The Literary Gardener
By Carol Howard
In Louisa May Alcott’s story, “An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving,” two farm girls cook a Thanksgiving turkey while their parents are away from home. Pretty much everything goes wrong. The author of Little Women included the tale of children’s unsupervised, holiday high jinks in a collection of fictional stories and autobiographical sketches that also features “Transcendental Wild Oats,” a wry memoir of her father’s failed attempt to establish a self-sufficient, vegan farm community called Fruitlands.
A bestselling, family-friendly novelist and storyteller, Alcott was daughter to the educational reformer and transcendentalist Bronson Alcott. She came of age in a circle that included Thoreau, Emerson, Hawthorne and Margaret Fuller. Like the progressive thinkers who surrounded her, she favored women’s rights and the abolition of slavery. The popular appeal and accessibility of her own writings, however, stand in marked contrast to the arcane “Orphic Sayings” her father published in The Dial, the 19th-century magazine of transcendentalism.
The Thanksgiving story is a light-hearted holiday adventure in which Alcott uses local color to depict a sentimental view of agricultural life. In this tale, the two young chefs express fleeting regret at the prospect of cooking the pig and turkey that had once been their farm pets. They quickly move beyond their scruples, though, “with an air of mingled affection and appetite.” They are children, Alcott intimates, who are long accustomed to being pragmatic about seeing the free-range animals they have lovingly raised become the family’s dinner.
The account of the vegan community at Fruitlands, by comparison, is Alcott’s ironic look at what happens when high-minded philosophy crosses paths with the logistics of farm management. The writer who glosses over her fictional farm children’s meat-eating qualms also critiques her father’s vegan idealism. It is not that she disagrees with his principles of animal dignity and of non-violence. Rather, she believes that her father’s ideals are impractical for the family, and that they harbor contradictions he seems not to have grasped.
Bronson Alcott and a friend began the Fruitlands experiment with their families in June 1843. Louisa May was ten years old. Set amid rolling New England hills, the ninety-acre farm was to be worked without conscripted animal labor. The vegan diet was an especially stringent one, drawn from sacred texts of India, that limited consumption to vegetables growing upward from the earth. This meant that root vegetables—potatoes, carrots, beets—were off limits.
The residents of this modern-day Eden were to have no commerce with the corrupt world beyond. Having recently published his famous essay “Self- Reliance,” Emerson visited the self-sufficient farm society after its first month. He noted skeptically, “They look well in July. We will see them in December.” When the cold days of December arrived, the community fell apart.
Alcott’s Fruitlands account uses humor to expose what bothered her: while the men were busy with philosophy, the women did all the work. She saw, too, that her father failed to uphold his own belief in individual freedom by imposing an austere lifestyle on the rest of his family. No one was harder on Bronson Alcott than he himself, however, and Louisa May made her peace with her eccentric father.
Carol Howard is dean of academics at Warren Wilson College.