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The Alcott Family and Their Search for Utopia

Richard Francis

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The fascinating story of Bronson Alcott’s utopian experiment

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.

"Excellent. . . . [Francis] is not only an historian but also a novelist with an astute and appreciative eye for mixed character."—Katherine A. Powers, Boston Globe

"[Francis's] sober, thoughtful, probing book also manages to provide great insight into the crucible that helped create the remarkable writer and no less remarkable woman who produced such an important piece of American fiction."—Martin Rubin, San Francisco Chronicle

"Thorough and occasionally hilarious. . . Mr. Francis gives us enough facts to let us draw our own conclusions. . . . He records Bronson and Abigail's acts of charity, already familiar from. . . Little Women. But he also retells less admiring stories, of their petty vindictiveness and casual callousness. Along the way he adumbrates the ways in which idealism can slide into megalomania."—Wall Street Journal 

"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."—Tobias Jones, The Observer

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

"There has never been a biography of Louisa May Alcott in which author and subject have been more personally - or powerfully - engaged than Susan Cheever's."—Martin Rubin, SFGate

"Louisa May Alcott created an enduring image of the perfect American family in Little Women: pious, loving, imaginative and mutually supportive. In one famous scene, the four March girls give away their Christmas breakfast to a starving family. As presents, the girls receive a Bible apiece. Alcott was able to make these privations sound tremendous fun; Fruitlands sketches an altogether darker picture of the celebrated author’s upbringing."—Suzi Feay, Financial Times

"Francis writes with rare elegance and a well-turned wit that makes Fruitlands a beguiling treat: stylish, instructive and hugely entertaining."—Miranda Seymour, Daily Telegraph

"[a] deeply researched and gracefully written biography."—Bee Wilson, Sunday Times

"… richly textured…"—Christopher Bray, Daily Express

“… [an] engrossing study”—Elaine Showalter, Literary Review

"Especially if you intend to visit the lovely Fruitlands cultural site this summer, this is the book for you."—Mike Pride, The Sunday Telegraph

“…. [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

“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, The Sunday Times Culture

Honorable mention in the Biography/Autobiography category of the 2011 New England Book Festival, given by the JM Northern Media family of festivals
ISBN: 9780300140415
Publication Date: November 2, 2010
344 pages, 6 1/8 x 9 1/4
20 b/w illus.