In the summer of 1843, a group of New England Transcendentalists, including the Alcott family, formed a small farming community to be called 'Fruitlands', on a dilapidated farm in a vale of Nashua, Massachusetts, close to the hamlet of Stillriver and the village of Harvard. By the winter, the community had collapsed in desertion and starvation. These pioneers, in common with all community pioneers of the time, dreamed that in the Nashoba Valley they would forge a new destiny that rejected industrial modernism in favour of innate wisdom, naturalism and an enduring relationship with God, but confronted with the reality of Nature and their own flaws, the noble plans of the Transcendentalists turned to dust. 'Transcendental Wild Oats', one of the more obscure works of Louisa May Alcott, is a parody, in novel form, of the Alcott family's Fruitlands adventure. One point that remains unclear is what 'Transcendentalism' (or, indeed, transcendentalism) is exactly. I suspect I am not the only one who bears that confusion. It's a confusion that existed even among the leading figures of Transcendentalism, but something proximate to an understanding is found in this book, which - in typical Louisa May Alcott style - is full of clever literary devices that allude to the Transcendentalist belief tradition and its derivative Puritan roots: from mention of William Penn and a bust of Socrates to cuttingly eloquent and incisive flights of poetic prose like the following passage:-
[quote]"This prospective Eden at present consisted of an old red farm-house, a dilapidated barn, many acres of meadow-land, and a grove. Ten ancient apple trees were all the "chaste-supply" which the place offered as yet; but, in the firm belief that plenteous orchards were soon to be evoked from their inner consciousness, these sanguine founders had christened their domain Fruitlands."[unquote]
The bitterness of those apples can almost be tasted, can't it, but my suspicion is that this sad and cynical account of noble and Romantic failure serves as a mere fog. I would suggest 'Transcendental Wild Oats' is not so much a book about Transcendentalism as about women: specifically, the travails of women in a patriarchy. The Fruitlands community of this novel is a microcosm of wider society at that time and the social relations between men and women. In particular, the concern here is the way - as Alcott saw it - women were exploited by men. Alcott actually penned her views on the themes of women, work, social justice and the family on a more serious basis in the better-known - and superior - novel, 'Work', published at about the same time as 'Wild Oats', but the social allegory in both novels is similar. Alcott's views presage modernist feminism in that she saw women as an oppressed class in society and men as a kind of work-shy, rentier aristocracy. Any Transcendentalism there might be in this book serves merely as a proscenium for the real social issues that Alcott wants to tackle.
Alcott is an author I admire, but not for her social views, which I find inimical. I admire her because she was a sublime wordsmith, with a rare ability to craft her prose towards metaphor and allusion. I find reading and discovering her work always reveals a gem here and there. In 'Wild Oats', we have some tellingly clever allusions to the beliefs of Transcendentalists and an exploration of their significance in the author's life-forming views and experiences, but the real issues on the table are dealt with by Alcott directly, with ruthlessness and clarity: it is the men who desert the community and let everyone down, and it is the women who keep the community going and, in the end, save everyone. Against that background, I am conscious that my admiration for Alcott might seem a little incongruous. I am an ordinary Englishman in the 21st. century, and I dislike feminism. What's the attraction of the life and works of a female, proto-feminist, New England writer of the early to mid-19th. century? Well, aside from Alcott's literary skills, I have always had a liking for American literature, partly because of what I see as its rawness and expansiveness and the literary potential this gives, but also because it speaks to an earlier time in Britain when its people were the major source for migration to the New World and British society was much less settled than now and not the sinisterly consensual place it is today. This little book is from a period when America was still a beginning with ideals that had resonance for disaffected British and other Europeans and in which pioneer communities were emerging to experiment with new modes of living. It was an exciting time, especially for those who were willing to experience discomfort for their beliefs, a quality that is rare or non-existent today.
In that sense, Bronson Alcott, Louisa's father and a leader of Fruitlands, emerges from this book as a confusing figure. On the one hand, he lived for his beliefs, and he was willing to die for them, which is admirable. On the other hand, under Louisa's unforgiving, scolding glare, he failed, not out of the unfavourable turn of chance or luck, but unquestionably due to his own failings and the failings of those around him. Alcott ascribes this failure to dysfunctional social relations: the men in the community, Bronson included, installed themselves as a kind of Socratic elite, while the women and children went about most of the labouring, and so the community teetered on the brink and eventually collapsed. "The best laid schemes of mice and men, Go often awry", the poet Robert Burns lyricised, and so they do, but I do not quite share Burns' sadness, Steinbeck's cynicism or Alcott's despondency. Better to be Steinbeck's 'George' and 'Lennie' and have that dream, even if unfulfilled, and even if painful. Indeed, better to be one of Alcott's parodied characters here, with the 'grief and pain', because sometimes it is worth it, if only for a dream of the 'promised joy'. That is perhaps how we can rationalise poor old Bronson Alcott and resolve the confusion. He had a dream, he pursued it, he failed, and in the best American tradition, he paid the price. Beliefs and dreams are not enough on their own: as Louisa May Alcott rightly reminds us in this book, social change is a reflection of economic need, though Alcott's determinism does not explain all. There is history as well. The migrants who crossed a great ocean to live in the New World sought to build new 'castles'. It wasn't a grubby money dream. It was, rather, an adventure of 'being', an existential mission, the Saxon pursuit of freedom far and away from figurative Norman castles and away from the literal constraints of a land-based class system. In many cases, these dreams were also motivated by a yearning for freedom of thought and conscience. These people were the original, true American Dreamers, social pioneers who had no time for Burns' wistful pathos. They would tame a raw but fertile land and build their own 'castles'. The Dream is still there, in both the Old and New Worlds, but the apples are sour and bitter because men have not turned their minds to Socrates.