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Utopia Drive:
A Road Trip Through America’s Most Radical Idea

by erik reece
farrar, straus and giroux, 368 pages, $14.99

Paradise Now:
The Story of American Utopianism

by chris jennings
random house, 512 pages, $28

The Story of the Shakers
by flo morse
countryman, 128 pages, $12.95

The Shaker’s Guide to Good Manners
edited by flo morse and vincent newton
countryman, 96 pages, $14.95

From Free Love Utopia to the Well-Set Table

by ellen wayland-smith
picador, 336 pages, $27

When exactly did utopia become less interesting than dystopia? The vision of a grim and gray future is just as much a fantasy as that of a perfectly ordered society, but somehow it is the grim one that now captures our attention. The descriptions of a glistening City of the Sun or a New Atlantis have given way to the warnings of 1984 and Brave New World. If those title phrases have passed into general usage, as the word utopia once did, it is because they stand for things that we urgently want to talk about.

All this is to be expected, according to Paradise Now, Chris Jennings’s brilliant study of American utopian societies. After the cruel experience of “the Thousand-Year Reich, Soviet gulags, the Khmer killing fields,” the very idea of utopia now seems suspect. Its vision of the future is “absolutist,” which inexorably culminates in tyranny, as modern history confirms. This might explain why the five-hundredth anniversary of Thomas More’s Utopia (1516), one of the most consequential books ever published, passed last year virtually unnoticed.

As a small compensation, however, we have five engaging books that deal with various utopian communities in the United States. They are not explicitly about Thomas More (who mostly goes unmentioned), but they pay indirect tribute by showing how ardently and imaginatively his ideas were embraced by nineteenth-century America. Some of these utopian projects were short-lived, such as Robert Owen’s secular community at New Harmony, Indiana, which flared out within a few years in the mid-1820s, or Brook Farm, an equally short-lived experiment of the 1840s, the most famous community of the Fourierist Associationists. But some were staggeringly vital, such as the Shakers, the celibate communal society that began in the early 1770s, established twenty-four settlements, and still lingers, after a fashion, in Maine. Or the notorious Oneida Community, which began by abolishing traditional marriage, only to become America’s leading manufacturer of plated silver—the most traditional of all wedding gifts.

Jennings’s Paradise Now profiles these four well-known communal societies as well as Icaria, the little-known French utopia that settled in Nauvoo, Illinois, after the Mormons moved out. They were startling in their diversity, veering between secular socialism and radical Christianity, democracy and autocracy, free love and celibacy. But they also had a great deal in common. Private property was abolished and all possessions were held communally; new recruits would sell what they owned and hand over the proceeds when they entered. (Members of Oneida who resigned would be given back their contribution, without interest.) Life and labor were communal, as in a monastery, and the building types that emerged were distinctly monastic: communal dormitories and refectory-like dining halls. They also tended to adopt distinctive forms of dress and hairstyles to distinguish themselves from the outside world. Finally, all of these communities insisted on the equality of the sexes, although they enacted it in different ways—the Shakers by the segregation of the sexes in work and administration, the Oneidans by freely mixing them or inverting traditional sex roles.

Jennings is an engaging writer, and his account of the curious practices of these societies makes for entertaining reading. At Icaria, for example, a 6 a.m. bugle call started the day, and “right out of bed, the men all took a single shot of whiskey before heading for the fields and workshops.” At Oneida, the women abjured makeup, cut their hair short, and wore a specially designed “uniform of a vital society.” And there is no end of amusing prohibitions in the obsessively comprehensive Millennial Laws of the Shakers: no pets, no rugs, no indiscriminate mixing of plants in the garden, and no more than one rocking chair in a room (simultaneous rocking being suggestive of carnality). In all of this is a certain plaintive earnestness that is the inevitable by-product of the attempt to sweep away all of existing society, habits, and customs, and to invent an entirely new social order overnight.

But Jennings aspires to more than a catalog of amusing eccentricities. He suggests that these communal societies were not marginal movements at the fringe of American life. Their numbers were considerable: At their peak, the Fourierist Associationists counted some 100,000 adherents, including such luminaries as Horace Greeley and Nathaniel Hawthorne. According to one estimate, some 70,000 tested the stony discipline of Shaker life, although fewer than one in ten chose to become members. If these communities flourished in the decades before the Civil War, and preoccupied the wider public of nonmembers, it is because they distilled in unusually pure form some of the essential themes and patterns of American society. And so any study of these dissident and separatist sanctuaries in the end turns into a study of America itself.

The philosophical underpinning of these communal societies, even the militantly secular ones, was the communism of the early Christian Church as described in the Acts of the Apostles and by church tradition. But that tradition offers no concrete program for how to establish a society with communal ownership of property, and how to administer it once established. For this, Thomas More was essential.

Utopia appeared just twenty-four years after Columbus’s discovery of America, and it would have been inconceivable without the first breathless and fragmentary descriptions of the cultures of the New World. The Aztec and Inca empires had not yet been discovered—that would come a few years later—but the existence of great urban civilizations was already the subject of informed speculation. It was not the specifics of these travelers’ accounts that inspired More so much as the imaginative challenge, the prospect of envisioning a completely new society. His Utopia is a fictitious version of one of those explorer’s accounts, a fanciful description of a newly discovered crescent-shaped island in the South Atlantic, two hundred miles wide, with fifty-four regularly planned and gridded cities. Of course Utopia is not at all about the New World, but the Old, and every aspect of the island republic is intended as a critique of existing European society.

For contemporary readers, the most startling aspect of Utopia was the complete absence of all private property. Its inhabitants dwelled in identical houses that were assigned by drawing lots; every ten years they were required to change them. Because there was no idle leisure class to support, the Utopians labored only six hours a day, but all were required to learn farming, for which reason families were periodically rotated between the city and country. All clothing was identical, except for slight variations to distinguish men from women, and the married from the unmarried. Families dined in communal refectories, the food being provided from central warehouses. There were no locks on the doors, for there was nothing to steal. To show their contempt for riches, the Utopians used gold for making chamber pots. As a consequence, there was virtually no crime, and the death penalty was reserved for only the direst of crimes, such as high treason (and, strangely enough, flagrant and incorrigible adultery).

Also startling were the social practices of the Utopians. Religious toleration was the rule: “Every Man might be of what Religion he pleased.” Euthanasia was practiced, even encouraged, but not suicide. (The body of a suicide was to be flung into a ditch.) Divorce, although discouraged, was accepted. The state also regulated the size of each city’s population. A city could not grow beyond 96,000 inhabitants, and any surplus population would be moved to an existing or ­newly founded city. Likewise, families with an excess of children would surrender some to “any other Family that does not abound so much in them.” One curious Utopian practice was that prior to marriage, the bride and groom, in the presence of an elderly chaperone, were to view one another naked; any deformity would be revealed. Before you buy the horse, the Utopians said, you first remove the saddle.

Virtually all of these aspects of Utopia were revisited in one or another of America’s communal societies: the abolition of private property, communal dining, regulation of clothing, rectilinear architecture, control of family size and structure, even judicious pairing in order to create healthy offspring. The Shakers are by far the best known, largely because of their exquisite craftsmanship. Because their functional design banished all decoration and unnecessary moldings, it is remarkably timeless in character. As a result, the abundant literature on the Shakers is primarily devoted to their buildings and furniture, and there is still no comprehensive study of the history, theology, economy, and ­material culture of America’s first successful experiment in communal living.

Jennings shows how the celibacy of the Shakers was entangled with the unhappy family life of their founder, Mother Ann Lee (1736–1784). An illiterate textile worker in Manchester, Lee came under the influence of a group of mystic Quakers who, because of their ecstatic singing and dancing, were called “jumpers, shivers, or shaking Quakers.” She married a blacksmith, only to lose all four of her children in infancy or during agonized delivery. She discovered a gift for preaching, ran afoul of the local authorities, and made her way to New York in 1774, along with eight of her followers. Having already chosen celibacy for herself, she mandated it for her fellow Shakers, justifying it with a rather arcane reading of Scripture.

Flo Morse’s two slim books offer a useful supplement to Jennings’s account. A table in her Story of the Shakers shows the inexorable expansion of their numbers. Each of their settlements was organized into several “families,” which they spaced about a mile apart—topography permitting—on a straight line, as at Pleasant Hill, with its East Family, Centre Family, and West Family. These families were limited to one hundred members, the optimal number for a cohesive and tractable group, or so they decided (and the Shaker leaders who succeeded Mother Lee were administrators of unusual competence). Once a settlement reached capacity, another would be established, as in More’s Utopia. They grew with breakneck speed. By 1800 there were already eleven settlements across New England. After 1806 they broke into the Midwest, where they built another seven Shaker villages in Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana. At their peak, on the eve of the Civil War, there were about six thousand practicing Shakers.

These settlements were renowned for their exceptional orderliness and tidiness. We get a vivid look at this in The Shaker’s Guide to Good Manners, Flo Morse’s charming reprint of an 1844 pamphlet originally addressed to young members. Many of its rules are simply common etiquette: “If children should hear a superior speak any thing wherein they know he is mistaken, it is ill manners to correct, or contradict him, or to grin, or jeer . . . it should be passed over without notice, or interruption.” Or: “Never tell another that he lies, nor contradict him; but rather say, I thought it was not so; or, If it is so, I am mistaken.” But it is startling to see how much their sense that God’s kingdom should have the compact rectilinear unity of the New Jerusalem carried over into the physical movement of their own bodies. Meat was to be “cut square.” You were never to “go scuffing along . . . but lift your feet squarely and properly.” Nor were you to “loll and lean against the walls.” At the same time you had to “be careful not to appear stiff, as though you were screwed up and in bondage.”

The Shakers, according to Jennings, exerted a great influence on his next community, Robert Owen’s New Harmony. Like Mother Lee, Owen’s life was shaped by industrial Manchester, where he made his fortune running a textile mill (one of those same “black Satanic mills” that inspired Friedrich Engels’s critique of industrial capitalism). Owen lamented what he viewed as the moral depravity of his workers and began to consider what programs of reform might help them. The problem was that no matter how humane and enlightened the schools were, the children invariably picked up “bad and vicious habits from their parents.” Until they were protected from malign parental influence, there was no hope of instilling self-discipline and moral behavior in them.

Owen found his answer partly in accounts of the Shakers but even more so in accounts of the Harmonists, the communal society founded by the charismatic German preacher George Rapp. With a thousand followers, Rapp fled Germany in 1803 and built what was in effect an entire German town, just north of Pittsburgh, that he called Harmony. To the surprise of nearly everyone, it quickly became an economic powerhouse and was widely publicized in Europe, where the combination of its celibacy, communal life, and financial success intrigued social critics. Owen admired the way that moral and economic success went hand in hand in Harmony, and in 1817 he drew up a plan for a Village of Unity and Mutual Co-operation, which was a secular version of Harmony, with about the same population and the same self-supporting economic structure. Above all, there would be communal living, dining, and child-rearing. Children would be removed from their parents at the earliest possible age and raised by enlightened teachers, breaking the cycle of “bad and vicious habits.”

Jennings neglects Owen’s debt to the Harmonists and rather overstates that of the Shakers, presumably to stress the Manchester connection. At any rate, Owen did not get to build any of his Villages of Unity and Mutual Co-operation, but in 1825 he was able to buy one. Rapp had decided to sell the second of his communal towns, New Harmony, Indiana—the complete town with all of its buildings, factories, and agricultural fields. Owen leapt at the offer. It gave him a chance to put his theoretical ideas into practice all at once, without the perennial problem of first building the physical infrastructure to house the homeless communitarians. Owen did not seem to realize that the actual act of building the communal town was itself a powerful bonding experience. New Harmony drew scientists, artists, philosophers, and educators from across the United States, as Jennings amusingly relates, but precious few farmers or artisans. And so the world’s first socialist utopia lasted until Owen’s initial investment ran out, after two years. It collapsed in 1827.

The collapse of Owen’s New Harmony is the leitmotif for much of the rest of the book, which details the failure of the various “phalansteries” established by the followers of Charles Fourier, the bizarre French visionary who believed that human interaction was governed by “passional attraction,” a web of desires and impulses that, while invisible, were as real as gravity. Fourier identified twelve of these passions, calculated that there were 810 possible combinations of ratios between the various passions, and concluded that therefore the ideal community would have two of each, male and female, for a total of 1,620. Eventually “every human on earth would live in one of 2,985,984 separate phalansteries.”

All of this was arrant nonsense (and there was far weirder fare, including Fourier’s notion that man would someday evolve a 144-vertebra tail or that the planets copulated with one another by means of “aromal swarms”). Fourier’s American followers carefully suppressed the more outrageous doctrines while preserving his one genuinely original idea, that of “Attractive Industry”—the notion that labor could be pleasant and desirable. At a time when the degrading nature of modern industrial labor troubled everyone from Marx and Engels to Dickens and Ruskin, this was a staggering prospect. The 1840s were the great heyday of the Associationists and their communal phalanxes, of which Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Brook Farm is the most famous. These too came to grief, most in the same way that ­Owen’s New Harmony did, slowly and agonizingly. By comparison, the end of Brook Farm was mercifully brief and spectacular: Shortly before the opening of the mighty 175-foot-long building, it caught fire and burned to the ground. Jennings, who has a lovely ear for the telling detail, reports how one woman admired the gorgeousness of the immolated building: “a magnificent temple of molten gold.”

Jennings gives a valuable and rather shocking account of the Oneida Community, but those interested in the story of the most successful and most malignant of all communal societies might begin with Ellen Wayland-Smith’s Oneida: From Free Love Utopia to the Well-Set Table. Wayland-Smith, a professor at the University of Southern California, is a direct descendant of ­Oneida’s founder, John Humphrey Noyes (1811–1886). She writes about him with insight and unsparing frankness, and has produced a remarkably poignant and humane memoir. 

We learn that while a student at Yale, Noyes became interested in the doctrine of perfectionism, the notion that one can free oneself wholly from sin, as urged by Matthew 5:48: “Be ye perfect.” Having decided he was free from sin, he established his own commune, modeled on Brook Farm. The intention was for community members to harvest and sell fruit while living as vegetarians. The ground proved too barren, and the chance suggestion of a member shifted their focus to the manufacture of high-quality metal traps, which began a long, happy relationship with metal that would culminate in silverware. But the paradox of a vegetarian community prospering from tools that enabled the slaughter of every animal from the rat to the moose was not their only curiosity.

Beginning in 1846, Noyes introduced a doctrine that he called “complex marriage.” In theory, this meant that all members of the commune were spiritually married to each of the others; in practice, it meant free love, with the timing and the pairings chosen by Noyes. He systematically broke up couples that became too fond of one another, something he deplored as “sticky love.” Noyes distinguished between what he called amative intercourse, which was for pleasure, and propagative intercourse, which was strictly for procreation. The amative variety was to consist of prolonged, unresolved foreplay, which Noyes describes as the paddling of a “boatman” in a lake. He should confine himself “to the region of easy rowing, unless he has an object in view that is worth the cost of going over the falls.” (Wayland-Smith provides other examples of what she calls Noyes’s “seemingly unerring instinct for awkward sexual metaphors.”)

Noyes reserved for himself the position of first husband, which entailed “the right to introduce virgins into Complex Marriage,” something which seems to have occurred as soon as they reached puberty or shortly thereafter. Just as repellent were his experiments in controlled breeding, which he launched in 1869, beginning with his niece Tirzah Miller, whose uninhibited diary is our principal source for the private life of Oneida. Over a ten-year period, Oneida produced sixty-two children by these arranged pairings, ten of whom were fathered by Noyes. Infants were quickly separated from their mothers, lest they too succumb to sticky love. Noyes called his experiment “stirpiculture.” (Years later, the writer George Bernard Shaw met one of Noyes’s “stirps,” as they were called; out of the encounter emerged Shaw’s Man and Superman.)

Noyes eventually fled to Canada, alarmed by an evidently false report of his imminent arrest. In his absence, his remaining followers concentrated on what they did best: the working of metal.

Why was it that the golden age of American utopianism fell in the second quarter of the nineteenth century? Jennings is right to connect it to the disruptions of the Industrial Revolution and the great movement from farm to factory. But this tells us nothing about the peculiar form of that utopianism, which had certain distinctive common traits, particularly in its attitude toward the traditional family. A community pledged to celibacy and one pledged to free love both effectively abolish the father-mother pair as the fundamental building block of society. Eliminating these alternative structures of authority could not help but enhance the power of a central leader, and so both George Rapp’s celibacy and John Humphrey Noyes’s complex marriage can be seen cynically as an instrument of domination.

But there would be no one to dominate unless there were a willing population waiting in the wings. The collapse of a settled agricultural way of life produced a great surplus of labor, not all of it instantly convertible to factory work. It is insufficiently recognized that the agricultural village offered a multitude of tasks to perform, and a multitude of places to bunk down. It was easily able to accommodate those ill-suited for the repetitive routine and social conformity required to work in a mill. The large extended family of traditional life could absorb oddballs, giving them a purpose and place, but the nuclear family that began to emerge at this moment could not. Men unfit to be husbands and women unsuited to motherhood had no place at all. (There is a reason that there is a village idiot but no such thing as a factory idiot.) And so the unconventional communities that emerged at this moment could function as a surrogate for the extended family in which the misfit might find a place.

Strangely, Thomas More wrote his Utopia at a similar moment. He had an unusual knowledge of the plight of England’s poor, having heard their petitions as Master of Requests (a charming title that deserves reinstatement). There he won praise for his benevolence; the philosopher Erasmus called him “the public guardian of all those in need.” In that position, More noticed a strange paradox. Although Tudor England hanged thieves with zeal and alacrity, “sometimes twenty on one Gibbet,” there always seemed to be more thieves. This he traced to a far-reaching change in the economy, as England shifted from open-field farming to raising sheep. Landowners, tempted by the lucrative wool industry, expelled their tenants and leveled their villages, converting the acreage to pasture. The dispossessed farmers made their way to the city, where there was no work to be had, leaving them (as he put it) no choice but to beg, steal, or starve.

All this is spelled out in the first of Utopia’s two books, which most readers skip to get to More’s diverting description of his island republic. But this prelude is essential to understanding the purpose of the book. More understood that the supply of labor, the price of grain, the distribution of land, and the rule of law made up a seamless fabric. One could not tamper with one without affecting all. Piecemeal reforms could treat symptoms, but not heal the system itself. That system, of course, was modern capitalism, which was beginning to sweep away the feudal structure of European society and to convert land from something vested with social, customary, and legal attributes into a mere capital good. And this More lamented: “While Money is the Standard of all other Things, I cannot think that a Nation can be governed either justly or happily.” Utopia was his thought experiment in imagining a society that was governed justly and happily, precisely because it did not rely on money.

It is the fey coincidence of history that the economic developments that had disturbed More would culminate at the precise moment that a field opened for the kind of daring social experiment he proposed. Just as the Industrial Revolution was convulsing the Western world, the United States offered a kind of tabula rasa for the building of new towns and new societies, largely independent of the prying eyes of church and state. And so More’s radical ideas, which had slumbered as daring hypotheses for three centuries, sprang into relevance. In Europe they remained taboo, and it is no wonder that utopians from England, Germany, and France swiftly made their way to America.

In the end, utopia is a microcosm of the American experience. These settlements remind us that the great seventeenth-century colonies were themselves communal utopias, as their names tell us: Providence, New Haven, Philadelphia. We tend to forget that they were idealistic religious enclaves until success and prosperity eroded their original sense of mission. To preserve the crusading spirit and integrity of a separatist society when it achieves worldly success seems an impossible feat; only the Mormons have pulled it off.

But the original colonial restlessness did not end with prosperity. The nagging yearning to build a newer, purer, better community was built in; having once pulled up stakes to start again, it was no great feat to repeat the process. Here two mighty impulses are at play: on one hand, a sense of independence and personal autonomy strong enough to cause someone to sever all ties with existing society and start again; and on the other, a yearning to belong to a community and share a collective purpose. The two impulses, the individualist and the communitarian, are in perpetual tension, which explains why so many communes could be formed, and why they could just as quickly split into faction and succession. The intentions of their founders had little to do with their eventual success. Otherwise the idealist Robert Owen would have succeeded brilliantly, not the self-serving charlatan John Humphrey Noyes.

It is an open question whether the present moment, another age in which the structure and meaning of the American family is in the midst of convulsive change, will also usher in a renewed age of communal activity. For that, one might turn to Erik Reece’s often hilarious Utopia Drive, the memoir of his cross-country trip through the landscape of America’s failed utopias, from the Shaker settlement of Pleasant Hill, Kentucky, to New Harmony, Indiana, and eventually to Oneida, New York. He takes much the same journey that Chris Jennings takes, but through geo­graphy rather than history. He does not limit himself strictly to communal societies but also drops in to visit the places associated with extraordinary individuals: the monastery of Thomas Merton; the pond of Henry David Thoreau; and the apartment of Joseph Cornell, the surrealist sculptor known for his “Cornell Boxes.” This is not as odd as it sounds. Reece is convinced that the United States is in a bad way, primarily because of income inequality, and that we must look for inspiration from those who have thought radically about society, through experiments either in radical individualism or radical collectivism.

Reece’s epic journey has its rewards; we get a palpable sense of the lonely bigness of the continent, where new societies could carry out their social experiments in defensive solitude, without the worry that outraged neighbors might lynch the experimenter, as they did with Joseph Smith and certainly would have with Noyes, had they known. Along the way, he engages winningly with a great many current residents of these extinct utopias. He marvels at Richard Meier’s New Harmony Atheneum (“a self-referential monument to the impossibility of utopia”), wonders why the visitors to Walden Pond all seem to be German or Scandinavian, and even spends the night in Noyes’s own much-used bedroom.

Not all outsiders viewed these communes with murderous hostility, and Reece reminds us that most of the visitors who inspected them during their heyday came not only to gawk but to learn. And we too can learn, Reese concludes:

I’m certainly not advocating a return to the isolationist utopian communes of the nineteenth century. I am, however, advocating for a new kind of economy that adopts or adapts many of the principles in the name of stronger communities and a stable environment in which those communities can exist. . . . [W]e need utopian thinking.

Perhaps, although one wonders what kind of utopian thinking a dystopian age can produce. Somehow one wishes that Reece had brought his outspoken wife along for the ride. We meet her only at the outset, when he tells her that he will be comparing Ann Lee’s celibate Shakers with John Humphrey Noyes’s free love Oneidans. “So if a woman starts the utopia,” she says, “they have no sex, and if a man starts it they can have all the sex they want.”

Each of these books is worth reading, cover to cover. There could be no more fitting acknowledgment to the extraordinary and ongoing ­influence of Thomas More’s learned little Latin pamphlet. Five hundred years on, we still want to live in the land he imagined.

Michael J. Lewis is Faison-Pierson-Stoddard Professor of Art History at Williams College.