Thursday, June 25, 2009
Who Did the Laundry at Walden Pond?
Men can get carried away, this has been noted by women through the ages. And sometimes the men who get carried away have wives and daughters who are swept along with them, for better or for worse. Something of this nature happened when Louisa May Alcott’s father took the family to live in a utopian community in Worcester County Massachussettes in 1843. Self-sufficiency, life without money, veganism, and cold baths were part of the regime planned for the Fruitlands community, intended to bring its members into harmony with themselves and nature. However, this ideal community resulted instead in hardship, failure, and ignominy—as well as a story written about Fruitlands by Louisa years later, Transcendental Wild Oats.
Louisa was on the eve of her teenage years when her father moved the family to Fruitlands. When the family returned to civilization, Louisa’s anxiety about her father’s apparent inability to support the family led her to go out the work at the age of seventeen. She worked as a teacher, seamstress, governess and domestic help before finding that she could live by her pen. It was in fact her writing that would bring the family its first experience of financial stability. When she wrote about the Fruitlands chapter in her family history, it was at the age of forty-one, after her successful writing career had been safely launched. Her memories of the utopian community focused on elements of the ludicrous, the pompous, and the irresponsible—and she satirized it mercilessly.
Like Mary Shelley, Louisa was surrounded at a young age by people who saw themselves as great thinkers of their times. And the eyes of youth can be more judgmental than people often suspect. Just as Mary Shelley wrote, in Frankenstein, a condemnation of elements of the Romanticism that surrounded her, Louisa rather thoroughly trounced aspects of Transcendentalism in Transcendental Wild Oats.
The title itself points at the masculinist slant of Transcendentalism as Louisa saw it elaborated by Thoreau and Emerson and other friends of her father’s. It is men, of course, not women, who are generally referred to as sowing wild oats. But, as Louisa points out, it is often women who suffer in the process, whether the wild oats are those of philanderers or of the philosophers of Fruitlands: “No teapot profaned that sacred stove, no gory steak cried aloud for vengeance from her chaste gridiron; and only a brave woman's taste, time, and temper were sacrificed on that domestic altar.”
A theme throughout the piece is male blindness to the work that is involved in domestic life—one of the brethren insists on the importance of having beautiful eating vessels and bought a set of Britannia ware because it was bright and inexpensive. When Mrs. Lamb (Sister Hope) mentions that it’s hard to keep such metal shiny and asks if whiting will be allowed in the community, she is chided for focusing on such a frivolous detail.
The men in the community consistently undervalue the knowledge involved in everyday work (they give the best room up to their books and spend a great deal of time talking) and this is what causes their dream of community to fail. They want to work the land, but don’t know how to plant, they put in new trees and “honestly believe” that an autumn harvest will be theirs. One of the men did help the “overworked Sister Hope with her heavy washes, kneaded the endless succession of batches of bread, watched over the children, and did the many tasks left undone by the brethren, who were so busy discussing and defining great duties that they forgot to perform the small ones.”
Lamp oil, being animal-based, could not be used in the community, and so bayberry wax was procured for candle-making—but no one knew how to make candles. The men were happy to forget about candles and go to bed early, but in this instance the generally mild and loving Mrs. Lamb rebelled:
Evening was the only time she had to herself, and while the tired feet rested the skilful hands mended torn frocks and little stockings, or anxious heart forgot its burden in a book. So “mother's lamp” burned steadily, while the philosophers built a new heaven and earth by moonlight; and through all the metaphysical mists and philanthropic pyrotechnics of that period Sister Hope played her own little game of “throwing light,” and none but the moths were the worse for it.
In the metaphysical game unfortunately, as Louisa well knew, more than moths were at stake. Louisa indicates that a woman’s self-image can be destroyed in the course of a philosophizing journey. She tells the tale of Sister Hope’s mirror, one of the first casualties of the venture as the new pilgrims moved their belongings to Fruitlands:
“Truth lies at the bottom of a well, Sister Hope,” said Brother Timon…. “That's the reason we so seldom get at it, I suppose,” replied Mrs. Hope, making a vain clutch at the mirror, which a sudden jolt sent flying out of her hands. “We want no false reflections here,” said Timon, with a grim smile, as he crunched the fragments under foot in his onward march.”
A particular kind of hypocrisy is outlined by Louisa in Transcendental Wild Oats. One goal of the community for instance is not to exploit animals in any way, for work, food, or clothing. When a new arrival to the community asked, “Are there any beasts of burden on the place?” Mrs. Lamb answered, with a face that told its own tale, “Only one woman!” In order to save the harvested crop from rain, Mrs. Lamb harnesses the children to clothes baskets to get the grain in when the men are off pontificating on the glories of a life governed only by the spirit’s whim.
Louisa’s commentary that Transcendentalist views seem to involve a blindness about domestic realities finds an echo in Thoreau’s celebrated community of one at Walden Pond. Although Thoreau waxed eloquent about the glories of self-sufficiency it should be noted that his definition of self-sufficiency apparently did not extend to the weekly wash: Thoreau had his laundry done by his mother during his experimental venture as man living at one with nature on Walden Pond.
© Eberle Umbach 2007-2009
Pictures from the top:
Louisa May Alcott
The Alcott Farmhouse at Fruitlands
Amos Bronson Alcott
A view of Fruitlands - this image is published under a Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 License by Wikimedia user Midnightdreary
An Oil Lamp
Henry David Thoreau