Two new works focus on the rise and fall of a pair of utopian communities in Massachusetts in the 1800s
Brook Farm: The Dark Side of Utopia
By Sterling F. Delano
Harvard University, 428 pp.,illustrated, $29.95
Letters From an American Utopia: The Stetson Family and the Northampton Association, 1843-1847
Edited by Christopher Clark and Kerry W. Buckley
University of Massachusetts, 284 pp.,illustrated, $34.95
To walk across the overgrown fields in a corner of West Roxbury, skirting marshlands and happening on a debris-choked cellar hole, is to encounter an image overtaken by reality. The small sign at the roadside says this is Brook Farm, but the Brook Farm of history and imagination is long vanished.
Brook Farm was a utopian community, one of dozens that sprang up in New England and across the Northern states in the 1840s. It is the best known of them (not including the Shaker communities), having been immortalized in Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel, ''The Blithedale Romance."
The reality -- the ''dark side" -- of its past is found in the distinguished and often entertaining history ''Brook Farm," by Sterling F. Delano, a professor of English at Villanova University. Curiously, for all its renown, and for all the notables -- Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, Amos Bronson Alcott and Margaret Fuller, as well as Hawthorne -- associated with Brook Farm, Delano's is the first comprehensive study to appear in more than a century.
Brook Farm was the creation of George Ripley, who resigned as minister of a Unitarian church in what is now Boston's Financial District to establish ''a social worship . . . to redeem society as well as the individual from all sin." Ripley and those who moved with him to Brook Farm in the spring of 1841 had been associated with the idealistic Transcendental movement.
After barely two years of the farm as a back-to-the-land enterprise by day and an intellectual beehive by night, Ripley proposed a turn toward industry, following the utopian socialist principles of the French social scientist Charles Fourier.
That change is traditionally seen as a leading factor in the collapse of Brook Farm. If nothing else, as one of its original members wrote, the new direction caused the departure ''of those who gave its greatest charm to Brook Farm. One by one they dropped away" to be replaced by an assortment of artisans: ''The aesthetic view of life which was their one bright vision having resolved itself into the Dutchman's wooden leg, a compound of clockwork and steam."
By contrast, the abolitionists and pacifists who formed a utopian community at Northampton in 1842 came together to operate a silk-thread factory. Their story has received welcome attention in recent years from historian Christopher Clark, who with Kerry W. Buckley, executive director of Historic Northampton, has assembled ''Letters From an American Utopia," a remarkable collection of writings from a family that lived there.
James and Dolly Stetson were antislavery activists in Brooklyn, Conn. and, like many similar families in the 1840s, joined what Clark calls ''intentional communities" as a way of broadening their activities. The letters were prompted by James's frequent absence from Northampton as a salesman.
While ''Brook Farm" focuses on the beliefs and activities of its leaders, the Stetson letters provide, as Clark notes, an ''understanding of women and families in the reform movements of the mid-nineteenth century . . . [and] throw light on the circumstances and anxieties of women and men seeking to balance their own needs to earn a livelihood with the ideals of social reform that had motivated them to venture into a new way of life."
''Membership in a community," Clark writes, ''enabled ordinary men and women such as the Stetsons to make their calls for radical reform carry weight that they would otherwise have lacked."
But at both Brook Farm and Northampton, ''ideals of social reform" ran up against economic realities. At Brook Farm, its financial situation, always shaky, became critical with unmanageable investments in machinery and equipment.
In December 1845, Mary Ann Dwight, a resident whose letters are an important source for information about life at Brook Farm, wrote that the community was ''perplexed by debts, by want of capital to carry on any business to advantage" and ''we have reached . . . our severest crisis."
Just three months later, that crisis was compounded when fire destroyed a planned industrial building. Within two years, the community was dissolved and the farm sold at public auction in April 1849.
Delano argues that ''the last word about Brook Farm shouldn't have to do with failure." Women especially, he writes, ''found opportunities there for personal growth and development." While much of the work was performed ''along fairly traditional gender lines," members knew that ''it would be equitably rewarded."
Fuller provides a link to the Brook Farm of the imagination -- and to its present reality. She spent New Year's Day 1844 there, staying in The Cottage and writing a 44-line poem: ''Yes! sound again the horn, of Hope the golden horn; /Answer it, flutes and pipes, from valleys still and lorn."
The Cottage and the principal dormitory, The Hive, were still standing in 1973 when the Massachusetts Legislature appropriated funds to purchase Brook Farm from the Lutheran Services Association, which operated social programs and a cemetery there.
While negotiations dragged on, the two buildings stood vacant until they were vandalized and torched. The Cottage, destroyed in August 1985 -- three years before the state finally was able to purchase the property -- is that debris-choked cellar hole.
Michael Kenney is a Globe correspondent.