WEST ROXBURY — There’s no farm to be found at Brook Farm, a tangle of footpaths and untended forest, marsh, and brush tucked into a corner of West Roxbury. Its shambling 179 acres are surrounded, quite literally, by a sea of headstones from a pair of cemeteries that bookend it north to south. Its trails are favorites of dog walkers, I learned on a recent chilly morning. (I counted at least a dozen over an hourlong ramble.) But the land itself tells no tales. All you’ll see is one lonely, peaked-roof building just off Baker Street, right across from the cemetery administrative office. It was built by a Lutheran group years after the nominal farm disbanded, a faint echo of the rich history long since returned to the earth. The building looks as much like a movie-set cutout as a historical site. Squinting through the windows on a bright winter day revealed it to be a shell, with little more than exposed studwalls and wood sheathing framing a barren interior.
It takes a great leap of the imagination to stand in this place and grab hold of its past as the site of one of the country’s first and likely best-known utopian communities, founded in 1841 as a young nation grew and thrived. A weathered sign sketches out the story: It once held vast fields of crops, a commercial greenhouse, a factory, dormitories, and a central gathering hall where chamber music was performed and poetry read. The thrum of nearby traffic belies its founding ideals, of nature as a guiding force to an earthly, spiritual sublime. It’s an island in a sea of haphazard urbanity, big-box stores and strip malls bulked up at its doorstep.
I came here not because of Brook Farm’s history, necessarily, but because of a vision captured by Josiah Wolcott in 1845. It’s hanging now at the deCordova Museum, part of its “Visionary New England” show, centered on the region’s long history of out-there philosophical departures (Transcendentalism was Brook Farm’s founding principle). Wolcott’s painting, displayed above a vitrine filled with dreamily progressive tomes like William Denton’s 1838 book on what we’d now call veganism, is no great work; it’s loose and amateurish and more than a little hokey, with a bright arch of rainbow bending over the farm’s scattering of buildings in a clumsy bestowal of otherworldly grace.
What the painting lacked in mastery, it more than made up for in guileless charm. I saw the deCordova show in the fall, and left enamored of both the sunny idealism and outright wackiness that generations of free-thinking dreamers knit into the fabric of practical-minded New England. Brook Farm may be no more, but it left footprints all over, and you can follow them all the way back to its beginnings.
Wolcott, by any standard, was a minor painter; there are few records of his work. He showed at the Boston Athenaeum in 1837, according to the Massachusetts Historical Society, and spent some time in the White Mountains; major institutions like the Museum of Fine Arts and National Gallery of Art don’t own any of his work. But his odd little picture, with its deep lavender skies and beatific glow, has been a consistent visual stand-in for Brook Farm’s enduring mythos. Any time the place comes up, there it is, its rainbow emanating utopia (In 2003, it landed at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, of all places, in a show about — you guessed it — failed utopias.) It wasn’t Wolcott’s only painting of Brook Farm, though it’s the one you’ll always see; the other that’s easily searchable he painted in 1846, of the farm’s fields at sunset, but it’s sullen and dusky and without the rainbow’s dizzying shimmer.
Wolcott became Brook Farm’s enduring visual ambassador, it seems, by default. Back in the 1800s, Brook Farm residents paid $500 to its founders, a Unitarian minister named George Ripley and his wife, Sophia, for a share in the property and its bounty. Members were paid a fixed income whatever their contribution, in labor of the body or mind. Wolcott had known the Ripleys through the Boston Union of Associationists, a progressive sect of which they were all charter members at its 1837 founding. It’s no great leap to guess that, when the Ripleys founded Brook Farm, Wolcott went with them.
But Wolcott was far from the community’s most notable cultural figure. One of its most famous residents, the journalist and activist Margaret Fuller, embodied its liberal, abolitionist, gender equity ideals. Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose back-to-the-land writings served as partial inspiration for the Ripleys, was a frequent visitor. Nathaniel Hawthorne was one of its founding members, helping to immortalize the farm’s ideals, and making it rich in literary memory. (He once wrote that it was “one of the most beautiful places I ever saw in my life.”) But Wolcott committed to paint what others did not during the farm’s brief, shining moment. And so his picture has achieved a strange kind of immortality: not so much as a work of art, but as an emblem of an ideal.
Brook Farm’s time was short. The Ripleys bought the land in 1840 and established the farm a year later. It was a time of burgeoning optimism and change; Robert D. Richardson, in his 1995 biography of Emerson, wrote that it was “an emotionally charged and politically turbulent decade similar to the 1790s and 1960s. All three were decades of utopian euphoria fueled by a wildly shared and wildly exciting conviction that the structure of society could really be fundamentally and rapidly changed.” The Ripleys, like many across the country, had established their commune with the intention of creating “a more natural union between intellectual and manual labor than now exists … and thus to prepare a society of liberal, intelligent and cultivated persons whose relation with each other would permit a more wholesome and simple life,” as they wrote at the time.
The Transcendentalist movement had been growing since the early 1800s, meshing neatly as a spiritual accompaniment to the new social idealism of the nascent democracy. Transcendentalism argued that heaven could be found on earth in the full embrace of the natural world; and that archaic ideas of earthly life as penance for an eternity of paradise denied the moral duty of humanity to build a better world.
The farm did its best to foster those ideals, but idealism and reality don’t often get along. Competing ideas led to bouts of disharmony; members came and went. In March 1846, as it prepared for a new era guided by the ideas of the French social critic Charles Fourier, the farm’s main residential building, the Phalanx, burned down. It was a devastating loss, socially and financially. By August of the following year, Brook Farm was no more.
The property and its remaining buildings languished, seeing intermittent use during the Civil War as a Union Army encampment in 1861. In 1870, the property was bought by the Lutheran Services Association, which operated an orphanage, a printing business, and, in its final years, a residential treatment center all the way up to 1974. The print shop is that last, lonely building on the site; it was built some time before 1890, but decades after the farm was gone.
The farm site was designated as an official Boston Landmark in 1977, the same year that the Hive, the main farmhouse built by the Ripleys, was reduced to ash by a suspicious fire. The property, by then neglected and decrepit, was acquired by the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation in 1988, four years after arsonists burned Fuller’s cottage — the last remaining intact building from the farm’s heyday — to the ground.
After the farm dissolved, Wolcott, like the others, had to make his way in the conventional world. From what little I could find, he earned a living as an ornamental painter in Boston while holding true to the farm’s ideals. There are a handful of mentions of him being active in the abolitionist movement; a drawing of his at the deCordova, “Invitation to the Spirit Land,” from 1853, was made after an apparent communion with the dead in a trance induced by a medium. The Historical Society has records of him working as an illustrator for the weekly satirical magazine “The Carpet-Bag” in 1850s Boston — he designed the publication’s distinctive masthead — though it acknowledges that “his later work is unknown.”
His most significant artistic accomplishment might have been a commission to work as lead painter for the story of Henry “Box” Brown, a fugitive slave from Virginia who mailed himself in a crate to Philadelphia in 1849, and to freedom. Brown enlisted Wolcott to help craft a 49-scene panorama of his escape story on 8-foot-tall canvas scrolls; they debuted in Boston in April 1850. Brown went on to great fame as a singer, actor, magician, and mesmerist, escaping to England when the Fugitive Slave Act was enacted, eventually ending up in Toronto, where he died in 1897. Wolcott enjoyed no such notoriety, and the panorama itself is lost to the ages.
All of this makes Wolcott’s artistic legacy a slim, enigmatic mystery, much like the farm itself. What had he hoped to achieve, and how short did he fall? But that one painting, with its arced bands of color spanning heaven and earth, is the thing that sticks. What art does better than anything is serve as touchpaper for the imagination, the fuse to ignite wonder and possibility. In those dark, purpling skies that loom above the shimmering hills of Brook Farm, Wolcott gives us a vision not so much of a place that was but, in its best idea of itself, what might have been.