“The residents of Brook Farm, led by the Reverend Charles Ripley, are pioneers of a new way of living in which labor is divided equally, with its fruits commensurately so separated as well. In this method each may have time and leisure for their arts and the society of other minds seeking Truth, Beauty, and Excellence within the sanguine atmosphere of fraternal bonds.” – Elihu Peabody, The Dial, July 1841
“The residents of Brook Farm mock the Holy institution of Family, by dissolving the walls that separates one man’s domain from the other. The women smoke pipes, the men do the laundry, and the children run naked, unsure whom to call ‘Mother’ or ‘Father’ in the utter confusion and absurdity of the place.” – Catherine Sudd, the Tripton Delineator, July 1841
Peering out of her carriage, Aurelia saw nothing particularly devilish or utopian, or even fully formed about Brook Farm. All she saw was a smattering of rough huts with a few larger, more handsomely constructed dwellings spread over an expanse of fields bordered by a forest in the distance.
A freckled young woman helped her off the carriage and then ushered her to a rude cabin. The girl in the cabin bustled off to the farm schoolhouse, where she taught, with a word of apology, leaving Aurelia to unpack and wonder if she had made the right decision.
The newspaper articles had fascinated and drawn her to the Farm with the bold promise of a new life. Her widowed father’s household in provincial Burnbury, while empty of all but the two of them, somehow still clamored for her ministrations of cooking and cleaning. Her father nonetheless believed strongly in women’s education, and with his encouragement she had pursued an aptitude for sculpture since she was a child. At that moment in her apparent new home, she missed the cramped work shed where she had so painstakingly labored.
Half of the cabin was strewn with the other girl’s possessions: “Cora,” a stray handkerchief announced in embroidery. It was unfamiliar for Aurelia to share a living space with another young woman. Cora, however, when she bounced in, seemed to have few such reservations.
“Isn’t it perfect that you’re a sculptress and I’m a painter? What fortune!” Cora seemed smitten with the Farm as if with a new lover.“To have a place such as Brook Farm, where we can in fact do our work!”
“It is quite charming,” Aurelia said agreeably, trying to match her enthusiasm.
“Even daughters of the new age need to eat dinner,” Cora said, grabbing Aurelia by both hands. “If we eat quickly we’ll have time to sit and work together on the hill while there’s still sunlight.”
“Nothing would please me more,” Aurelia said with great sincerity as she followed Cora out the door.
So began a pleasant rhythm of life. They rose before the sun to attend to the day’s work. At first the girls held their skirts out like picturesque rural maids as they worked in the house and fields. These charms were soon abandoned amidst weeding, washing, tending crops, cooking, and the myriad other tasks required of them and their fellows. Manual labor dignified an artistic soul, the leaders of Brook Farm said, and the Brook Farmers believed it even as their muscles ached.
After an early dinner amidst the gay chatter of the dining hall, they bid their time on the hillside, working quietly until it was too dark to see. As the weeks wore on and Aurelia finished her preliminary sketches, they migrated to the porch of their cottage where she had set up a studio to work in clay. Aurelia held her tongue to sweeten the surprise of presenting her sculpture to Cora: it was to be a sculpture of twin wood nymphs whom she was making in their likeness.
With her tools and clay in front of her, and Cora sketching nearby, she prepared for her work. Mid-breath, her eye caught on a swoop of Cora’s sketch and she was struck by incredulity that quickly turned to anger.
Cora herself was sketching a dryad pair!
She said nothing until the anger had transmuted to confusion, and later that night as they prepared for bed she hazarded.
“I saw your Hamadraiads.”
“Yes,” Cora laughed, a little self-consciously. “Wood nymphs seem a fitting theme for such as us, don’t you think? In fact, I thought to make the pair of them in you and I’s likeness. You an oak, me a birch.”
“It is strange,” Aurelia said, laughing nervously. “I had the same notion! I am sure neither of us discussed it.”
“How bizarre and… fantastic! Are you reading my mind now?” Cora laughed and squeezed her friend’s shoulder affectionately.
“I hadn’t thought to make us different trees since you’re more naturalist than I am, but it’s funny,” Aurelia said.
“It is like the sympathy of biological cycles that synchronize between sisters. I suppose if we spend our days in such close proximity, perhaps we could share inspiration through our commingled atmosphere as well?” Cora said with head-shaking consternation.“It is wonderful, in a way.”
“And isn’t that part of the delight of classical subjects anyway?” Aurelia mused. “Taking your turn to hold up an antique in an individual light.” But even as she said this, she thought of the river stones she sometimes gathered as a child. Smooth, heavy, worn off their corners by a thousand years of gentle friction. Nothing like the sculptures she wanted to create.
Aurelia had never been so intertwined with another as she was those first few weeks with Cora. Smoothing the flanks of her Hamadraiads, she wondered if she would change their faces to be some anonymous girls instead.
Brook Farm continued to develop around them. Some 70-odd people lived there now, nearly half of them children sent by their parents in the city to attend the Farm’s esteemed school. Periodically Charles Ripley conducted a sort of Town Hall in the community hall in the great building they called The Hive, where they attended dances, salons, and speaking events.
It was during one of these meetings that Ripley first proposed the Phalanx. Brook Farm, he said, suffered from a lack of philosophical coherence. Many of the original founders had been devotees of Charles Fourier but as the community grew that focus had been lost. Aurelia herself had never heard of Charles Fourier, but from what she could make out he was a socialist and a philosophical proponent for communities such as Brook Farm. Ripley and others urged the community to reorient themselves to Fourier both in ideas and in practice. The Practice to feed the Philosophy, he urged, ought to be manifested in the creation of “the Phalanstery.”
The Phalanstery was to be both a metaphor for the community and a shelter, a large structure that provided food and sleeping quarters, but also could bring the community together in the “life of the mind” that had drawn Brook Farm residents to the settlement in the first place. It would be a grand building in harmony with the nearby forest.
Aurelia’s dryads reposed on the mantle of the common hall in the now shabby-looking Hive, balanced by Cora’s oil painting of strikingly similar subjects. Even after Aurelia chiseled their faces into anonymity, her dryads still bore a resemblance. Aurelia pretended to admire the painting but remained troubled. What had made them create something so uncannily similar?
Construction of the Phalanstery began, and the difficulties of Brook Farm rose along with it. The crops did poorly. Those that grew were blighted by insects and gleaned by birds and squirrels. “Perhaps we should have invited more farmers and fewer poets,” Cora said ruefully.
As the weather grew colder, the girls piled quilts on their beds and began wearing them as they worked, cast round their shoulders like a cape. Their room was peaceful, dark, and private, with all the magic of an incubation chamber.
She rolled her head over to regard Cora’s intent laboring. The lines emerged just as she knew they would, where she knew they would.
“Cora,” Aurelia said, turning her own sketchpad towards her friend. “It’s happening again.”
Cora laughed but with a high note of confusion and fear.
“Are you sure you don’t know anything about this?” Aurelia said, wearily.
“Not exactly,” Cora said, slowly. “But I’ve heard some of the other girls talking. They’ve got it too.”
The next day, Aurelia sat down on her bench and began flipping through the pages of an old sketchbook, eyes searching for something undeniably her own. Always she had wanted to sculpt Medusa as a noble heroine, a brave victim of circumstance. Aurelia had carried the image in her mind for years: a beautiful and resolute face of a woman, her ringlets writhing as snakes as she transformed.
Aurelia had taken to joining the general mass of Brook Farmers in the long hall of the Hive after dinner now to avoid the intensity of her bond with Cora. The residents of an artistic bent sat sketching, sculpting, and composing verse; others engaged in more commonplace pursuits like writing letters or needlepoint. There were only so many places one could enjoy light into the evening after all. She kept to the northwest corner of the room where she set up a table with some of her tools, and kept the others at a distance. It mattered little.
Although she rarely engaged with them, her mind felt like a night sky blazing with the comets of those around her. While Cora’s mind remained the brightest light, she was beginning to feel the others. She was becoming infected, feverish with the thoughts and inspiration of others. She could no longer discern what was her own mind’s endemic work. The thoughts and images of all in the Hive, fragmentary as they were, butted intrusively against the contents of her own self.
If only she could banish the girl from her mind, Aurelia thought. Her feelings. Her judgments. And most of all, her images. Even across the crowded and noisy dining room she was made captive by images that she grew increasingly sure were from Cora.
Aurelia was now determined to finish her piece even though she felt she was growing mad; she did little else besides sleep and work. But her work only scared her more. Seemingly without her executive volition, her Medusa sketches became instead a maiden staring into a large floor-length looking glass. Day by day it emerged as something unfamiliar to her as it cross-pollenated with the projections of other minds. The looking glass now contained a love letter to a boy in Waltham, a maudlin faun pining while he held his pipes, and a thousand other faces and images. Whatever had infected her and Cora had spread and crept over Brook Farm like vines on an old stone.
The others had begun talking, and confusion spread rapidly. How could the contents of a mind propel through the heretofore inviolable boundaries of skin and choice? It seemed that thoughts and images related to art or inspiration were the most vividly communicated, more sporadic in their revelation. Despite their fear, many of the Brook Farmers proposed that their communication of minds might in fact be a breakthrough indicative of men and women living in spiritual unity.
George Ripley mounted the stairs of a crude outdoors pulpit the next day. Placid and mild, he told his congregation of Brook Farmers that their shared mental state was not to be feared. These open windows into other rooms, he claimed, represented strong and loving bonds. They had come to the wilderness to be closer to God, and God had brought them closer to each other.
While Ripley spoke, Aurelia could hear his thoughts as clearly as his words.
I have spent my whole life learning and propagating the teaching. The Holiness is One Being, who unites us with nature, who transcends the understanding of humanity. Have we failed to grasp this fearsome and awesome responsibility?
That night Aurelia wandered in the woods to think. Her muscles unclenched as she made it past a tree line, and realized that someone was hailing her, cautioning her not to go walking at night, asking polite questions about her motives. She felt the hatred of a trapped creature.
It seemed best to leave without saying goodbye the next morning. From the road home the next day, she could feel the lightning bolt of shock and hurt that struck Cora.
Later in their lives, Cora and Aurelia would find themselves in each other’s presence quite unexpectedly. The decade in which the preceding events took place gave way to several difficult ones, in which the War Between the States wrung out the energy of every feeling person.
As the decades passed, a spirit of social curiosity and reform swept the nation again in the 1880s and 1890s. Cora presided over a local chapter of reformers as a grand dame of one such convention. On a whim, having seen the posted flyers, Aurelia entered the theatre and took a place in the audience.
After the remainder of the crowd drifted away, Aurelia approached her old friend with equal parts caution and earnest love. Cora, ever with the warm heart, embraced her immediately. As they walked home, she finally broached the question. “How did you leave Brook Farm, my dear?”
“I was wondering if I should tell you,” Cora said. “Things changed quickly after you left.”
“You were right to leave. It was hard to share so much of ourselves,” Cora said. “The blurring of lines between us was intense, beautiful, intoxicating, but hard.”
Aurelia nodded with a shared feeling.
“But that winter and spring, we had a few unfortunate circumstances that showed our time together to be at an end. Reverend Allen went off on one of his lecture circuits and took his little girl Mae with him. After a few days he sent her home sick, feverish and vomiting, covered in welts. The women watching the little one became frightened for her life, and sent for a doctor from Brookline. Well, it was smallpox the little one had. Truly, that was the beginning of the end. It ran through us.”
“Was anyone killed?”
“No, thanks to the heavens, we were all in such good health and the sick took care of one another. But it killed the school, and our livelihood. So many pupils fled and no parents would send their children to a school that had suffered such a plague. Without the school, we did not have the income we needed to support the place.”
Aurelia felt genuine consternation and regret for her friends. She had seen smallpox run through Burnbury. She remembered the wailing children calling for mothers who were too insensate, weak, or already dead to come to their aid.
“There’s more, though. You may have heard that the Phalanstery burned.”
“Just as it neared completion,” Aurelia said. “I heard that Brook Farmers suspected the local farmers, the old Puritans.” She had read about it in the Boston area newspapers. Some of the gazettes bemoaned it as a tragic downfall, others crowed about divine justice for abominations.
“Yes. Perhaps we needed a villain to make some sense of it. I think we were all just a little relieved, though.”
“What can you mean?”
“You cannot tell a soul about this,” Cora’s voice became suddenly low. “I’m not sure the Phalanstery was not set fire by George Ripley or one of the other leaders.”
“We were so tired, Aurelia. You have to understand. None of us remaining could honorably leave the others. We were all going down together.” She took a breath. “The night the Phalanstery burned, I felt only sweet relief. And I remember feeling relief permeating from other sleepers through the walls, as strong as the heat itself.”
Cora left the next morning. “I felt lonelier, but free.”
“Yes,” Aurelia said. She could feel—see—Cora’s memories even now. “I understand.”