of the “ Journal of Music,” he did rather more than any one else to make the city what it is now acknowledged to be, -a vital centre of musical art. And so in various ways Brook Farm faded into a memory, but one which always remained dear to those who knew the dreamy old days as they Aitted through the sunshine. For though in one sense the movement came to nothing, it was an earnest, sincere, beautiful effort to make human life better by practising the principles of ideal truth. Brook Farm was typical of all Transcendentalism. It had a bright beginning, a rather bewildering adolescence, and a confused, misty end; but it left no one the worse for its influence.
This New England Transcendentalism developed most vigorously in those years when the intellectual life of New York was embodied in the Knickerbocker school of writers. By contrasting these two neighbouring phases of thought we can see how unalterably New England kept the trace of its Puritan origin, eagerly aspiring to knowledge of absolute truth. The literature of the Knickerbocker school was never more than a literature of pleasure. Even the lesser literature of Transcendentalism, not to speak of its permanent phases, constantly and earnestly aspired to be a literature of both knowledge and power, seeking in the eternities for new ranges of truth which should broaden, sweeten, strengthen, and purify mankind.
In brief, just as Unitarianism represents the temporary orthodoxy of renascent New England, Transcendentalism represents its vagrant spiritual philosophy. Mr. Cabot, in his