The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 1 June 2019

Paradise Now

The Story of American Utopianism

by Chris Jennings

The urge toward Utopia, alien to a capitalistic country like the United States as it may seem, is as American as apple pie. Indeed, it is a human trait. Thomas More’s Utopia, was first printed in 1516, and was the result of many intellectual discussions and explorations. But the idea goes back to the beginning. After all, what is it to be human than to envision an ideal future in which all people are happy, engaged, hard-working and prosperous? Perhaps that isn’t entirely easy to see in the raging individualism that characterizes much of Western culture these days. The most recent wave of Utopian thinking came and went in the 1960s and 70s. Some of the communal Utopias of that era endure to this day. It is somewhat surprising that a new era of Utopian opposition to rapacious capitalism hasn’t risen in the past few years. Most of our thinking of the future is decidedly dystopian. Just watch any science-fiction movie down at the megaplex on any given Saturday. Maybe, though, something now obscure could one day return? A new collective vision rooted in optimism and hope? Hard to imagine while most of us dread the ongoing collapse of the climate.

But it isn’t new. Very little is these days, really. Before the hippies in the 60s, there were several notable 20th-century Utopian visions and experiments, particularly during the Depression. Before that was the long stretch of the 19th century, in which many famous Utopian experimental communities struggled and even thrived. This book is about five of those movements: Owenites, Fourierists, Oneida Perfectionists, Icarians, and the Shakers. To varying degrees, these movements were rooted in Christian millenarian thinking. Each made up its own rules, some of those complex, meticulous, particular and unattainable. Some, though, particularly the Oneida Perfectionist community, whose tremendous mansion house remains an historical landmark in western New York, managed to endure for decades in a loosely structured, but ultimately cohesive working community. All of these movements ultimately fell apart. The American Civil War was a cultural, social and structural upheaval on the landscape, and its bloody battles a brutal counterpoint to preachings of an idealized future of cooperation and brotherhood. More particularly, the loss of charismatic leaders, dissension over strict rules, failures of business and farm ventures, the harshness of the rural environments they tended to occupy, and that other eternal element of human nature, individualism, ultimately caused these communities to fade away.

That doesn’t necessarily mean the experiments weren’t worthwhile. The hippie-originated communes that survive today offer a lesson in what it takes to make such a communal vision endure. Ultimately, though, it tends toward thinking small, rather than attempting to transform all of humanity by merely offering an example of countercultural community. We don’t credit that enough, really. There are yet things that have changed in our mainstream culture that can be traced to countercultural ideals and hopes. Maybe ultimate change can only be very slow. Looking back on history, that can be hard to accept, because at heart we think things can be better. Most of us long for some kind of change. And so did the 19th-century Utopians. For decades, they saw a world full of potential and injustice. It felt like the moment to make a change. That it took peculiar personalities with strange visions to do it only means that thinking outside the box is ever a challenge. Change was in the air. Dissatisfaction with the status quo drove the ideal of a new world, or a dream of bringing on Christ’s return in a new millennium. Much of America was ripe for this movement. It was already experiencing a revivalist wave.

Of course, there are prurient interests here. The quirky theology alone is enough to earn eye-rolls of wonder. Both the Fourierists and the Oneida Perfectionists envisioned rather unorthodox sexual relations that seem weird even today and must have scandalized the most liberal of Victorians. The Shakers took the opposite tack, though, an ultimately unsustainable celibacy. These movements practiced radical equality, as well. But it was still the years before the Civil War, and that vision tended to stop right at the edge of any racial equality. The groups engaged variously with the outside community, and, indeed, tended to survive longest where they carried on the best of inter-community relationships. Each started with charismatic leaders and even in this engrossing overview, the reader can be forgiven for inferring certain peccadilloes and transgressions by these individuals who kept hundreds or thousands of followers in thrall.

It is hard to quantify how much these movements have affected our culture in the long run. They tend to be looked at askance by the mainstream. American individualism tends to look upon social experimentation as naive and just plain weird. But there is something to be said for a positive collective vision for the future. Otherwise, what are we all here for? Just waiting for the next iPhone to come out? Chris Jennings engagingly teases out the implications of Utopian ideals in the 21st century. His book is an engrossing historical journey. He is occasionally conversational and even snarky, but his affection for these visionaries comes out in the end.

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See Also: [Utopia, by Thomas More] [Brook Farm, by Sterling F. Delano]

[Other History, Biography and Memoir]

[For other books on Countercultural Movements]