Jan 20, 2016

Building an Earthly Eden


Wall Street Journal 

January 15, 2016

In the first half of the 19th century, industrialization and disillusionment with life as it was typically lived sparked an extraordinary upsurge of utopian thinking and sentiment in the United States. Scores of "experimental communities" were founded by reformers who refused to take any assumptions about society as given and who wished to discover whether the biological family must be the fundamental social unit; whether a society can function without private property; and whether citizens could be transformed by a fundamental re-ordering of their governing institutions.

Chris Jennings's sprawling but engaging "Paradise Now: The Story of American Utopianism" is a portrait of this era, which he calls the "high-water mark of an intellectual impulse that has flowed through the American experiment since day one." Rather than taking on all of America's efforts at building an earthly Eden, he details five representative movements: the Shaker colonies initiated by Mother Ann Lee in the late 18th century; the commune established by Robert Owen at New Harmony, Ind., in the 1820s; George Ripley's Brook Farm, which briefly flourished near Boston in the 1840s; the "Icarian" experiment of Étienne Cabet, which reached its zenith in Illinois around 1850; and the Oneida Perfectionist society founded by John Humphrey Noyes in upstate New York in 1848.

featured here, one may well inquire just how "American" Utopianism has ever been. Lee and Owen were both Britons. Cabet was French. Although Brook Farm was the brainchild of New England transcendentalism, Mr. Jennings becomes truly interested in it only after it has set aside its original principles and adopted the heavily regimented ideology of Charles Fourier, another Frenchman. With the exception of Noyes's Oneida group, which drew on the private, otherworldly visions of its founder, the big ideas here began in Europe, and they are an outlandish blend of genius and lunacy.Given the ideological origins of the communities

Preaching the advent of heaven on earth, the Shakers combined millennialist fervor with rigorous practicality to create both inner harmony and worldly prosperity. They also outlawed sex, banned the use of rugs (a favorite hiding place, they thought, for devils) and mandated that their adherents cut their meat into precise quadrilaterals. Fourier foretold global warming, espoused gender equality and worked out elaborate schemes for harnessing individual passions to serve the common good. He also maintained that, once his reforms were adopted, human beings would sprout prehensile tails and the oceans would turn to lemonade.

Understandably, the utopias in Mr. Jennings's study reflect the personalities of their founders. The pious Mancunian Ann Lee endured a series of difficult pregnancies and the early deaths of all her children. Despite her strong practical reasons for loathing the carnality of the human condition, it was her ecstatic religious visions that prompted her to lead her followers first to New York and thence to a farm near Albany in 1775. There they established a colony whose members renounced both private property and physical contact with the opposite sex—conditions that they also expected to exist in heaven.

Whereas Lee's followers dreamed of inaugurating the kingdom of Christ on earth, Welsh textile magnate Robert Owen professed atheism and based his reforms on human sympathy instead of established doctrine. His commune at New Harmony, Ind., abolished not only property rights but also religious worship and conventional marriage, all with the conviction that free love and radical equality would liberate both body and soul. At Brook Farm near Boston, founder George Ripley tried to enlist Emerson, Thoreau and Hawthorne as fellow seekers of the light. (Emerson and Thoreau declined; Hawthorne signed on for a while.) The Brook Farmers were the artsiest of Mr. Jennings's utopians, tending their cattle by day and staging plays and writing poetry after hours. Declining finances drove them to try Fourierism, which both called for stricter organization and demanded that workers be assigned tasks that corresponded with their passions. A devastating fire ended Ripley's experiment, leaving unanswered the question of whether enough people were passionate about shoveling manure to support a society.

In other parts of Mr. Jennings's volume, ironies abound. Cabet's Icarians came from France and, after the Mormons moved west, took over the settlement at Nauvoo, Ill., where they made a nice profit selling corn whiskey. Cabet envisioned a worker's paradise—and died in an apoplectic rage when his maid bungled his breakfast. Following a mystical revelation, John Humphrey Noyes, the founder of the Oneida Perfectionists, proclaimed himself to be without sin. On the strength of that revelation, he created a society on a principle of supposedly sinless group marriage, wherein men and women could couple as they chose, so long as the men did not reach orgasm.

Writing an impartial, respectful account of these philanthropies and follies is no small task, but Mr. Jennings largely pulls it off with insight and aplomb. Indulgently sympathetic to the utopian impulse in general, he tells a good story. His explanations of the various reformist credos are patient, thought-provoking and, for the most part, entertaining. His introduction to Fourierism, an important forerunner of Marxist theory, is especially discerning.

At times, however, elementary errors crowd the page. Madison, not Monroe, is identified as president in 1818. In the same year, Napoleon turns up on Elba instead of St. Helena. Louisa May Alcott,Bronson Alcott's second-born daughter, is promoted to his eldest. In addition, Mr. Jennings is fond of expressions like "ground zero," "lousy," "crummy" and "a big deal," which try for a chummy atmosphere but can come off sounding forced.

The essential questions that undergird Mr. Jennings's work are these: Why is the utopian impulse in America "now . . . near its lowest ebb"? What can we learn from the experiments of the past, and why have Americans, in the author's view at least, largely turned their backs on the very idea of community? Mr. Jennings offers numerous explanations for the erosion of our idealism: The Civil War shocked us out of our Quixotism; the government replaced scattered visionaries as the wellspring of reform; people simply realized that the pursuit of private wealth held out more rewards than living one's life for a community. These facts certainly explain the Gilded Age of more than a century ago, but why do Americans still tend to shun communitarian visions of the good life?

Mr. Jennings asserts that a utopian venture is less about "what people did than what they had in their heads." In his final assessment of these movements, however, he stresses their sociological achievements—their gender equality; their provision of social safety nets for their members; their resistance to free-market economics—and sets their spiritual atmosphere aside. This is a curious move, since, time and again in "Paradise Now," it is the power of loving, unquestioning belief that keeps rickety utopian societies intact for an astonishingly long time.

All of Mr. Jennings's examples tend to show that people are most able to maintain a close-knit, caring community when they feel united by some transcendent faith—though both Brook Farm and New Harmony suggest that such a faith need not be religious. It would seem evident that utopianism, like less radical affirmations of community, has languished largely because we have been so effectively schooled in cynicism and distrust. Wretched examples of communities gone wrong like Jonestown and the Branch Davidians have numbed much of our curiosity about separatist communities, and we have been too long in the habit of thinking only of our immediate material wants. Both the Shakers and the Oneida Perfectionists owed their origins to religious revelations experienced by their founders. For both good and ill, most of us are now as likely to believe in such visions as in Fourier's prehensile tails.

—Mr. Matteson's books include "Eden's Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father" and, most recently, an annotated edition of "Little Women."

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