Alcott’s “Transcendental Wild Oats” turning the Georgic trope on its head

In Louisa May Alcott’s “Transcendental Wild Oats”, she presents a canny and complex example of the Georgic trope, which I would argue is also effectually subversive to it. While she presents the men of the Fruitlands utopian community as having important ideas and honorable intentions in line with a Christian value system, it is obvious in the foil character, Sister Hope, that she is critical of their execution. Alcott doesn’t shy away from the faulty aspects of their attempt at achieving utopia, particularly stressing the male sloth and unwillingness to work when it comes to necessary household tasks, in addition to their pitiful ignorance in the realm of agricultural production.

It is as if the idealistic pair of men who conceived of Fruitlands believed everything they needed to live God would provide if they were only faithful enough. “In these steps of reform,” Sister Hope’s cerebral husband preaches, “we do not rely so much on scientific reasoning or physiological skill as on the spirit’s dictates” (34). This line of thinking leads Lion and Lamb to shirk their realistic responsibilities in the everyday maintenance of the community. They are practically inept in the crop field, as they eschew the use of labor animals, manure, and other technologies, yet utterly fail to find alternatives to serve the purposes of these things, which ultimately results in hazardously low yields. Sister Hope and her children are the ones who salvage the ailing wheat crop. Tellingly, it doesn’t even occur to Lamb that his stubborn asceticism is hurting his family until he has almost died of self-imposed starvation.

Alcott’s satirical use of religious language emphasizes her view of the Transcendentalist community in which she was raised as somewhat farcical. She describes the spare kitchen in such a way that it becomes a manifestation of Sister Hope’s personal “cross to bear”: “No teapot profaned that sacred stove, no gory steak cried aloud for vengeance from her chaste grid-iron; and only a brave woman’s taste, time, and temper were sacrificed on that domestic altar” (35). Although she is not perceived by her fellows as indispensible, as the one really keeping the commune running, Alcott’s depiction proves Sister Hope to be the superior embodiment of Christian morality played out in a practical agricultural setting.

Alcott, Loisa May. Loisa May Alcott: An Intimate Anthology. Ch/Art: Transcendental Wild oats p. 28-45. pub. Doubleday Sept 1997

Garrard, Greg. Ecocriticism.New York: Routledge, 2004.

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One response to this post.

  1. Posted by bharta1 on November 10, 2011 at 11:31 am

    Her concept of Georgic is not entirely subversive of Georgic, but a desire a habitation of substance. Displays that are alternative ideas of “equilibrium” or transcendence means that they do not have a harmony or co-existence with a farm but more-or-less of nature. The farm is a brutal place where animal labor and technology strive. “‘Dwelling’ is not a transient state; rather, it implies the long-term imbrication of humans in a landscape of memory, ancestry and death, of ritual, life and work.” Transcendence embraces the ritual of evading work and the material anchor of habitation. What they are suffering from is the delusion of a utopia, indeed, their Fruitlands, is a painfully chaotic habitation, if not self-annihilating. Alcott demonstrates that the abstract and obscura of transcendence neuters pragmatism, and indeed the ‘visionaries’ who are content with the future (i.e. utopia) have no sense of mechanical, technical presence and doom themselves because of it. Their’s is a faux Georgic, not entirely a subversive example of it.

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