Often touted as Louisa May Alcott’s condemnation of Transcendentalism, “Transcendental Wild Oats” (first published in the Independent in 1873 and reprinted in the Woman’s Journal the following year) reshapes an actual occurrence in Alcott’s young life into hilarious but pointed satire. In 1843 Amos Bronson Alcott had drawn his family into a short-lived experiment in communal living at a farm in Harvard, Massachusetts, called Fruitlands. The experiment itself held together for only half a year, and although the young Louisa’s journals seem to cast it as a rather exciting adventure, the mature Louisa’s short story focuses on the impracticality of its founders.
Alcott certainly did not have to wrack her imagination for examples of transcendental absurdities at Fruitlands, or “Apple Slump” as it comes to be called; as her story accurately reports, the idealists did not move in until June, even though they hoped to be self-sufficient through farming; they planted three different kinds of seed in one field and used no fertilizer because of their opposition to animal products. The cast of characters, also taken from life, needed little embellishment. In addition to Abel Lamb (Bronson Alcott) and family, and Timon Lion (Alcott’s partner, Charles Lane) and his son, the community included a man whose contribution to radicalism consisted of reversing his given name and surname and another whose odd antics in the name of free expression of whatever was in one’s soul “would have sent him to a lunatic asylum . . . if he had not already been in one” (371). Alcott even uses, as dialogue, quotes from letters her father and Lane submitted to the transcendentalist paper the Dial (dubbed The Transcendental Tripod in the tale) during the experiment, which frequently make them look even more absurd. However, her use of allegorical names and especially the clearly amused narrative voice Alcott employs in the piece make it an engaging, affectionate parable.
Alcott’s other fiction clearly shows that it was not the concept of communal living to which she objected; in fact, many of her works, long and short, celebrate unusual communities that are based on family but extend beyond it; see, for example, the extended school/family in Jo’s Boys (1886), the “loving league of sisters” that crowns her novel Work (1873), and the group consisting of the heroine Rosamond Vivian, her husband’s not quite former wife and child, and a helpful priest who join forces with them in an attempt to foil the villain in A Long Fatal Love Chase (1995). Alcott uses the more pointed details in “Transcendental Wild Oats” to voice her objections to the way the men’s idealism frees them to philosophize while virtually enslaving the women, particularly Mrs. Lamb. The reader sees Mrs. Lamb trying to deal with strict dietary regimens and still nourish her children, fighting to light a candle for evening mending and reading when animal substances have been banned, and rounding up the children to help get in the few existing crops when “some call of the Oversoul wafted all the men away” (375) just when the meager harvest needed to be gathered. When an inquisitive visitor asks whether there are any beasts of burden on the farm, Mrs. Lamb replies, “Only one woman!” (373). The fact that Mrs. Lamb (“Hope”) pulls her husband back from the depths of despair when the experiment fl ounders and then takes charge to extricate her family from it makes her the true heroine of the piece. In “Transcendental Wild Oats” Alcott not only provides a skeptical insider’s look at transcendentalism in general and at the Fruitlands experiment in particular but also exhibits the wit that characterizes some of her most engaging work as she voices her support for practical idealism and reiterates her continuous concern for the position of women in 19th-century society.
Alcott, Louisa May. “Transcendental Wild Oats” (1873). In Alternative Alcott, edited by Elaine Showalter. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1988.
Francis, Richard. “Circumstances and Salvation: The Ideology of the Fruitlands Utopia.” American Quarterly 25 (May 1973): 202–304.
Petrulionis, Sandra Harbert. “By the Light of Her Mother’s Lamp: Woman’s Work versus Man’s Philosophy in Louisa May Alcott’s ‘Transcendental Wild Oats.’ ” Studies in the American Renaissance (1995): 69–81.
Sears, Clara Endicott. Bronson Alcott’s Fruitlands. Boston: Houghton Miffl in, 1915.