Transcendentalism, Fourierism and the Individualistic Impulse

1845 painting of Brook Farm by Josiah Wolcott.

The French socialist philosopher Charles Fourier, who created a blue print for the future of society (as I explored in my previous blog - Click Here), was popularized in America by the utopian socialist author Albert Brisbane (1809 – 1890). His publications brought Fourierism to the attention of the Transcendentalists, most notably George Ripley (1802 – 1880), the former Unitarian minister, and founder of the social utopian experiment of Brook Farm, Massachusetts.

Brook Farm was initially set up in the late 1830s, as a joint stock company, in which everyone invested $500 apiece in the farm, and therein shared democratically in the governance and profits of the farm. Initially the idea was simply to share in the labour in order to minimise it, so that the farm’s participants would have ample time for leisure and their own academic pursuits.

By the early 1840s however, the farm had begun to struggle financially, and Fourierism was advanced by Albert Brisbane, a regular visitor of the farm, to solve the problem. Fourierism’s systematic approach, with timetables and a strictly communal foundation, led to labour requirements being tightened on the farm, and despite the economic difficulties the undertaking of an ambitious building project in keeping with the Fourierism system – a self-contained compound known as a Phalanstery. The farm immediately became the flagship for American Fourierism upon its official adoption of the system by the winter of 1843.

It is curious that Transcendentalists got themselves swept up into a community of this kind, given that they were customarily hostile to any compromise to their personal liberty. But it appears as if George Ripley’s brand of Transcendentalism emphasized the centrality of community from the get-go. As early as 1840 Ralph Waldo Emerson himself had sent a letter to Ripley declining the invitation to join the farm, as it seemed both too utilitarian and unrealistic, citing the benefits of solitude - a central theme of Emeron’s book ‘Self-Reliance’ which was published the next year.

Gorge Ripley in his post-Brook Farm days

Brook Farm then, was a reaction against the individualistic impulse of Transcendentalist thought, and indeed this journey into Fourierism had a marked effect upon Transcendentalism at large. Transcendentalism came to recognise that true freedom could only be attained within a communal context. Emerson however, remained a notable exception to this trend, along with Henry David Thoreau, who I explored in a previous post (Click Here). This shift is most clearly visible in the work of the Transcendentalist William Henry Channing, a close friend of Ripley, who stressed that the central call upon Christians was philanthropy and communitarian socialism.

As for Brook Farm itself however, insurmountable debt and declining numbers had the farm on the brink of ruin. The real blow came on the 3rd March 1846 when their nearly completed Phalanstery burned to the ground. The community dispersed; some remained in Boston as Fourierism activists, and others moved to join the North American Phalanx, a similar community in New Jersey. George Ripley himself took up a journalist post, writing a Gossip column for the New York Tribune, all the while paying off outstanding Brook Farm debt. Disheartened, he never wrote on Theology or Philosophy again. In his later years he established himself as a literary critic of note; this brought immense success. He died a millionaire.