I didn’t expect to call it hilarious when I picked this book up, but it’s true: Louisa May Alcott’s short satirical ribbing of her father‘s ‘commune’, Transcendental Wild Oats, is hilarious. All those times you read books with a humorous hippie holdover from the ’70s or watched Dharma’s parents clash with Greg’s, you probably never knew that poor Louisa went through the experience first and for real.
And, while there are probably many ways one could approach this work, one thing that flies off the page when reading this story is the oppressive patriarchal dynamic that existed and, unfortunately, too often still exists. I’d suggest we not be too sensitive about the idea that stubborn male brains have often caused family pain. We all know some people lord their power over others in their circles; the Y-chromosome has just historically made it easier for some members of the human race to do this. Beware: many times it comes from good and honorable intentions. It just doesn’t work, and a husband-wife checks-and-balances system, had it been in place, may have. Even, if it only happens rarely, it hurts when it does. Most of us have some sort of experience with it.
And that’s what hit me when reading this surprisingly funny, sharp, readable story and the supporting material in Transcendental Wild Oats and Excerpts from the Fruitlands Diary, published by the Harvard Common Press.
I’d always heard Louisa was practical, the one who picked up the financial pieces when her father couldn’t and who probably rejoiced when she was finally old and autonomous enough to help her family. She bought their then state-of-the-art sink, I believe. That’s truly an exciting thing as anyone knows who’s experienced looking on helplessly as the powers that be in the family made one or more bad choices. I suspect Bronson Alcott made many, and his wife and daughters, including Louisa, suffered for them.
This book is separated into four parts. The first is background on the Transcendentalist movement of the mid-1800s, the second the parody, the fourth snippets from Louisa’s journals and the fourth eye-rolling explanations of the Fruitlands endeavor written by Bronson Alcott and Charles Lane, the commune’s founders. Louisa was about 10 or 11 in during the short period at Fruitlands when her family and a few other people went super-ascetic and attempted to eschew anything product that came from a non-human living thing, get back to the most basic of basics and lose all friends by evangelizing on their new lives.
In Transcendental Wild Oats, you can really hear Louisa’s frustration with the unrealistic, impractical thinking that can make lives miserable for those who must obey. Life’s easy when someone else is doing the work, as the two head honchos of the Fruitlands commune would find out, if only they weren’t too busy pontificating to ferry passengers after they bum a ride. (They couldn’t pay as they shunned money.) But Brothers Lamb and Lion, the names Louisa May Alcott gives to the Bronson Alcott and Charles Lane characters, do not seem so quick on the uptake. Despite being fast to rewrite their principles when the work’s too hard, they just don’t see the light. So, out goes the vow to avoid using animal labor and in comes the ox to pull the plow. I got the feeling that since Lamb and Lion weren’t cooking dinner or doing the laundry, they probably forgot that they weren’t the only ones with fatigue problems.
Mrs. Lamb gets no helper to ease her labor. She refers to herself as a ‘beast of burden’ because, like many women through history, she was the creature weighted down with work that pie-in-the-sky-thinking husbands delude themselves to think is a joyful love labor for a mother’s tender heart. In actuality, it’s a backbreaking, pack mule burden that is, arguably, unconsciously abusive. No money for her, no meat to cook with – only veggies and grains, no coffee or tea – only water, no shoes for her children until she blew that idea out of Brother Lion’s head, no clothes made from animal products, a proselytizing husband and his equally preachy buddy. And, we think it’s bad when we don’t have a working dishwasher…
The idea comes through even in modern times: the silly menfolk made life burdensome for their families with their wild ideas (again, admittedly well-meaning) and, frankly, they burdened themselves with a ridiculous scheme that nearly kills one of them. He learns his lesson, of course. This is, after all, a parody written by a woman who I am sure loved her father but was, nonetheless, the long-suffering child of an extreme-thinking family head in a strongly patriarchal time. She knows to teach his character a lesson. If you don’t mind the spoiler, I’ll tell you Brother Lamb rises from his foolishly self-induced deathbed realizing that food is actually a gift from God and he has a responsibility to his family, not just his highfaluting ideals.
That’s the nice thing about rewriting a part of your life, you get to be the one who preaches. Only, this time, the preacher was right.
(I originally posted this a long while back on an Open Salon blog I started, but I hardly use it, and wanted to post the piece here, too. http://open.salon.com/blog/aniko_eva/2012/12/30/sewing_wild_oats_the_transcendental_kind_serious_humor)