Book Reviews

They Can Dream, Can’t They?

People laughed at utopians, but that hardly means they were failures who didn’t give us good ideas.

By Brook Wilensky-Lanford

Tagged CommunityideasUtopian

Paradise Now: The Story Of American Utopianism by Chris Jennings • Random House • 2016 • 512 Pages

The word “utopia” is based on an obscure Greek pun: topos means place, but the prefix “u” is ambiguous: it can either mean “good,” or it can indicate negation: “no place.” And ever since Thomas More’s 1516 novel of that title, the idea of a perfect human place has seemed to most of us like an absurdity. How, after all, could fallible human nature be put to work to achieve something as slippery and subjective as perfection?

But in Paradise Now: The Story of American Utopianism, author Chris Jennings makes the case that the formation of utopian communities is America’s natural genre of self-criticism—or at least it was in the early nineteenth century. Paradise Now traces five key utopian movements: the Shakers, Owenites, Fourierists, Icarians, and the Oneida Community. You’ve no doubt heard of a couple of these groups, though maybe only in reference to furniture (Shaker) or flatware (Oneida). However, in their time, these were widely known movements, drawing thousands of participants with many thousands more following their escapades and debating their merits through the burgeoning print media of the era.

These five were hardly alone. In 1840s America, “communes . . . were founded by free lovers, nonlovers, vegetarians, communists, abolitionists, anarchists, Swedenborgians, atheists, spiritualists, Adventists, and teetotalers.” That is, essentially “anyone with new ideas about how the world ought to work.” And there was a good reason why communalism flourished in the United States, as opposed to Europe. “The Republic itself, especially its founding mythology as a city upon a hill, could be understood as a set of new ideas made manifest as a physical community,” Jennings writes. These nineteenth-century “communities on a hill,” then, did not exist only in order to exalt their leaders or members, but to be visible to the world and, hopefully, to inspire by example. And the five utopias Jennings focuses on all achieved a certain success in this regard.

Each utopian leader had a particular, often very specific, vision of the future that they were trying to bring about by example. The Shakers, led by Mother Ann Lee, who first left England for America in 1774, were officially the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, and they “saw themselves as the second and final iteration” of the first Christians. Robert Owen’s belief in an “imminent secular millennium” brought him from the rapidly growing industrial landscape of Britain—where he was a manufacturer—to found New Harmony, Indiana, a community of over a thousand people, which survived from 1825 to 1829 and showcased his socialist ideals. The diffuse American followers of the eccentric French visionary Charles Fourier called themselves Associationists and built a series of “phalanxes” meant to usher in the “New Industrial World,” where the energy of individual human creativity would be perfected and productive; the movement reached its height around 1843 to 1845. Étienne Cabet, author of the novel Voyage to Icaria, spawned an egalitarian utopian movement called, naturally, the Icarians, that started by colonizing Texas in 1848. And John Humphrey Noyes, who founded the Oneida spiritual community in western New York, also in 1848, sought to build nothing less than human perfection.

Their differing visions notwithstanding, these utopians shared much: “a post-Enlightenment belief in limitless progress; a distaste for revolutionary insurrection; a faith in the potential of model communities to initiate social change; a belief in the rapid approach of a golden age; and an overarching conviction that a true and perfect ‘science’ of society exists.” Jennings is persuasive that we should view these thinkers, and the philosophies and communities they developed, as part of the larger trajectory of American social and political development, not as a motley collection of isolated kooks on their respective mountaintops. Taken collectively, as indeed they would like to be taken, the utopians comprised a movement that actually covered a lot of ground and included a lot of people—at all levels of society. And some of the utopian innovations that looked most extreme to Victorian contemporaries—like Oneida women wearing their hair short, which caused quite a fuss—would eventually filter down and become societal advances we take for granted today, which is exactly how a “city on a hill” should operate.

Further expanding Jennings’s characterization of utopian movements as interconnected, he details the surprising fact that many of the utopias were very often transatlantic responses to world events. Of the five utopia founders covered by Jennings, only John Humphrey Noyes was born and bred in the New World. The others had their visions forged by the “twin disasters of the Industrial and French Revolutions.” Impoverished Mother Ann Lee and wealthy industrialist and trade unionist Robert Owen may have been on opposite ends of the class hierarchy back in the Old World, but both were radicalized by the hellish social implications of the early industrial landscape. And Owen, along with Fourier and Cabet, experienced the dark side of the French Revolution: “While their Jacobin comrades descended into paranoid, self-consuming terror,” believing that the necessary new order required complete destruction of the old, “the communal utopians tried to take a different road to a similar, although not identical, paradise.” That different utopian road can look much more sympathetic in light of the suffering of their founders. “It is common to attribute utopianism to a surfeit of optimism, but the desire to totally overhaul civilization implies a fairly cynical view of the world as it is. Imagining a perfect future is, almost by definition, a way to organize grievances with the here and now,” Jennings writes.

The grievances the utopians organized had similar themes: inequality of the sexes, faults in education and culture, workplace injustices. For this reason each utopian thinker was often well aware of other thinkers’ efforts to solve the same problems. John Humphrey Noyes thought it was no coincidence that his Oneida Community was hitting its stride just as the Fourierist movement was dying down. Fourierists in turn were in conversation with the Owenites—their founders were contemporaries in Europe although their American incarnations came a decade apart. And everyone, no matter how different their theology was from the plain-dressing millennialist Shakers, admired them and looked to their commitment and industriousness—if not their celibacy—as an example.

From our vantage point, there certainly was plenty of weirdness to go around. The Shakers kept no rugs because devils were liable to hide in them; the relentlessly modern Oneida Community called their rubber sneakers “the final shoe,” because of the inevitable coming millennium, the era of complete human perfection, of course. And the Associationists—oh, those Associationists. Fourier believed that among all of humanity there were only 810 “passional types”—combinations of talents, predilections, quirks—and that by assembling a “phalanx” with two of every type, you ought therefore to be able to perform all human tasks to perfection. The numerical specificity lends an air of whimsy to Fourier’s ideas, as does his contention that in the coming millennial transformation, the sea would undergo chemical change to make it taste like lemonade. But how can a utopian like Fourier, who bases his outlandish schemes on the “wild variety of human particularity” not help but endear himself to a modern individualist like me?

Fourier’s disciples were legion in the 1840s, among them—and most crucially for the American spread of his ideas—iconic newspaperman Horace Greeley. Brook Farm, the Massachusetts “intentional community” that started as a Transcendentalist enclave and became an official Fourierist phalanx, was a frequent haunt of Bronson Alcott, Margaret Fuller, and even occasionally the “sage of Concord” himself, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who famously called the place “a perpetual picnic, a French Revolution in small, an Age of Reason in a patty-pan.” Nathaniel Hawthorne stayed there for a while, and later wrote an affectionately satirical novel, The Blithedale Romance, about the experience. By 1845, Jennings reports, 23 separate Fourierist phalanxes had been founded, housing around 6,000 to 7,000 people in total. Additionally, an estimated 100,000 people called themselves Associationists.

These communities did not function as mere collections of gurus and followers.

It did sometimes appear that the utopians’ cosmologies and plans emanated directly from their leaders’ life experiences. Ann Lee’s traumatic repeated miscarriages and still births made reproduction less attractive, and Noyes’s early heartbreak may have caused him to disavow ever getting so invested in the “special love” of one person ever again. (The Oneidans practiced a regulated form of “free love,” in which everyone was encouraged to couple with everyone else.) But these communities did not function as mere collections of gurus and followers. That, after all, would actually be a dystopia: “that drizzly, well-intentioned metropolis in which citizens cue up like drowsy cattle for a daily dose of soma and vitamin-enriched bread.” Instead, members of these groups often came and went at will, or moved from one group to another, following their own interests.

While Jennings does loosely distinguish “religious” and “secular” utopias—the Shakers and Oneidans being religious and the Owenites, Fourierites, and Icarians secular—he is also well aware that when it comes to thinking about human perfection, you can’t really separate the strands of religion from those of politics. Instead of generalizing, Jennings does a particularly fine job of delineating the details of each group’s belief system, noting which aspects are original and which are not, and examining the implications. How, for example, can the Shakers be premillennial dispensationalists but not be disappointed in the lack of apocalypse? What is the difference between antinomianism and Perfectionism, or even Perfectionism vs. perfectionism? (As one who’s immersed himself in the adorably verbose and even more adorably tangential Victorians, Jennings may perhaps be forgiven for locating much of the good stuff in the footnotes. Don’t skip them!)

We often think of these utopias as by definition failures—they have not, after all, created a perfect society, and they have not even managed to survive in their original form. But what if we think about these movements not as “pop-up shops” of perfection, but as petri dishes for new social ideas? Then their success might be measured in the degree to which those ideas grew and spread to become part of the normal order of American life. Jennings notes that many of the “once radical” beliefs at the heart of nineteenth-century utopias—abolitionism, temperance, political progressivism, women’s suffrage—all eventually became at least temporarily acceptable; that is, they came down from the hill to the rest of us. By the time Noyes, the last of the utopians, died in 1886, “a constellation of distinctly American ideals shone above the Republic. Having assumed that vaunted position, they came to appear fixed, inevitable.”

It is “almost impossible,” Jennings writes, “not to mock the extravagant hopes of the nineteenth-century utopians.” Really, you believed that women wearing short hair could help usher in equality? But he cautions against easy dismissal: “[I]t is difficult to linger amid the ruins of those hopes without sensing a deficit in our own time, a way in which their story mocks us.” That is to say, I don’t need to take seriously Fourier’s every contention in order to realize that he was trying, in however baroque a way, to make room for a diversity of human expression.

Each of these movements, Jennings observes, had particular, innovative strengths. Icarians tended to be satisfied with just the attempt at Utopia, which is how they managed to last as long as they did: “communism was not just the means to a happy, just society; it was an end in itself—a state of moral exaltation.” Noyes and the Oneidans had a remarkable ability to change strategies when one wasn’t working, and they gave lie to the notion of the utopians as an isolated cult by being extraordinarily open to the outside world, even when the outside world was not open to them. But Jennings would say we should also learn from the mere existence of these groups. The simple fact that they had an orientation toward, and a plan for, the ideal future is a quality we’ve lost. For all we talk about the future, he believes, we largely don’t have the courage to try to make it what we want it to be. Instead, we Americans like to look backwards, making “our brief past the repository of all value and virtue—a Kodachrome fantasy of thrift, fresh air, honest labor, and various greatest generations” that it never really was.

Jennings’s sweeping, interconnected, and utterly sympathetic narrative of the utopian movement has certainly earned him the right to show the value of this history for contemporary life. However, I must disagree with Jennings on his overall assessment. He too, seems to be idealizing an earlier time and dismissing another with similar ambitions. Reading Paradise Now, there are unavoidable echoes of a much later period of American history, namely the 1960s and ’70s. Indeed, Jennings hears the echoes too, and he spends a moment reflecting on this “next flood tide of American communalism.” He concludes, however, that “the aspirations of the hippie communards were categorically different from those of their utopian forebears.” Why? The hippies were more secessionist and personal, and less millennialist, visionary, and utopian; that is, they did not anticipate “the open gambit of a new global dispensation,” as their nineteenth-century forebears did. The lack of social ambition of the communes of the 1960s, Jennings argues, is symbolically reflected in their architecture, or lack thereof. Not the grand brick “Mansion House” of Oneida or the ambitious “phalanstery” of Brook Farm, but the tent cities, shacks, and geodesic domes that many counter-cultural types favored.

What if we think about these movements not as “pop-up shops” of perfection, but as petri dishes for new social ideas?

I would argue, however, that those communes do measure up in terms of their long-term effects, and in terms of imagining a future. We may not find the trappings of the New Age as pretty to look at as the still-standing Mansion House of the Oneida community, but the communes, homesteaders, and co-ops of the 1960s and ’70s were also testing grounds for ideas that we now take for granted. To help shed light on this era of American utopianism, I highly recommend another new book coming out this spring, Kate Daloz’s We Are As Gods: Back to the Land in the 1970s on the Quest for a New America, as a complement to Paradise Now. Its title comes from a famous quote that opens hippie entrepreneur Stewart Brand’s The Whole Earth Catalog: “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.” That is, we should harness our incredible human power for the good of all, a sentiment not unlike those of Charles Fourier. Out of these experiments came our contemporary obsession with holistic health and responsible eating, new models for cooperative businesses and the “sharing economy,” and even the Internet age itself, which Brand’s Catalog envisioned with its decentralized model of information exchange. Daloz grew up in a geodesic dome in Vermont surrounded by former and current communes in various states of disarray. Like Jennings, she takes the long view and is not under any illusions about the naiveté of some of these groups’ ideas; and like Jennings, she’s willing to take communards at their word about the beliefs that drove them and trace their effects on today’s society.

And those effects tend to send me back into the nineteenth century, where many of the earlier communards that speak through Jennings’s book express hope that their shuttered utopias aren’t actually the failures they seemed to be. Perhaps, after all, we need the future to appreciate the past. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s fictitious narrator in The Blithedale Romance, disappointed in utopia’s failure, still hoped that one day, “Posterity may dig it up and profit by it.” And indeed we have. But we still have some way to go in acknowledging our debt to utopia. As William Henry Channing wrote hopefully after the collapse of Brook Farm, “Were Thermopylae and Bunker Hill considered successes in their day and generation?” Not at the time, is the implication, but some time thereafter. Hopefully the same may be said soon not only for Brook Farm but for the Whole Earth Catalog.

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Brook Wilensky-Lanford is the author of Paradise Lust: Searching for the Garden of Eden, editor of the online religion magazine Killing the Buddha, and a graduate student at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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