What to do about what’s wrong with America

What to do about what’s wrong with America July 31, 2017

One of the happy characteristics of America, mythical or actual, is its hospitality to those who want to begin the world anew, whether by building a purified church, crafting a commonwealth—whose very name suggests there is such thing as a recognizable public good—or establishing a new order of the ages. For centuries space remained between Atlantic and Pacific for those anxious to try again to get things right. The United States, especially in the nineteenth century, was sprinkled liberally with utopian experiments. (Of course not everybody got space and freedom for building their utopias, Mormons among those notoriously persecuted in their efforts.) Many of these ideal communities fell short, remembered now only in traces or ruins. Religious conviction established some of these. Others tried economic programs, equality of labor and capital, equality of sexes or races.

New attention has been paid to American utopias this past year through publication of books about them and their founders. Chris Jennings’s Paradise Now surveys a number of them. Erik Reece’s Utopia Drive treats us to a road trip among them. Some books focus on one group or community, like Ellen Wayland-Smith’s Oneida, which retells the making of John Humphrey Noyes’s upstate New York settlement that rejected traditional marriage and ended up famous for the flatware it sold to brides. Philip Gura’s book looks at some of these planned communities alongside visionaries who channeled their reform efforts elsewhere, from George Ripley’s Brook Farm and Orson Fowler’s phrenology to John Brown’s violent antislavery.

In his recent First Things review of some of these books, Michael J. Lewis observes that “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.” Lewis traces American utopian impulses not only to the Bible but back to the very author of Utopia, Thomas More (1477-1535). More’s idealized island community lacked private property, got rid of idle aristocrats, tolerated religious beliefs, and made childrearing and dining communal activities. Lewis discovers that “[v]irtually all of these aspects of Utopia were revisited in one or another of America’s communal societies.”

Maybe utopias are always interesting, even when they fail. Utopian communities are a kind of protest incarnate. The way one devises a utopian experiment flows, at least in part, from what one perceives as what is wrong with society. Their utility for onlookers is partly in diagnosing what is amiss with a time and place. Times are bad; there must be a better way, right here, without moving to Canada. Perhaps that helps explain these books’ currency at present. The reformers in Gura’s book were reacting to the Panic of 1837, the economic downturn that sapped faith in America’s promise of economic opportunity and political equality.  The range of responses reformers advanced—from “mutual” banks and labor, to vegetarian diets, to shared quarters and wives—indicates the difficulty of diagnosing the one thing chiefly thing wrong with us and prescribing what will restore social health. As the wife of author Reece quips, “So if a woman starts the utopia…they have no sex, and if a man starts it they can have all the sex they want.” Gura’s critique of the men and women he profiles is that they vested too much confidence in individuals, assuming that the change of heart and self-discipline of each could fix the whole. Most of us may have less confidence than nineteenth-century romantics that self-improvement could leaven the whole lump. We may be little drawn to a community like that of the Shakers, a celibate bunch that rigorously separated the sexes, or Fruitlands, the Massachusetts settlement insisting on cold baths and farmwork by hand. But we would be wooden not to feel the pull of this desire to do better than what American social life now seems to afford, to want elevation of talk and manners, of work and civic engagement.


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