The inspiration for Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Blithedale Romance was his own time at Brook Farm (its full name being Brook Farm for Agriculture and Education), a community in what is now Boston established in 1841 by George Ripley, Unitarian minister, editor of The Dial, and leader of the Transcendental Club. The origins of this community lay in Ripley’s desire to found a church that offered a different conception of Christian living and fused Christianity with transcendental thought.
Ripley and his wife Sophia as well as fifteen other members purchased the land from Charles and Maria Ellis, with each member getting a share. Private property was thus a key component of the community, as stockholders were then able to vote on the community policies.
In a letter to Ralph Waldo Emerson, as well as in the Original Constitution to the farm, Ripley elucidated his goal of promoting harmony, equality, and a fusion of body, mind, and spirit. The inhabitants would work the land, which would uplift the soul and act as a microcosm of the ideal outside world; working the land was also a way to erase social divisions. It brought people close to nature, was removed from the marketplace, and promoted a lifestyle based on subsistence and sustainability. The community was also interested in leisure activities such as plays, readings, literary clubs, picnics, skating, dancing, music, card playing, and tableaux vivants.
Labor was divided so the members would have time to devote to their pursuits. Member Elizabeth Peabody wrote, "everyone prescribes his own hours of labor, controlled only by his conscience.” Eventually problems arose within the labor system, as the community voted to establish general standards for work, such as 300 hours being one year's labor. Some members balked at this, wondering if the community was demonstrating less interest in moral growth.
Besides their aforementioned leisure activities, the group performed a custom called “The Symbol of Universal Unity," in which the company rose, joined hands, and vowed to promote truth to the causes of God and Humanity. The group published The Harbinger, a weekly magazine concerned with political and social issues; contributors included James Russell Lowell, John Greenleaf Whittier, and Horace Greeley.
Original shareholders included Hawthorne and Charles A. Dana, with interested parties such as Bronson Alcott, Margaret Fuller, Peabody, Emerson, and Theodore Parker. After 1844 the community evinced a commitment to the Associationist theories of French Social Charles Fourier, and added a “Phalanx” of houses, workrooms, and dormitories, as well as set aside funds for a Phalanastery (which burned down at the very moment of its ribbon-cutting).
In terms of Hawthorne’s experience, he disliked the labor aspect and complained of a lack of quiet. He left after only a few months. The farm received a lot of negative attention from the press, and after its movement toward Fourier’s ideas, lost support of the original transcendentalists. Emerson even denounced the experiment years later, mostly on the basis of its frivolity.
Ripley left in 1846, and other members began to trickle away afterward. It took Ripley almost thirteen years to pay off the debt of the farm.