Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Reply to George Ripley"

Read this letter. As the Cambridge History points out, Emerson's refusal to join the community represented the more individualistic and more famous side of Transcendentalism. He emphasized that the first and most important aspect of reform was the self, and that all social and cultural reform would follow naturally once the self was reformed. While Emerson abstained from the Brook Farm Project, he later became increasingly involved in the anti-slavery movement, even though he was consistently skeptical of organized reform movements. Parts 13 and 14 of The Cambridge History discuss another leading Transcendentalist, Theodore Parker, and his role as a leading critic of slavery and of capitalist economic exploitation. As we will see in our examination of Margaret Fuller and Orestes Brownson in later units, many other Transcendentalists offered trenchant social critiques on other issues, sometimes speaking in favor of specific social changes and political causes, even if they did not see Brook Farm as the vehicle for reforming society. Thus, while most leading Transcendentalists did not participate in Brook Farm and many questioned its emphasis on community reform over individual reform, it represented a key element of Transcendentalist thought: the attempt to link individual spiritual improvement to social reform.

My dear Sir,—It is quite time I made an answer to your proposition that I should venture into your new community. The design appears to me noble and generous, proceeding, as I plainly see, from nothing covert, or selfish, or ambitious, but from a manly and expanding heart and mind. So it makes all men its friends and debtors. It becomes a matter of conscience to entertain it in a friendly spirit, and examine what it has for us.

I have decided not to join it, and yet very slowly and I may almost say with penitence. I am greatly relieved by learning that your coadjutors are now so many that you will no longer attach that importance to the defection of individuals which, you hinted in your letter to me, I or others might possess,—the painful power I mean of preventing the execution of the plan.

My feeling is that the community is not good for me, that it has little to offer me, which, with reoslution I cannot procure for myself; that it would not be worth my while to make the difficult exchange of my property in Concord for a share in the new household. I am in many respects placed as I wish to be, in an agreeable neighborhood, in a town which I have some reason to love, and which has respected my freedom so far that I have reason to hope it will indulge me further when I demand it. I cannot accuse my townsmen or my neighbors of my domestic grievances, only my own sloth and conformity. It seems to me a circuitous and operose way of relieving myself to put upon your community the emancipation which I ought to take on myself. I must assume my own vows.

The institution fo domestic hired service is to me very disagreeable. I should like to come one step nearer to nature than this usage permits. But surely I need not sell my house and remove my family to Newton in order to amke the experiment of labor and self help. I am already in the act of trying some domestic and social experiments which would gain nothing.

I ought to say that I do not puch much trust in any arrangements or combinations, only in the spirit which dictates them. Is that benevolent and divine, they will answer their end. Is there any alloy in that, it will certainly appear in the result.

I have the same answer to make to the proposiiton of the school. According to my ability and according to yours, you and I do now keep school for all comers, and the energy of our thought and of our will measures our influence.

I do not htink I should gain anything, I, who have little skill to converse with people, by a plan of so many parts, and which I comprehend so slowly and bluntly.

I almost shudder to amke any statement of my objections to our ways of living, because I see how slowly I shall mend them. My own health and habits of living and those of my wife and my mother are not of that robustness that should give any pledge of enterprise and ability in reform. Nor can I insist with any heat on new methods when I am at work in my study on any literary composition. Yet I think that all I shall solidly do, I must do alone, and I am so ignorant and uncertain in my improvements that I would fain hide my attempts and failures in solitude where they shall perplex none or very few beside myself. The result of our secretest attempts will certainly have as much renown as shall be due to it.

I do not look on myself as a valuable member to any community which is not either very large or very small and select. I fear that yours would not find me as profitable and pleasant an associate as I should wish to be, and as so important a project seems imperatively to require in all its constituents.

Mr. Edmund Hosmer, a very intelligent farmer and a very upright man in my neighborhood, to whom I read your letter, admired the spirit of the plan but distrusted all I told him of the details as far as they concerned the farm.

1. He said, as a general rule nothing was gained by cooperation in a farm except in those few pieces of work which cannot be done alone, like getting in a load of hay, which takes three men. In every other case, it is better to separate the workmen. His own boys (all good boys) work better separately than with him.

2. He thought Mr. Ripley should put no dependence on the results of gentlemen farmers such as Mr. P— and others who were named. If his (Mr. Hosmer's) farm had been managed in the way of Mr. P—'s, it would have put himself and family in the poor-house long ago. If Mr. P—'s farm should be exhibited in an accurate account of debt and credit from his beginning until now, it would probably show a great deficit. Another consideration: The gentlemen farmers are obliged to conduct their operations by means of a foreman whom they choose because he has skill to make ends meet, and sell the produce without any scrupulous inquiry on the part of the employer as to his methods. That foreman buys cheap and sells dear, in a manner which Mr. Ripley and his coadjutors will not sanction. The same thing is true of many farmers, whose praise is in the agricultural reports. If they were honest there would be no brilliant results. And Mr. Hosmer is sure that no large property can ever be made by honest farming.

3. Mr. Hosmer thinks the equal payment of ten cents per hour to every laborer unjust. One man brings capital to the ocmmunity and receives his interest. He has little skill to labor. A farmer also comes who has no capital but can do twice as much as Mr. Hosmer in a day. His skill is his capital. It would be unjust to pay him no interest on that.

4. Mr. Hosmer disbelieves that good work will continue to be done for the community if the worker is not directly benifited. His boys recieve a cent a basket for the potatoes they bring in, and that makes them work, though they know very well that the whole produce of the farm is for them.

Source: Ralph Waldo Emerson
Public Domain Mark This work is in the Public Domain.

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