The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 10 July 2017

The Oasis

by Mary McCarthy

The search for a Utopian society goes back well before Thomas More invented his Utopia, five hundred years ago. And in America, it goes back to our founding. We're fond of making fun of these social experiments, their quirky outsider nature, their cultish politics and spiritual quirks, their tendency toward failure. A few of the oldest experiments have vestiges down to the present day. The most recent wave, the communal movement of the 1960s, also has a few survivors. Our present notions of communes is highly colored by the sixies, but among the current generation of young people, there is a new, highly modern version of communal living and cohousing. Today, though, it seems less driven by an ideology or spiritual notion than it is by the high cost of living in big cities and an intention of living with fewer possessions and more experiences (which seems a pretty good idea to this reader).

Anyway, our point is that the urge toward an ideal cooperative community is very strong in American history. Indeed, there are portions of our Constitution which could be interpreted in these terms. We are, after all, all in this together. Still, there are common threads to the success and/or failure of these communal experiments. The stories, too, are ripe for satire. The great communal satire has probably yet to be written. But, in 1949, Mary McCarthy, herself involved in socialist movements, wrote this short but dense satire of a group of idealists and capitalists who start a commune, ambitiously named Utopia, in the Taconic mountains of eastern New York. Settled in an abandoned vacation motel, Utopia is split by factions of purists and realists, the latter convinced that they've just joined up to watch the ideals of the purists come to failure. Indeed, a couple of the founders are long-time capitalists with youthful socialist notions they are ready to explore, now that they are comfortably well-off. They wryly want to see the commune collapse, as the purists come to realize the futility of their ideals, but the capitalists find that, as the commune comes together in successful labor, they, too, are slowly infected by the possibility that they may succeed in realizing this version of the socialist dream.

The story of this Utopia takes the form of dense insightful character portraits. In meeting the various residents of Utopia, learning a bit about their past and how they relate to one another, the story of the whole community is illuminated. McCarthy's talent for drawing characters is prodigious. The individuals are distinct and idiosyncratic. And their interactions, the conflicts that threaten Utopia, are realistic and relevant to the long history of such experiments in American culture. One man is threatened with expulsion due to his impulsive behavior. The entire community is ready to fly apart over a field full of wild strawberries. McCarthy herself had a complicated relationship with socialist politics and communal experimentation. Her depiction here is satiric, but not entirely dismissive. One senses she, like one of her realist protagonists, is rooting for the failure of Utopia, but, in the end, it isn't entirely clear where Utopia is going. In the oddly truncated story, there's room for interpretation. What is clear, though, is that the communal experiments to come in the following decades might have learned a thing or two about process and cooperation from McCarthy's sharp satire.

[Mail John][To List]

See also: [Utopia by Thomas More]

[Other books by Women Authors]