1902 Encyclopedia > George Ripley

George Ripley
American Unitarian minister, social reformer, and journalist

GEORGE RIPLEY (1802-1880), critic and man of letters, was born at Greenfield, in western Massachusetts, on October 3, 1802. He was educated at local schools and at Harvard College, where he took his degree in 1823, ranking first in his class, and then studying theology was in 1826 ordained pastor of a Unitarian church in Boston. Here his success as a thoughtful preacher was marked; but in 1840 he resigned his charge, and he subsequently retired from the active ministry altogether.

It was during those years that there grew up in New England that form of thought or philosophy known as Transcendentalism—a name, as Emerson said, " given no-body knows by whom, or when it was applied." Its growth was part of what Dr Holmes has termed the " intellectual or, if we may call it so, spiritual revival" which during the period from 1820 to 1840 was so strongly marked in the New England " churches, in politics, in philanthropy, in literature." Ripley was prominent, if riot the leader, in all practical manifestations of the movement; and it was by his earnestness and practical energy that certain of its more tangible results were directed. The first meeting of the Transcendental Club was held at his house in September 1836. He was a founder and a chief supporter of the famous magazine The Dial, which was the organ of the school from 1840 to 1844. Most important of all, however, he was the originator and conductor of an experiment which was the most interesting practical result of the thought and ten-dencies of the time,-—the foundation of " The Brook Farm Association for Education and Agriculture." This project, in the words of its originator, was intended " to insure a more natural union between intellectual and manual labour than now exists; to combine the thinker and the worker, as far as possible, in the same individual; to guarantee the highest mental freedom by providing all with labour adapted to their tastes and talents, and securing to them the fruits of their industry; to do away with the necessity of menial services by opening the benefits of education and the profits of labour to all; and thus to prepare a society of liberal, intelligent, and cultivated persons whose relations with each other would permit a more simple and wholesome life than can be led amidst the pressure of our competitive institutions." In short, its aim was to bring about the best conditions for an ideal civilization, reducing to a minimum the labour necessary for mere existence, and by this and by the simplicity of its social machinery saving the maximum of time for mental and spiritual education and development. At a time when Emerson could write to Carlyle, " We are all a little wild here with numberless projects of social reform; not a reading man but has a draft of a new community in his waistcoat pocket,"—the Brook Farm project certainly did not appear as impossible a scheme as many others that were in the air. At all events it enlisted the co-operation of men whose subse-quent careers show them to have been something more than visionaries. The association bought a tract of land in West Roxbury, some ten miles from Boston, and with about twenty members actually began its enterprise in the summer of 1841.

For three years the undertaking went on quietly and simply, subject to few outward troubles other than financial difficulties, the number of associates increasing to seventy or eighty. Pictures of the life they led have been preserved by many hands. It was during this period that Haw-thorne had his short experience of Brook Farm, of which so many suggestions appear in the Blithedale Romance, though his preface to later editions effectually disposed of the idea—which gave him great pain—that he had either drawn his characters from persons there, or had meant to give any actual description of the colony. Emerson, though he refused in a kind and characteristic letter to join in the undertaking, and though he afterwards wrote of Brook Farm with not uncharitable humour as " a per-petual picnic, a French Revolution in small, an age of reason in a patty-pan," yet spoke of the design as "noble and generous," and among its founders were many of his near friends.

In 1844 the growing need of a more scientific organiza-tion, and the influence which Fourier's doctrines had gained in the minds of Ripley and many of his associates, combined to change the whole plan of the community. It was transformed, with the strong approval of all its chief members and the consent of the rest, into a Fourierist "phalanx" in 1845. There was an accession of new members, a momentary increase of prosperity, a brilliant new undertaking in the publication of a journal, The Har-binger, in which Ripley, Charles A. Dana, Francis G. Shaw, and John Dwight were the chief writers, and to which Lowell, Whittier, George William Curtis, Parke Godwin, Story, Channing, Higginson, Horace Greeley, and many more now and then contributed. But the individu-ality of the old Brook Farm was gone. The association was not rescued even from financial troubles by the change. With increasing difficulty it kept on till the spring of 1846, when a fire which destroyed its building or " phalanstery " brought losses which caused, or certainly gave the final ostensible reason for, its dissolution. Its failure left Ripley poor and feeling keenly the defeat of his project; but the event forced him at last to devote himself to that career of literary labour in. which the real success of his life was achieved. He wrote for The Har-binger during the year of its continuance, but in 1849 he joined the staff of The Tribune, founded eight years before by Horace Greeley in New York, and in a short time became its literary editor. This position, which, through his steadiness, scholarly conservatism, and freedom from caprice as a critic, soon became one of great influence, he held until his death on July 4, 1880.

During the greater part of the time of his connexion with The Tribune, Ripley was also the adviser of a leading publishing house, an occasional contributor to the magazines, and a co-operator in several literary undertakings. The chief of these, and the most lasting work that bears his name, was the American Cyclopaedia. Begun under the editorship of Ripley and Charles A. Dana in 1857, the first edition was finished in 1862, under the title of the New American Cyclopaedia—distinguishing it from its only import-ant American predecessor in the field, the small Encyclopaedia Americana of many years before, which Dr Francis Lieber had edited, and which had been largely an adaptation of Brockhaus's Conversations-Lexikon. The new undertaking was upon a much larger scale, and enlisted a great number of well-known contribu-tors. It proved exceedingly popular ; and its commercial success led the publishers to undertake a complete revision of it ten years later—still under the same editors—the result of which, with the dropping of the word "new" from the title, was the American Cyclopaedia now before the public.

Ripley's Life, written by the Rev. O. B. Frothingham, forms one of the volumes of the series American Men of Letters. (E. L. B.)

The above article was written by: E. L. Burlinggame.

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