History 12 Reading Guide

New England:  Transcendentalism at Brook Farm


  • J.B. Wilson, “The Antecedents of Brook Farm,” New England Quarterly 15.2 (1942), 320-331.  JSTOR


  • Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Historic Notes of Life and Letters in Massachusetts,” Atlantic Monthly, 52.312 (October 1883), 529-543; originally written in 1867, reprinted in Emerson, Lectures and Biographical Sketches (1904), 325-370 as "Historic Notes of Life and Letters in New England," American Transcendentalism Web, Virginia Commonwealth University.  LINK  [Focus on the section titled Brook Farm at the end of the lecture (Atlantic Monthly, 540-543).]
  • Nathaniel Hawthorne, Passages from the American Note-books of Nathaniel Hawthorne, [April-October 27, 1841], Vol. II (1868), 1-49;  Online Books Page, University of Pennsylvania Library, at Eldritch Press.  LINK  [Note: Focus on the entries from his first stay at Brook Farm, April 13-September 3, 1841].
  • Ora Gannett Sedgwick, “A Girl of Sixteen at Brook Farm [1841-42],” The Atlantic Monthly 85.509 (March 1900), 395-404. Making of America:  Cornell University Library.  LINK

Instructions for writing the short essays.


  • Note:  Individualism (one of the tenets of Transcendentalism, which sought to free individuals from the restraints of institutions) nourishes an anti-institutional impulse, so there is an inherent tension between individual freedom and centralized authority.  How did the communal experiments based on Transcendentalism at Brook Farm (and at Bronson Alcot's Fruitlands) try to overcome this tension?  How well did they succeed?
  • Why do we know so much about Brook Farm?
  • According to J.B. Wilson, why did nineteenth-century observers characterize Brook Farm as “either something more or something less than just another experiment in communism”? What were the cultural, educational, and associative antecendents of Brook Farm? How, according to Wilson, did those theoretical influences shape the practice at Brook Farm?
  • How did Ralph Waldo Emerson’s formulation (that individualism leads to criticism which leads to reform) contrast with Robert Owen’s anti-individualism?  Why didn’t Emerson join the Transcendentalist communal experiment that he, at least initially, praised?  Twenty years after the community disbanded, how did Emerson, in hindsight, assess the Association?
  • What was Nathaniel Hawthorne seeking, from Brook Farm and from the Shaker communities he later visited?  In his journal entries, written while he was living at Brook Farm, how did he describe his hopes for Brook Farm as a community?  What did he hope to gain there?  How did he envision his contribution?  How quickly did he lose patience with manual labor?  How did his description of his experience change when he returned to Brook Farm as a boarder?  Did he offer any perspective on why the community worked (or didn’t work)?  Did Brook Farm expect its members to focus on the good of the whole?  Was the disjunction for Hawthorne between ideal and reality similar to the ambiguity between Robert Owen’s vision and the reality of New Harmony?
  • What reasons did Ora Gannett Sedgwick give for writing her recollections of her experience of Brook Farm almost sixty years after she lived in the community? Why did she emphasize that Brook Farm was an association rather than a community? What did she highlight as the benefits and advantages of her experience at Brook Farm? What misconceptions did she hope to correct? Did she intend her account to be more than a series of recollections?
  • What is utopia?

Further reading:

Brook Farm:

  • “Constitution of the Brook-Farm Association” (1841), in The Annals of America, Vol. 7, 26-28. (e-reserve)
  • Joel Myerson, “Memoranda and Documents: James Burrill Curtis and Brook Farm” [1842-43],New England Quarterly 51.3 (1978), 396-423.  JSTOR
  • George Willis Cooke, ed., Early Letters of George Wm. Curtis to John S. Dwight: Brook Farm and Concord (New York: 1898).
  • Georgiana Bruce Kirby, "My First Visit to Brook Farm," Overland Monthly 5.1 (July 1870), 1-11; "Before I Went to Brook Farm," Old and New 3.2 (February 1871), 175-185; "Reminiscences of Brook Farm," Old and New 3.4 (April 1871), 425-538; "Reminiscences of Brook Farm," Old and New 4.3 (September 1871), 347-358; "Reminiscences of Brook Farm," Old and New 5.5 (May 1872), 517-531.  Overland Monthly, Old and New (ProQuest:  American Periodical Series Online). 
  • Georgiana Bruce Kirby, Years of Experience: An Autobiographical Narrative (New York, 1887).
  • Amelia Russell, “Home Life of the Brook Farm Association” [Nov.1842-1846], Atlantic Monthly,  42.252-253 (Oct.—Nov. 1878), Part I,  458-466, Part II, 556-563.
  • George P. Bradford, “Reminiscences of Brook Farm,” The Century Magazine 45.1 (November 1892), 141-148.
  • John Thomas Codman, Brook Farm: Historic and Personal Memoirs (Boston, 1894).
  • Arthur Sumner, “A Boy’s Recollections of Brook Farm,” New England Magazine 16.3, (May 1894), 309-313.
  • Joel Myerson, ed., “Rebecca Codman Butterfield’s Reminiscences of Brook Farm” [1843-47; written c. 1890s], New England Quarterly 65.4 (1992), 603-630.  JSTOR
  • C.R. Edson, “Communism. Brook Farm Community—Fourierism,” The Manufacturer and Builder 25.9-11 (Sept.-Nov.1893), 210-212, 232, 258-259.
  • The Last Remaining Brook Farmer (But One), “A Girl’s Recollections of Brook Farm School,” Overland Monthly LXXII.3 (Sept. 1918), 233-240.

Fruitlands (Bronson Alcott):

  • Louisa May Alcott, “Transcendental Wild Oats” (from Silver Pitchers, 1876), American Transcendentalism Web, Virginia Commonwealth University.  LINK

Further reading questions:

  • How did Burrill Curtis first describe Brook Farm in his correspondence with his father?  How did both the content and the focus of his descriptions change over the course of his correspondence?  In the early months, he expressed confidence that he was better off at Brook Farm than he could be anywhere else.  How did he articulate what he hoped to learn or gain from the experience, and how did his goals change over time?  Much of his correspondence with his father (a banker) focused on financial matters—questions about his expenses and rent (which were determined by status:  member, laboring boarder, or boarder); a decision about whether to purchase shares in Brookfarm Stock, etc.  What does his correspondence reveal about Brook Farm as an economic endeavor (and corporation)?
  • What “inquiries repeated again and again” inspired Rebecca Codman Butterfield’s memoirs of Brook Farm, and how did those influence what she chose to describe (and perhaps to omit)?  Note:  do not let Myerson’s assessments of her account as “uncritical and sentimentalized” limit your reading of her memoirs.  What characteristics of the community, its principles, and its membership did she emphasize—and why?  Even though the tone of her account was almost consistently positive, she did describe some of the difficulties that the community faced during the years that her family lived there?  What were the problems, and how did they deal with them?  At the end of her account, what “principle points of difference between our life and Brook Farm and that of ordinary society” did she present? What kind of parting message did she hope to leave?
  • What aspects of Bronson Alcott’s Transcendentalist utopian vision did Louisa May Alcott praise—and satirize—in her semi-autobiographical short story about Fruitlands?  In the character of Mrs. Lamb/Sister Hope, how did Alcott portray her mother’s participation in her father’s utopian experiment and her contribution to the well-being of the community that Bronson Alcott/Abel Lamb founded?  Does Alcott’s choice of a narrative form enable her to editorialize about the communal experiment at Fruitlands in ways that were not possible for Howells (at the Shaker village in Shirley, Massachusetts) and Emerson (about Brook Farm)?