Utopian Communities (American History Through Literature)
In her novel Redwood (1824), Catharine Maria Sedgwick (1789867) describes the Shaker villages of Lebanon and Hancock, Massachusetts, as a "religious republic" divided into communal "family" units "whose members are clothed from one store-house, fed at the same board, and perform their domestic worship together" (pp. 17881) while also engaging in an enthusiastic bustle of industry around looms and the community dairy. She also praises the members for their "skillful cultivation" and "snow white linen" (p. 184). In the midst of this mostly flattering portrayal, however, she also observes that these communities "have been visited by foreigners and strangers from all parts of our unionll are shocked or disgusted by some of the absurdities of the shaker faith, but none have withheld their admiration from the results of their industry, ingenuity, order, frugality, and temperance" (p. 181). Sedgwick's conflicted assessment of Shaker culture is representative of the mixture of skepticism, abhorrence, and grudging respect extended by Americans to their brethren living in utopian communities during the same period. The first half of the nineteenth century ushered in a golden era of utopian experimentation. Owenists, Fourierists, Oneida Perfectionists, Mormons, Amana Inspirationalists, and New Icarians all founded utopian communities in America between 1820 and 1870. Each movement was greeted with a mix of revulsion and fascination from within the dominant culture, and their experiments were also registered by the nation's literary elite, who, like Sedgwick, could be simultaneously seduced and repulsed by the new utopianism.
THE ROOTS OF UTOPIANISM IN NORTH AMERICA
Thomas More coined the word "utopia" neologism from the Greek ou, "no or not," and topos, "place"n his 1516 work "De optimo reipublicae statu deque nova insula Utopia" ("Concerning the highest state of the republic and the new island Utopia"; translated most often simply as Utopia). More's satirical fiction imagines an idyllic island republic ruled by reason where property is shared communally, the population of cities is controlled by resettlement, and wars are fought by mercenaries from among the islanders' warlike neighbors. Utopia inaugurated a genre of speculative fiction in the West that imagined the possibility of perfect societies existing outside the confines of Europe. More's novel also cemented the link between utopianism and communalism in the Western consciousness. The three texts that most profoundly shaped utopian thought in the Western worldlato's Republic, Acts 2:427 in the New Testament, and Utopiaach describe an ideal society wherein property is shared by the entire community.
The cultural impact of More's novel on actual utopian experimentation is difficult to measure; more certain is the convergence of colonialist expansion, religious dissention, and millenarianism that opened North America to European utopian impulses during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The continent provided a vast canvas upon which Anabaptists, radical Pietists, and millenarians painted their visions of Christian perfectionism. Most of these new utopians were refugees from religious persecution in Europe. Bohemia Manor (1683727), Woman in the Wilderness (1694720), Bethlehem (1741844), and the Ephrata Cloister (1732934) were founded by Labadists, German Pietists, Moravians, and Seventh Day Baptists respectivelyll sects that had been branded as apostate or heretical by the mainline Calvinist and Lutheran Churches in Europe. All four settlements were founded in Pennsylvania around a migrant community within or near William Penn's "tolerant" Quaker territory. Some held millenarian beliefs. The theologian and mathematician Johann Kelpiusounder of the Woman in the Wilderness communityalculated that the millennium would arrive in 1694, and he led forty male settlers from Germany to present-day Germantown, Pennsylvania, to await the event. All of these communities experimented with communal ownership and control of property, and each experimented with alternative family arrangements. The New Bohemia community believed children belonged to God and raised them communally. The Ephrata Cloister demanded celibacy, even from married members. These Christian perfectionists created the template for subsequent utopian communities by demonstrating practical alternatives to the patterns of domesticity, radical individualism, and competitive capitalism that were cohering within the new American Republic.
THE SHAKER PHENOMENON
Of all the utopian communitarian movements established in America, the Shakers paved the widest path in nineteenth-century culture. Its principle founder, "Mother" Ann Lee, had been born into a poor family in Manchester, England, on 29 February 1736. Caught up in the evangelical fervor of the 1750s, the uneducated and extremely pietistic girl found a home among the "seekers," a Quaker-influenced sect based in Manchester. This "charismatic" group, known for its spirited demonstrations of shouting, turbulent movement, and speaking in tongues, was labeled "Shaking Quakers" by its detractors. Lee tried her hand at marriage and gave birth to four children who did not survive to adulthood. In the early 1770s she became more active in the movement that became known as the Shakers, and in 1774, driven by a series of visions about a new Eden in America, she and eight others crossed the Atlantic to found a community in Niskeyuna, New York, west of Albany. Within the next ten years before her death, her Shakers would create the infrastructure for what was arguably the most successful utopian movement in American historyne that survived for more than two hundred years and spawned eighteen communities from Maine to Kentucky. More than twenty thousand Americans have lived at least part of their lives in a Shaker community since Lee's time, and at the height of Shaker influence in 1850, nearly four thousand Americans were living as Shakers. With fewer than twelve Shakers living today in the sole remaining Shaker community at Sabbathday Lake, Maine, the Shakers may be technically on the verge of extinction, but the movement's place on the cultural landscape is secure.
Throughout the nineteenth century the Shakers served as a touchstone for other communal movements. The utopian leaders Robert Owen (New Harmony, in Indiana), John Humphrey Noyes (Oneida Perfectionists, in New York), Amos Bronson Alcott and Charles Lane (Fruitlands, in Massachusetts), and Cyrus Reed Teed (the Koreshan Unity, in Florida) all paid visits to Shaker villages and borrowed ideas from the sect. America's burgeoning literary class also weighed in on the Shaker phenomenon, but their assessment was somewhat less enthusiastic. Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803882) visited the Canterbury, New Hampshire, Shakers in 1828 and again a year later with his fiancée, observing in a letter to Brother Charles on 7 August 1829 that the Shakers were "clean, well disposed, dull and incapable animals" led by "shrewd . . . male and female oligarchs" (1:276). Emerson renewed his interest in the Shakers and tempered his criticism in the 1840s, when, after visiting the Harvard community with Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804864) in 1842, he established lasting relationships with two Shaker elders. Emerson observed resonances between the homegrown Shaker communalism and the European waves of socialism sweeping the United States before the Civil War. He also admired the institutionalized equality among the Shakers.
Unlike Emerson, Hawthorne apparently never reconciled his disdain for the Shakers. Hawthorne penned two short stories set in a Shaker milieu, both representing the Shaker villages as sites for stagnation and death. "The Shaker Bridal" (1838) follows two young lovers into the Shaker community at Goshen, where young Martha succumbs to Shaker celibacy, dying in degrees "like a corpse in its burial clothes" (p. 476). An earlier story, "The Canterbury Pilgrims" (1833), whose title is a playful reference to both Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and the name of the New Hampshire Shaker village, chronicles the woes of three pilgrims en route to a Shaker village poet, a merchant, and a yeomanll failures in "The World" seeking solace and a better life within the confines of a Shaker village. In this story the pilgrims meet a pair of young Shakers who have just fled the commune to marry, and they try, unsuccessfully, to convince the lovers to return to the village with stories of their own misfortunes on the outside.
Perhaps inspired by Hawthorne, Daniel Pierce Thompson (1795868)he author the Green Mountain Boys (1839) and other adventure novelsublished a story titled "The Shaker Lovers" in 1848 that chronicles the "escape" and impetuous wedding of two hot-blooded Shaker youths. The first chapter promises to "lift the curtain" on the "wonderfully honest exterior" (p. 7) of Shaker life, prefacing a story that will climax with the attempted murder of young Seth by an enraged Shaker elder wielding an oar.
Although she respectfully describes the structure and practices of the Shakers in an earlier section of her novel Redwood, Catharine Maria Sedgwick also finds "deceit lurking under many a broad brim" (p. 207) in the Shaker community. She devotes ten pages of the novel to the rescue of young Emily from the sect. Sedgwick also casts an elder, Reuban Harrington, in the role of villain. Crafty and unscrupulous, Reuban plots to spirit young Emily away from the Shakers and force her to marry him.
Herman Melville's (1819891) treatment of the Shakers in chapter 71 of Moby-Dick is also less than flattering. Melville describes an encounter between the Pequod and the plague-ridden Jeroboam, which has been taken over by a Shaker prophet named Gabriel. Hailing from the "crazy society of Neskyeuna Shakers," Gabriel is said to have ascended to heaven through a trapdoor during "their cracked, secret meetings" (p. 312). Melville's association of Shaker culture with religious fanaticism is consistent with the literary skepticism accorded these "Shaking Quakers" throughout the nineteenth century.
UTOPIAN COMMUNITIES: 1820870
Utopian communitarianism particularly flourished in the United States during the four decades before the Civil War. Yaakov Oved records thirty-two "American communes" founded in the United States between 1663 and 1820, most of them religious. Over the next five decades, however, 123 new communities would spring up. In 1800 sectarian religionists like the newly formed Shakers and the surviving remnants of the Ephrata Cloister and the Moravians dominated the "utopian" landscapell faithful, pietistic Christians who framed their lifestyle choices as spiritual necessities. By 1900, however, the tableau of communitarian idealism had expanded greatly to include French Romanticism, Owenism, Darwinism, transcendentalism, Zionism, Fourierism, and the Koreshan tenet of "cellular cosmogony," among other philosophies and ideologies. Additionally, many of the new religious utopian communities were being founded by home-grown religious sects like the Mormons and the Oneida Perfectionists. In the nineteenth century, social, economic, and educational reform was replacing religious perfectionism as the primary impetus for founding new utopian communities. Enlightenment discourses on rationalism, utilitarianism, and social engineering edged out the Bible and Christian theology as source material for these new utopian experiments.
Two separate waves of European socialism arrived on American shores during the four decades preceding the Civil War, and each spawned utopian communities in the United States. The first was inspired by Robert Owen (1771858), a British textile baron, philanthropist, and self-proclaimed creator of a "new moral world," who had turned a factory town in New Lanark, Scotland, into a model community offering free housing and education to more than one thousand workers. Owen, an energetic but fickle reformer, became restless with his work in Britain and in 1825, he purchased New Harmonyn Indiana commune originally founded by George Rapp's Harmony Society of mostly German immigrants in 1814. With 180 buildings, housing for eight hundred people, four mills, a textile factory, two churches, and a brewery, New Harmony was an ideal launchpad for Owen's theories of educational and social reform. The Owenites never entirely abolished private property, but they did vigorously promote gender equality, communal experimentation, and widespread education. New Harmony was the first of seven Owenite communities founded in 1825 and 1826; by the end of the Civil War, there were nineteen. New Harmony would cease to be an Owenite community after just three years, but Owen's influence was profoundly felt by American intellectuals like Emerson, who affectionately quotes Owen in "Culture" (1860): "Give me a tiger, and I will educate him" (p. 1019). Catharine Beecher (1800878) in her Essay on Slavery and Abolitionism (1837) identifies Owen as a member of the "Atheist school" of reformers, encouraging her readers to expose the "absurdity of their doctrines" (p. 120).
In the same year New Harmony abandoned its Owenite charter, a pampered young man from upstate New York named Albert Brisbane (1809890) left for Europe for an extended student's tour of the continent. There he met Charles Fourier (1772837), a French socialist who believed competitive capitalism could be peacefully abolished through the establishment of large, single-dwelling communes called "phalanxes." Brisbane tried unsuccessfully to raise money to create a Fourieristic commune in the United States but instead settled for publishing the Social Destiny of Man in 1840he first thorough explication of Fourier's theories in English. Brisbane successfully converted Horace Greeley to the ideas of Fourier, and with Greeley's help he convinced the residents of a fledgling experimental community in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, to adopt Fourierism.
Brook Farm had been founded by the Unitarian minister George Ripley (1802880) in 1841 with help from the music critic John Sullivan Dwight, along with Nathaniel Hawthorne and other writers and intellectuals from the Boston-Concord area. In 1845, after finally acceding to Greeley's and Brisbane's pressure to adopt a Fourieristic charter, Brook Farm officially became one of twenty-eight Fourierist phalanxes established in the United States before the outbreak of the Civil War. The commune was a rather modest experiment, never topping more than 120 membersften far fewerith a shifting population of temporary
The commune did become a vibrant center for intellectual discussion and debate. While it was functioning, Brook Farm became a locus for transcendentalist activity. Ripley and Dwight, both members of the original Transcendentalist Club, were founding members. Emerson declined Ripley's invitation to join but made frequent visits to lecture there, along with Margaret Fuller, William Ellery Channing, Theodore Parker, and Amos Bronson Alcott. The Catholic theologian Orestes Augustus Brownson sent his son to live there. The community became a pet project of the transcendentalists, which guaranteed that more than any other utopian community in U.S. history Brook Farm would become permanently enshrined in the nation's literary and cultural history.
UTOPIAN LITERATURE: 1820870
Ironically, utopian literature in early-nineteenth-century America was almost entirely disconnected from the reality of life in utopian communities. The success of More's Utopia may partially account for this gap between utopian experience and utopian literature. More's book had spawned a vibrant genre of speculative fiction that would later include such notable works as Johann Valentin Andreae's Christianopolis (1619), Tommaso Campanella's Civitas Solis (The city of the sun, 1623), and Francis Bacon's The New Atlantis (1627). By the nineteenth century this utopian format was already well established and easily appropriated by authors of that era. Twenty-nine utopian works were published in America between 1800 and 1860, but not one was written by a long-term resident of a utopian community. Hawthorne's eight-month sojourn at Brook Farm in 1841 distinguishes him as an expert on the subject of utopian communities among American writers who actually wrote utopian or dystopian fictions. Other canonical writers were experimenting with the utopian form, however. Herman Melville's autobiographical first novel Typee (1846) presents an idyllic Pacific Island community undercut by the fear of cannibalism. Edgar Allan Poe's short story "Mellonta Tauta" (1850) imagines a future full of technological progress but devoid of democracy and individualism. James Fenimore Cooper's novel The Monikins (1835) satirizes humanity by presenting a society of monkeys, and his novel The Crater; or, Vulcan's Peak: A Tale of the Pacific (1847) presents still another Pacific Island utopia.
Among these utopian and dystopian visions, Hawthorne's The Blithedale Romance (1852) has emerged as the representative novel of actual utopian communalism in the antebellum period. Hawthorne was a founding member and investor in the Brook Farm commune and lived there on and off for eight months in 1841. His novelistic treatment of this sojourn into idealism, reformist politics, and communitarianism sounds a bitter, often bitingly satirical tone throughout. For many transcendentalists, Brook Farm was an opportunity to create what Ripley describes in a 1 October 1840 letter to his congregation as an "assembly of the first-born" community of "those who are united by no other tie than faith in divine things" (p. 406). Hawthorne's vision, however, is openly hostile to such high-minded intentions. His protagonist, Miles Coverdale, is a "bachelor" poet who joins the Blithedale community with lofty intentions but is quickly dissatisfied with the leadership of Hollingsworth, a charismatic, megalomaniacal reformer who ends up seducing the woman Coverdale loves. Coverdale is also dismayed by the rigors of farm life. (Hawthorne too complained about the physical labor, apologizing to his wife, Sophia, in a letter for his handwriting, blaming his poor penmanship on excessive manual labor.) At the start of the novel Coverdale reflects on the prospects of achieving the "better life": "Possibly, it would hardly look so now; it is enough if it looked so then" (p. 44). He joins his compatriots in decrying competition and selfishness for the "familiar love" of communal living, but by the final chapter he has thrown up his arms, proclaiming "as regards human progress . . . let them believe in it who can, and aid in it who choose" (p. 207). In between, he depicts the Blithedale reformers as well intentioned but ultimately self-deluded, overeducated, and woefully underskilled communitarians society of bunglers who must learn difficult lessons about the failure of their reformist zeal.
"Transcendental Wild Oats" (1873), Louisa May Alcott's (1832888) satire of her father's even shorter-lived commune, Fruitlands, sounds a more humorous note, but it is no less critical of transcendentalism's idealistic excesses. Her father, Amos Bronson Alcott (1799888), founded the commune along with the British reformers Henry Wright and Charles Lane in 1843, near the Shaker community at Harvard. The group, which never numbered more than eleven members, practiced vegetarianism and failed utterly to grow any crops for one planting season, finally disbanding after one winter. "Reform conventions of all sorts were haunted by these brethren, who said many wise things and did many foolish ones," observes Alcott in her satire. "Unfortunately, these wanderings interfered with their harvest at home; but the rule was to do what the spirit moved, so they left their crops to Providence and went a-reaping in wider and, let us hope, more fruitful fields than their own" (p. 166).
From the perspective of American literary history, Brook Farm and Fruitlands were fortunate to be associated with transcendentalism. Scholarly interest in canonical writers such as Hawthorne, Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau have guaranteed wide coverage of both experiments. The larger, more successful utopian communities did produce entire libraries of original texts, but they were not typically the kind of writing that would be valorized as "literary" later in American history. The Shaker writing now contained in several collections includes more than twelve thousand manuscripts and imprints of testimonies, doctrinal works, journals, letters, poetry, recipes, hymns, religious tracts, and scrapbooks, but Shakers did not even read novels until after 1850, and their sense of isolation from "The World" may have prevented them from writing in any of the forms (like the domestic novel) that were popular in the first half of the nineteenth century.
See also The Blithedale Romance; Concord, Massachusetts; Free Love; Individualism and Community; Reform; Transcendentalism; Woman in the Nineteenth Century
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Daniel R. Vollaro