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ONE of the weddings noted in our Fay House chapter was that of Sophia Dana to George Ripley, an event which was celebrated August 22, 1827, in the stately parlour of the Cambridge mansion, the ceremony being performed by the father of Oliver Wendell Holmes. The time between the date of their marriage and the year 1840, when Mr. and Mrs. Ripley "discovered" the milk-farm in west Roxbury, which was afterward to be developed through their efforts into the most remarkable socialistic experiment America has ever known, represented for the young people joined together in what is now the home of Radcliffe College some dozen years of quiet parsonage life in Boston.
The later years of George Ripley's life held for him a series of disappointments before which his courage and ideals never failed. When the young student left the Harvard Divinity School, he was appointed minister over a Unitarian parish which was gathered for him at the corner of Pearl and Purchase Streets, Boston. Here his ministrations went faithfully on, but inasmuch as his parishioners failed to take any deep interest in the social questions which seemed to him of most vital concern, he sent them, in the October of 1840, a letter of resignation, which they duly accepted, thus leaving Ripley free to enter upon the experiment so dear to him.
The Ripleys, as has been said, had already discovered Brook Farm, a pleasant place, varied in contour, with pine woods close at hand, the Charles River within easy distance, and plenty of land – whether of a sort to produce paying crops or not they were later to learn. That winter Ripley wrote to Emerson: "We propose to take a small tract of land, which, under skilful husbandry, uniting the garden and the farm, will be adequate to the subsistence of the families; and to connect with this a school or college in which the most complete instruction shall be given; from the first rudiments to the highest culture." Ripley himself assumed the responsibility for the management and success of the undertaking, and about the middle of April, 1841, he took possession with his wife and sister and some fifteen others, including Hawthorne, of the farm-house, which, with a large barn, was already on the estate.
The first six months were spent in. "getting started," especially in the matter of the school, of which Mrs. Ripley was largely in charge, and it was not until early fall – September 29 – that the Brook Farm Institute of Agriculture and Education was organised as a kind of joint stock company, not incorporated.
A seeker after country quiet and beauty might easily be as much attracted to-day by the undulating acres of Brook Farm as were those who sought it sixty years ago as a refuge from social discouragement. The brook still babbles cheerily as it threads its way through the meadows, and there are still pleasant pastures and shady, groves on the large estate. The only one of the community buildings which is still standing, however, is that now known as the Martin Luther Orphan Home. This house was built at the very start of the community life by Mrs. A. G. Alford, one of the members of the colony.
BROOK FARM, WEST ROXBURY, MASS.
The building was in the form of a Maltese cross with four gables, the central space being taken by the staircase. It contained only about half a dozen rooms, and probably could not have accommodated more than that number of residents. It is said to have been the prettiest and best furnished house on the place, but an examination of its simple construction will confirm the memory of one of its occupants, who remarked that contact with nature was here always admirably close and unaffected. From the rough dwelling, which resembled an inexpensive beach cottage, to out-doors was hardly a transition, it is chronicled, and at all seasons the external and internal temperatures closely corresponded. Until lately the cottage wore its original dark-brown colour; and it is still the best visible remnant of the early days, and gives a pleasant impression of what the daily life of the association must have been.
Gay and happy indeed were the dwellers in this community during the early stages of its development. Ripley's theory of the wholesomeness of combined manual and intellectual work ruled everywhere. He himself donned the farmer's blouse, the wide straw hat, and the high boots in which he has been pictured at Brook Farm; and whether he cleaned stables, milked cows, carried vegetables to market, or taught philosophy and discussed religion, he was unfailingly cheerful. and inspiring.
Mrs. Ripley was in complete accord with her husband on all vital questions, and as the chief of the Wash-Room Group worked blithely eight or ten hours a day. Whether this devotion to her husband's ideals grew out of her love for him, or whether she was really persuaded of the truth of his theory, does not appear. In later life it is interesting to learn that she sought in the Church of Rome the comfort which Ripley's transcendentalism was not able to afford her. When she died in 1859 she had held the faith of Rome for nearly a dozen years, and, curiously enough, was buried as a Catholic from that very building in which her husband had preached as a Unitarian early in their married life, the church having in the interim been purchased by the Catholics. With just one glimpse of the later Ripley himself, we must leave this interesting couple. In 1866, when, armed with a letter of introduction from Emerson, the original Brook Farmer sought Carlyle (who had once described him as "a Socinian minister who had left his pulpit to reform the world by cultivating onions"), and Carlyle greeted him with a long and violent tirade against our government, Ripley sat quietly through it all, but when the sage of Chelsea paused for breath, calmly rose and left the house, saying no word of remonstrance.
It is, of course, however, in Hawthorne and his descriptions in the "Blithedale Romance" of the life at Brook Farm that the principal interest of most readers centres. This work has come to be regarded as the epic of the community, and it is now generally conceded that Hawthorne was in this novel far more of a realist than was at first admitted. He did not avoid the impulse to tell the happenings of life at the farm pretty nearly as he found them, and substantial as the characters may or may not be, the daily life and doings, the scenery, the surroundings, and even trivial details are presented with a well-nigh faultless accuracy.
The characters, as I have said, are not easily traceable, but even in this respect Hawthorne was something of a photographer. Zenobia seems a blend of Margaret Fuller and of Mrs. Barlow, who as Miss Penniman was once a famous Brookline beauty of lively and attractive disposition. In the strongest and most repellant character of the novel, Hollingsworth, Hawthorne seems to have incorporated something of the fierce earnestness of Brownson and the pathetic zeal of Ripley. And those who best know Brook Farm are able to find in the book reflections of other well-known members of the community. For the actual life of the place, however, readers cannot do better than peruse Lindsay Swift's recent delightful work, "Brook Farm, Its Members, Scholars, and Visitors."
There was, we learn here, a charming happy-go-luckiness about the whole life. Partly from necessity, partly from choice, the young people used to sit on the stairs and on the floor during the evening entertainments. Dishes were washed and wiped to the tune of "Oh, Canaan, Bright Canaan," or some other song of the time. When about their work the women wore short skirts with knickerbockers; the water-cure and the starving-cure both received due attention at the hands of some of the members of the household; at table the customary formula was, "Is the butter within the sphere of your influence?" And very often the day's work ended in a dance, a walk to Eliot's Pulpit, or a moonlight hour on the Charles!
During the earlier years the men, who were in excess of the young women in point of numbers, helped very largely in the household labours. George William Curtis occasionally trimmed lamps, Charles Dana, who afterward founded the New York Sun, organised a band of griddle-cake servitors composed of "four of the most elegant youths of the Community!" One legend, which has the air of probability, records that a student confessed his passion while helping his sweetheart at the sink. Of love there was indeed not a little at Brook Farm. Cupid is said to have made much havoc in the Community, and though very little mis-mating is to be traced to the intimacy of the life there, fourteen marriages have been attributed to friendships begun at Brook Farm, and there was even one wedding there, that of John Orvis to John Dwight's sister, Marianne. At this simple ceremony William Henry Channing was the minister, and John Dwight made a speech of exactly five words.
Starting with about fifteen persons, the numbers at the farm increased rapidly, though never above one hundred and twenty people were there at a time. It is estimated, however, that about two hundred individuals were connected with the Community from first to last. Of these all the well-known ones are now dead, unless, indeed, one is to count among the "Farmers" Mrs. Abby Morion Diaz, who as a very young girl was a teacher in the infant department of the school.
Yet though the Farmers have almost all passed beyond, delicious anecdotes about them are all the time coming to light. There is one story of "Sam" Larned which is almost too good to be true. Larned, it is said, steadily refused to drink milk on the ground that his relations with the cow did not justify him in drawing on her reserves, and when it was pointed out to him that he ought on the same principle to abandon shoes, he is said to have made a serious attempt to discover some more moral type of footwear.
And then there is another good story of an instance when Brook Farm hospitality had fatal results. An Irish baronet, Sir John Caldwell, fifth of that title, and treasurer-general at Canada, after supping with the Community on its greatest delicacy, pork and beans, returned to the now departed Tremont House in Boston, and died suddenly of apoplexy!
This baronet's son was wont later to refer to the early members of the Community as "extinct volcanoes of transcendental nonsense and humbuggery." But no witty sallies of this sort are able to lessen in the popular mind the reverence with which this Brook Farm essay in idealism must ever be held. For this Community, when all is said, remains the most successful and the most interesting failure the world has ever known.
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