Georgiana Bruce Kirby

Years of Experience

(Putnam's 1887)


It was through my cousin, who was studying at the Community, having been "rusticated" at college for a term, that I first heard of this attempt of the Boston radicals to actualize their principles. It was through him that I was so fortunate as to get an invitation to spend a week at Brook Farm. It was quite an exciting time with me, for it was not every one, even among those friendly to the movement, who had an opportunity to take a look at the fact itself.

I confess that, to me, young and full of innocence, the pictures my cousin drew of arcadian simplicity, cordiality, and studiousness, to which he gave such warmth of coloring, interested me much more than any discussion of principles. I had grown through these casual conversations to take a vivid personal interest in some half dozen members of the association, while the others, amounting to seventy, equally good, equally remarkable, loomed undefined, in the misty distance.

Tom told gay stories about helping the girls with their work, and how jolly they were over it. It was particularly pleasant to lend a hand in the evening when there was no need of hurrying. . . . He had often blacked their slippers for the dance with real gusto. He cleaned the fish on Fridays; when for the sake of a few Catholics, fish was the diet.  "You should see me, Salome, with shirt-sleeves tucked up, scraping away at the fish in the kitchen sink !"

At any time it was worth while to listen to conversation there. You never heard the words "fashion or "beau," nor shallow, purposeless words, such as made the talk of young people elsewhere so little worth hearing. The girls got excessively tired sometimes. The work was too heavy and the hours too long but all that would be rectified when the principle was more clearly established in the world outside, when the rich had their eyes opened to the va1ue, of "association."

I had also learned that a pretty continuous correspondence was kept up between the younger members. I had received hints of certain mysterious notes of great intrinsic value that were perpetually passing to and fro. Accidentally I had read a line or two of one of those fragmentary missives, and it was a great temptation, which only a sense of honor could overrule, to read on from the transcendental beginning to the spiritualistic end.

On one point mistake was impossible: Tom was certainly growing in manly beauty. The expression of his face was toned down, finer lines were noticeable around the mouth, and he carried himself with the air of one who had taken his destiny into his own hands. Was this entirely due to the climate of West Roxbury? or, was it caused by the subtile influences of transcendental companionship? . . .

The West Roxbury omnibus set me down at the old farm-house, near the door of which two curly-headed boys were playing with an old Newfoundland dog. The only other passenger proved to be an Andover student on furlough.

I was immediately welcomed by friendly, smiling faces, and addressed in the most familiar tone by two young women.

"So glad you ‘ye come at last, dear. We are perfectly delighted to have you with us." And Hero took possession of my valise and hurried up-stairs with it.

"Your cousin, Theodore, has just gone to the assistance of Marcus, who was hauling a heavy load of potatoes when the oxen became unmanageable and no shouting or goading would make them stir. He has a singular power over animals you know; they mind him at a word."

"What!" I exclaimed, "Tom manage oxen! I-low droll! But what makes you call him Theodore?"

"Dear me! Yes, we ought to explain. You see, dear, your cousin was so altogether too charming, so natural and so in sympathy with our ideas, and we were so thankful to have him here, that—that it seemed to us ‘Tom’ was not in keeping with his personality, and ‘Theodore’ —gift of God—was so appropriate, it was the only proper thing to do. The middle letter of his name is ‘T’ I believe," suggested Sibyl.

"That stands for Trotman. His mother was a Trotman," I explained.

They looked at each other and smiled good-naturedly, as if intimating how little applicable to Tom was that commonplace name. Then the blowing of a horn warned us of the supper hour, and we hastened down the irregular, uncarpeted stairs to the refectory.

After greeting Tom, who had waited for me in the narrow entry, we moved on into the large, low dining-room, with its long pine tables, and benches to match,—now cheerfully lit up by the evening lamp. This room had two windows at each end and an old-fashioned brick fire-place in the middle of one side, where more than fifty persons were assembled at a table. As I made my way to the place assigned me, piloted by my easy and confident acquaintances, a welcome beamed on me from every side. I descried the companion of my ride seated at the opposite table and attended to by the highest official. . . .

Unwilling to be idle where every one was industrious, I begged to have some substantial duty assigned me, and without remonstrance was forthwith conducted to the sewing-room, where there the president’s wife [Sophia Ripley, whom Kirby refers to as "Mrs. R---"] was engaged at the moment in stitching together, with her slender, unaccustomed fingers, ticking for a straw bed—a primitive article of furniture called for by every fresh arrival. "In this case," said the lady, "the novice" (he is now a well-known Paulist Father) "will have to forego window curtains, for the sheets have exhausted the bolt of cloth." I learned next day that the new-comer, who was a baker by profession, and a mystic by inclination, had been nearly crazed by the direct rays of the moon, which made the circuit of the three exposed windows of the room.

Mrs. R— was gentle-spoken and amiable, but I found that I had stepped into another and much less congenial sphere, and all I could do was to continue sewing in silence. Finally the silence became irksome, and I forced myself to remark on the affinity—a perfectly respectable word—which existed between so many of the young people. Mrs. R. replied with unpleasant decision that she was sick of the very word "affinity." She added, with an impatient sigh.  "To tell the truth, I tire of the extravagant moods of the young girls." And on her husband entering, she asked: "Did you know, dear, that Marie Dille had promised to come out and spend a few days with me? It will be such a relief, for she doesn’t understand the meaning of the word ‘idea,’ and she has perfectly conventional manners."

What could this mean? I wondered. The demeanor of the girls I had observed was mild and decorous.

At dinner the trio smiled and nodded to each other knowingly.  "You need not explain, dear," Sibyl began. "Your face tells the whole story. It is too bad that she must press each one in her herbarium!" . . .

When a year had elapsed I found my purse empty and my wardrobe much the worse for wear. As I was known to be heartily interested in the new movement, my case was taken under consideration, and, with the understanding that I was to add two more hours to my working day, I was admitted as bona-fide member of the association (which included only a dozen), and was allowed to draw on the treasury for my very moderate necessities. Forty dollars a year would cover these, writing-paper and postage included. The last item was no unimportant one, as each letter cost from ten to fifty cents, and money counted for more then than now.

I should explain that for the whole of one winter there remained but two bonnets fit for city eyes among six of us. But the best of these was forced on whomever was going to town. As for best dresses, a twenty-five-cent delaine was held to be gorgeous apparel.  The gentlemen had found it desirable to adopt a tunic in place of the more expensive, old-world coat. . . .

Friendly visits were interchanged by the leading members of the three associations. Our household, on their return, always congratulated themselves on being Brook Farmers, as there was so great a difference between the good but unideal, and the upright, richly endowed, and early cultivated.

Many of our associates were of a spiritual cast of character, who valued solitude even more than society. It was an unprecedented gathering, and brought about such a clash of arms and such illumination of thought, that some, who like myself, were but novitiates, dwelt much of the time in a state of beatitude while scraping the dinner plates, scrubbing the stairs, or making check-shirts in the sewing-room. There was no frivolous conversation, no controversy, no desire on the part of one to force his views on another. . . .

 Mesmer's discoveries regarding clairvoyance, hypnotism, and somnambulism, had been common property for several years. Cornelia H. had found that she possessed the genuine magnetic power, and she had used it with entire success in the case of a young friend who was supposed to be far gone in consumption. With her superb physique she could afford to dispense a little vitality. The young lady slept peacefully for any desired length of time, gained recuperative strength from her friend, and recovered her health perfectly.

Cornelia had the greatest desire to induce clairvoyance in me, believing that in that state I should see denizens of the other world; and since I had a passion for analyzing character, could describe them so accurately that they would be recognized by their friends. But no matter how negative a mental attitude I assumed, no manipulations availed to overrule my consciousness and subdue my will, greatly to our regret.

Two ladies at the community became converts to hydropathy. They had the courage of their convictions,—as the phrase now runs, and decided to put their faith into practice forthwith.  On inquiry they found a spring, which would answer for douche purposes, a few miles from Brook Farm. They engaged board in an adjacent cottage, and had a large plunge-bath constructed. Dr. Robert Wesselhoft, a well-known German physician much interested in the new theory, was engaged to make hi-weekly visits to the cure, and conduct the three cases,—for I was to be included in the experiment, being very much run down with overwork and overstudy.

The crystal spring above mentioned supplied more than thirteen barrels of ice-cold water a day. A water-gate held this in restraint until wanted, when, by the simple loosing of a cord in the roofless douche-house, a stream rushed swiftly down the three-inch inclined flume and fell on the patient’s back from a height of twenty feet. It gave the sensation of being pounded by glass balls, and excited the belief that no matter what insidious disease was settled in or near your spinal column, these balls would certainly dislodge it.

At our pioneer and primitive encampment every thing proceeded in orderly sequence. One day we took the "pack "—i. e., we were wrapped in a wet sheet and then in four or five blankets, looking like modern mummies after the operation. As soon as any moisture was visible on the patient’s forehead a drink of water was allowed. When the sweating became profuse the patient was assisted off the bed and scuffled in slippers to the large bath-tub filled with cold water. Into this she plunged the instant the blankets were unswathed, remained in it only a minute or two, while the "pack" may have lasted three or four hours. Then followed a breakfast of brown bread, baked apples, mush and cream, or similar diet, after which came a walk of several miles. At least from seven to ten miles must be accomplished during the day, leaving intervals for a sitz-bath and the drinking of innumerable goblets of water.

The following day the patient was destined to a different regimen; the "umschlag," or wet-bandage, was now in order, and the douche was taken rain or shine. At night a foot-bath was given, which was intended to draw the blood from the brain and insure easy and restful sleep.

Reading was interdicted, also the writing of any but necessary letters, and, above all, we were forbidden, under threat of desertion by our doctor, ever to approach the neighborhood of Brook Farm.

So every day we drank in all the sunshine the skies afforded, while inhaling the sweet breezes from the huckleberry pastures; we absorbed the healthy influences of the earth while lying on it when tired, and were tranquillized by the peaceful scenery and the song of birds. To quiet my too restless nerves I did read Goethe’s "Dichtung und Wahrheit," etc., and I received long, involved notes from S[ophia Ripley?], who was evidently drifting towards Catholicism.

We used the same phraseology that afterwards obtained soon at the larger health resorts, as well as among those who tested the new therapeutics in their own homes. The theory was adopted that all disease was immediately connected with impurity of the blood, and the great object of treatment was to bring defects to the surface. This was called a crisis, and the ordinary greeting was not "How are you?" but "Have you any signs of a crisis?" And any one on whom the much-desired eruption or rash appeared was to be congratulated, as it was considered proof that the patient had sufficient vital force to throw off any ailment with which he might be afflicted.

"I hear you have a crisis. Will you tell me how you managed to bring it out?" was eagerly enquired of me by a Miss W., whom I met after a concert a few years after this. I replied that I would gladly tell her how I got it if she would only advise me how to get rid of it. It was a perfect nuisance. I had not been able to have my dress hooked up behind for three weeks.

"Oh, you are so fortunate," she exclaimed. "I am miserable, and I believe that if I could bring on a crisis there would be a change for the better at once. I go according to the rules, and yet my condition remains the same. Do you mind telling me what course you pursued to bring out your crisis?"

"Certainly not," I replied. "I had the chambermaid come in and rub me down with a dripping, I might say a frozen, sheet, immediately on my stepping out of bed in the morning. I then dressed, drank a goblet of cold water, and took a brisk walk of two miles. Three months did the work that I am now obliged to wish were undone. Pray don’t allow yourself to use those severe tonics away from a ‘Cure,’ for to be of any advantage the crisis should be followed by soothing treatment—a succession of wet applications."

"Oh, yes, I know that; but still I quite envy you the crisis,"—and we separated.

But for our absorption in the higher studies, the relationships of the young people might have been of a less elevated character than they were. As it was, the activity of the interior faculties consumed the vitality that even in well-constituted young people might have produced some disorder.

There was no mother at the community of sufficiently large intellect, experience, and courage to advise and sustain vigorous, natural young men and maidens in any important emergency. Had Mrs. Sophia Ripley been a mother, possessing the prescience and tact begotten of maternal love, it would have been better for all of us. Unfortunately, she was a sisterly rather than a wifely woman. She was gentle, refined, well informed, but narrow and, compared with the others, artificial. While you were in her mood or state of mind, she accepted you with all amiability; when you were groping in the dark, or tempest-tossed, she helplessly abandoned you to your fate, perhaps condemned you, as those always condemn who are incapable of understanding others.

Many of us did her great injustice by demanding of her that with which nature had not endowed her, viz., broad and deep human sympathy. We felt ourselves at times sadly in need of a wise, motherly friend, and because Sophia was the wife of the president, and especially because she was over forty, we insisted that years should give the required experience and looked to her for the help we could not expect from one another. But she was not equal to the position. Indeed I knew of no one but Margaret Fuller who would have been. How all-sufficient we should have found her wonderfully comprehensive judgment and tenderness. But how often should we have encountered a Margaret Fuller outside in the world when we needed her? Do mothers, as a general rule, enter into the lives of their daughters as we would have them? "Zenobia," whose body Hawthorne and Ellery Channing rescued from the Concord River, let despair gain absolute control of her. She had felt the need of comforting motherlove after her faithless suitor deserted her, but could not find it. Sophia was a mother to the little ones, and they loved her accordingly. Their affairs were simple enough. She did more than her duty, while with others love obliterated duty. She endured the repulsive and uncongenial for the sake of principle. We knew not duty. But Kadijah was not more devoted to Mahomet and his religion, than Sophia Ripley to the furtherance of her husband’s scheme. To this end no sacrifice was too great; energetically and cheerfully she performed the most arduous and often the most disagreeable duties,—washing, sewing, teaching, it mattered not, so that their aims were one.

Meanwhile we went on as best we could, never stooping to justify ourselves when misunderstood; never giving way to the weakness of complaining that one or another neglected us, or were less friendly than formerly.

The prevailing aspect of life at the community varied constantly. No three months resembled the preceding ones, nor could at all be compared to the same period of the previous year in special interests. So engrossing was the last phase, so swiftly did the panorama roll by, that there was danger of undervaluing the past, and permitting oblivion to cover what was so well worth chronicling.

Under such fructifying and generous influences, with the younger and elastic natures a wonderful change took place in a year or two, and to this every feature bore testimony. Cruder qualities were refined, and the finer ones in this genial atmosphere came to the surface, till often, without any distinct evidence of artistic power, the observer was justified in accrediting many of these youths with a streak of genius. For what is it to have genius? to have the inner eye opened and be able to discriminate between appearance and reality? or, to see from the right angle and so discern the harmony in nature s whole? Is it courage which waves aside precedent and writes axioms of its own? No matter how you define it, conditions with us favored it. The "fragrant weed" had nothing to do with its development. Not one person at Brook Farm used tobacco in any form, or stimulants of any kind. I must except one of the students, who in consequence of his being the exception and the air of his room therefore having an impure taint, was considered by the girls as belonging to an inferior order of beings. The poetic and ideal life did not include the expectoration induced by the use of tobacco.

Thus working in field or barn, in kitchen or laundry, passing each other between the various domiciles, coming together in meetings for business, or mingling in the old-fashioned waltz or quadrille, we could afford to display our fraternal good-will. In society at large, caution restrains this healthy affection; anxiety as to what the future may bring, consumes the vitality that would keep it alive. Here, having common interests, we could afford to love our neighbor as ourselves.

It must always remain a mystery to those not directly connected with the movement, why it made so lasting and so happy an impression on those who were members. One cause will be easily appreciated. We know that the literary class and talented reformers are the most highly respected body in all civilized countries. The merely wealthy make great efforts to secure the presence of such persons among their otherwise mediocre guests. With us they predominated, and their influence inspired the young with a passion for study, and the middle-aged with deference and admiration, while we all breathed the intellectual grace that pervaded the atmosphere. All the newest and most beautiful thoughts of the time seemed to find us out, and thus we were kept en rapport with the noblest of all lands, and quite secure from any petty feelings.

The report of our doings and our principles brought people from far and near requesting admission to the society; sometimes a whole family would arrive without giving previous warning of their approach, and of course had to return as they came, as our accommodations were always extremely limited and admitted of no sudden expansion. Besides they could rarely bring any money to invest in the experiment.

Among all the members there had not been sufficient capital to embark the enterprise fairly. In our business department we suffered from having to compete with the world outside, where "hands " had to work trebly cheap in order to provide for the support, not only of those who pay in brain-work, but for that large portion of society which uses neither brains nor hands to any purpose.

Up to this time the profits of the school, and the milk, which was sold in Boston, had not sufficed to pay expenses and the interest on borrowed money. Undaunted, we believed’ still that the times were ripe for the abandonment of the miseries and falsehoods of the social order termed "civilization." Mr. Ripley began to study the writings, as yet untranslated, of the humane Fourier, and often consulted with Dana and Dwight. We now heard much of "attractions being proportioned to destinies," and that by the law of separate attraction the associate members should be divided into "groups and series."

Nothing could be more reasonable than the latter proposition, and there seemed sound, practical sense in some of the details as well as in the general sweep of this author’s plan. But we were too few in numbers, and too little trained in the various trades to bring about a practical success. It was necessary to make an appeal to the rich and skilled mechanic class, then the world would see what would come of it! Yet for all this, those with whom I was most closely united,—" the community within the community," as we sometimes described ourselves, remained unmoved by the proposition. We realized that the times were not ripe for the brotherhood of men; skilled workmen might be collected, but the large means necessary for the erection of a phalanstery, factories, etc. would certainly not be forthcoming, and we wished our memories of the past three years to remain just what they were.

"I am greatly drawn of late to a close study of Fourier," Sophia wrote from Cambridge, where she had. gone for a temporary rest. "His science of association recommends itself more and more to my feelings and conscience, and I am constrained to accept him as a man of genius, a discoverer; though I believe that in many things his system is to be modified by the spirit of our time and nation. The unfolding of the groups and series is as beautiful to me as the opening of the buds and leaves in spring, and will give a grace and charm to the actual never imagined before."

But the only application of Fourier’s principles made by us at this time was in the matter of waiting on the tables. Hitherto the desire of each to wait on every other had resulted in some confusion. Yet it seemed so selfish to eat, while others as hungry stood to serve, that we had been unwilling to entertain any other project. It had even been found necessary to call a meeting to settle the question of griddle-cakes or no griddle-cakes, since those eating their breakfasts declared that they could not enjoy the hot cakes while oppressed by the thought of two or three friends leaning over the stove cooking them. It is true that the vote taken on this occasion was in favor of that diet, the best cuisinires insisting that the sight of the golden brown cakes made the trouble a pleasure. This obligation, however, had reference, at the most, to one day of the seven.

Charles Dana managed to organize a group of servitors comprising four of the most elegant youths at the community,—the son of a Louisiana planter, a young Spanish hidalgo, a rudimentary Free Soiler from Hingham, and, if I remember rightly, Edward Barlow (the brother of Francis). These, with one accord elected as chief, their handsome and beloved teacher. It is hardly necessary to observe that the business was henceforth attended to with such courtly grace and such promptness that the new rJgirne was applauded by every one, although it did appear at first as if we were all engaged in acting a play. The group, with their admired chief, took dinner, which had been kept warm for them, afterwards, and were themselves waited upon with the utmost consideration, but I confess I never could get accustomed to the new regulation.

The word went abroad that Brook Farm wanted skilled mechanics in place of transcendental enthusiasts, and they began to come. The women were, as a rule, inferior to the men, and with less executive ability than the late poetic dreamers. It was plain that there could be no congeniality between the newcomers and those who had been so united under the first dispensation. The charm was swiftly dispelled.

I was again troubled by what I supposed to be incipient lung disease, and my nerves were all unstrung. Electrical treatment probably would have aroused my dormant energies and banished the abnormal depression, but that potent curative agent had not then been turned into this channel.

The fair, slender Maria E., whom we spoke of as the "Water Necken," magnetized by Miss Russell, became a clairvoyante, and one day, when I fancied that I was sliding down, going from bad to worse, and my recovery and hold on this world becoming precarious, Miss Russell kindly proposed to put Maria in the magnetic state, if the latter would consent to it, so that she could examine my lungs, and see how far they were really affected. A terrible depression had seized on me, and now, if the "Water Necken" would but assure me a speedy departure to paradise, I should ask nothing further.

I gladly accepted Miss R.’s offer, Maria gave her services willingly, and, having procured the use of Cornelia’s retired parlor, we proceeded to business.

Maria was but seventeen. She had a delicate oval face and golden hair. After she was in the magnetic state, her eyes closed, and an indescribably exalted expression spread over her countenance. In a few moments she made a faint gesture, inviting me to come nearer, and then placed her hand in mine for rapport. Communication being thus established, the diagnosis began. Through her closed lids she seemed to examine me intently and carefully, from the top of my head slowly down, slowly down, stopping longer at some parts than others, occupying, it may have been, eight minutes, though an hour never moved at more laggard pace. Then she dropped my hand and drew a faint breath.

"You wish for death," she began, in mildest tones, "it is futile. You have much work yet to do. You imagine that your lungs are diseased; on the contrary, they are remarkably sound. I have examined the tissues minutely. They are fitted to withstand much trial. The sensation which disturbs you is caused by a slight constriction of the upper part of the oesophagus."

"I would much rather die," I exclaimed, with suppressed vexation.

"The agitation confuses her," she moaned, speaking of herself in the third person, and she clasped Miss R.’s extended hand and placed it on her forehead, murmuring:

"Wait. Do not concentrate your attention upon her."

But I had disturbed the conditions, however, and after a few moments the "Water Necken" rubbed her eyes in ordinary fashion, and opened them, showing wonderment at my grave and expectant air. . . .

There was now a renewed activity and hope on the part of those who trusted in Fourier, and the rest of us felt as though disintegration were imminent. The new-comers were industrious and capable, but nothing more.

The Curtis brothers were in Concord. George P. Bradford had established himself at Jamaica Plains; Cornelia had taken apartments in Boston; Ora G. was again under the paternal roof at Natick. Sarah S. was to leave in a week or two to open a private school in a neighboring district. The H’s had started a boarding-house in the city. I received an invitation from the mother of Isaac H. to spend a month at their house in New York, and Margaret Fuller suggested that I might like to join the association at Redbank, New Jersey. Later I did visit that place, without finding it especially attractive, but then I only looked on it as a last resort. Just then my only wish was to be lost in the crowd. Emerson says of Swedenborg, that he needed a long focal distance to be seen, and I had decided that a greater distance than is usual was necessary to a true estimate of our fellows. I wanted more space, more seclusion. I was now sure that the world had yet to wait for the millennium.

During the past year the subject of Catholicism was quietly discussed among a few of us, and a mild sort of Catholic literature circulated. It was easy for me to indulge in a little sentiment about crosses, rosaries, cathedrals, and madonnas. It was quite another thing to give up my right of private judgment, my right to think at all, in fact, on matters of any moment, and walk backwards into the mental inaction and spiritual tyranny of the Church! For me, who had never worn a tight shoe, or glove, in my life, it was impossible! To return to the arms of the feeble old mother at whose breasts no man or woman had been nourished for the last hundred years, who had proved a blessing to the race, as Theodore Parker showed. The vigor born of Protestantism, which in England and America during this short period I am describing had been received into the Church, could not blind me to its history, which would be repeated if once she got the upper hand again. Within a year or so various rather wide-known individuals did join this communion,—a sister of Richard Dana, a brother of Charles Sumner, Sophia Ripley, Sarah Stearns, George Leach, Isaac Hecker, besides Brownson, who had preceded these. How could they take such a step? What induced them to do it? People asked. They were, no doubt, actuated by various motives. Perhaps it was disappointment at the breaking up of our hopes. Perhaps the speculative intellect needed rest, and was willing to find it in inanition. Perhaps a love of extremes caught gleams of excitement in the only then remarkable move left them. Then, too, there is often a readiness to be led by the more positive mind of one already converted. Had I been orthodox in my original belief, I might have gone with my friends, for the Church has forcible arguments for those who will read them. Orthodoxy, however, was my abhorrence, and I could only separate myself from the converts in wonder and sorrow. Yes, after such close communion, we were now parted forever, for, as Arnold says, friendship is dependent on congeniality in one or two large features of thought, and we were at variance in the most important of all. A surface interest is unworthy the name of friendship. It was April when I decided on a fresh migration. I see John S. Dwight as he stood beside me at the table on that last morning, begging me to be sure and return, II had so much influence with the young people. They had found this out then; but it was too late. I felt I had been misunderstood, and refused to make promises. In fact I knew that I was breaking bread with the friends for the last time.