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A Reading Life

Search for utopia, fight over chocolate

By Katherine A. Powers
Globe Correspondent / November 14, 2010

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Ever since I moved to New England, which was many years ago, people have been setting me straight on the Puritans, positively bouncing with the news that they weren’t “puritan.’’ Quite the reverse: Those 17th-century settlers loved food, drank beer for breakfast, and were devoted to canoodles. I will accept that, I guess, but something in the Puritan tradition gave rise to puritans, to flesh-denying, water-bibbing, penny pinchers. They are thin on the ground today, but they, especially the total abstainers and frugal eaters of meat-paste sandwiches, were numerous enough when I arrived here to ornament the scene. Indeed, my own Yankee grandfather-in-law shunned even water with his meals with the principled explanation that he had “sufficient saliva.’’

Matters of lifestyle aside, religious Puritanism embraces the idea of returning to a pure form of Christianity unmediated by earthly institutions and freed from accretions of tradition and ceremonial trumpery. The point of life is to gain what is in fact impossible through any act of one’s own: salvation and righteous union with God in his heaven. Some two centuries after the Puritans came to New England, however, their religious outlook had drifted away from salvation in the hereafter to harmony in the present, metamorphosing through Unitarianism into Transcendentalism. One of the most dedicated, not to say loony, proponents of the latter was Bronson Alcott, the man at the center of Richard Francis’s excellent “Fruitlands: The Alcott Family and Their Search for Utopia’’ (Yale, $30).

In Alcott we find the puritan incarnate, the rigors of an austere, comfortless religion having transformed themselves into those of an austere, comfortless way of life. In him too we find the idea that one’s goal — whether heavenly salvation or earthly harmony — is not achieved by works, but is freely granted . . . somehow. He believed that natural desires, unperverted by society’s deforming influence, would be naturally (and effortlessly) fulfilled. “A general craving for bread,’’ he wrote, “shall assuredly be satisfied; bread is even then growing in the fields. . . . Soon shall a table be spread, and the age rejoice in the fulness of plenty.”

Fruitlands, which still exists in Harvard, as a museum and nature preserve, was the site of the experiment which Alcott believed would demonstrate a way of living that, in its purity, would eventually redeem the world. The goal was not to reform the world so much as to return it to its Edenic state, eliminating such violations of natural harmony as cooking food, eating or wearing animal products, setting dumb creatures to the plow, and manuring the fields. No meat, eggs, cheese, or milk were allowed; no fermented anything, water only; unleavened bread was permitted; and the potato was boiled, though eaten cold to make up for that solecism. Manure was a particular obsession with Alcott and a number of other lofty thinkers whose views Francis generously displays; ending its use was a big step in the right direction. “The soil,’’ observed Alcott with his usual gassy aplomb, “grateful then for man’s generous usage, debauched no more by foul ordures, nor worn by cupidities, shall recover its primeval virginity, bearing on its bosom the standing bounties which a sober and liberal providence ministers to his need — sweet and invigorating growths, for the health and comfort of the grower.’’

Francis, who is not only an historian but also a novelist with an astute and appreciative eye for mixed character, is as sympathetic to Alcott as any sane man could be. He notes Alcott’s abolitionism and shows that he was loved and esteemed by his family and by his friends, including his on-and-off patron, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Francis even goes so far as to tug on our modern heartstrings by claiming Alcott to be an early environmentalist.

Still, it’s hard to disagree with Thomas Carlyle when he called our hero and his cofounder of Fruitlands, Charles Lane, “[b]ottomless imbeciles.’’ And, indeed, Francis provides plenty of detail, much very amusing, to illustrate that judgment. He also shows the not-very-nice side of this paragon of natural virtue: the man who blamed his wife’s “bile’’ for the death of their infant, who vamoosed at harvest time, who tampered with his wife’s journals to put himself in a better light, who didn’t pay his bills — who was, in fact, a consummate sponger.

The Fruitlands experiment lasted a mere seven months, ended by the reality of the New England weather — which resisted a return to the conditions of Eden — and conflicts among the utopians, the most damaging being between Mrs. Alcott and Lane who had footed a large part of the bill for Fruitlands. At another level, beyond practical or personal, the whole Transcendental scheme was doomed, as Francis points out, by two looming developments: Darwin’s theory of natural selection, which showed that nature, far from being pristine under a layer of human misuse, had its own history; and, of course, by the Civil War which exploded any idea of imminent natural harmony.

Around the same time that Bronson Alcott was assembling his thoughts on how exactly to transform “[t]his Beast named Man . . . into a very man, regenerate in appetite and desire,’’ the English Quaker, John Cadbury, was turning a considerably more practical intellect to making a cocoa drink to replace alcohol, the root of much human misery.

In “The Chocolate Wars: The 150-year Rivalry Between the World’s Greatest Chocolate Makers’’ (PublicAffairs, $27.95) Deborah Cadbury begins with a brief description of Quaker aims and humane business practices before moving on through the history of the family business. This takes in the truly exciting race to put Cadbury’s chocolate candy in every mouth, to the exclusion of that made by rival English Quaker firms, Rowntree and Fry, to say nothing of the Swiss Lindt and Nestlé. Her many faceted account takes in technology, distribution, and industrial espionage, advertising and packaging, labor relations and model housing for workers, the role of the firm and its owners in wartime and international expansion. It ends on a depressing note, however, with the hostile takeover of the firm by Kraft Foods, a grab that was unimpeded by a British government that believes in globalization and the priority of finance. In this area, at least, Bronson Alcott got it right: “A government, for protecting business only, is but a carcass, and soon falls by its own corruption and decay.’’

Katherine A. Powers lives in Cambridge. She can be reached by e-mail at pow3@verizon.net.