This week’s chattering class topic: Utopias. Specifically, a bunch of utopian communities that sprouted up in America in the 19th century. And our guest is Chris Jennings. His new book is called, “Paradise Now: The Story of American Utopianism,” and it focuses on five of the hundreds of utopian experiments of that era.
When Rico spoke to Chris this week, he noted that in Chris’ introduction, he says 19th century America was the perfect breeding ground for these communities because utopian thinkers saw it as a kind of blank slate.
Chris Jennings: A blank slate, exactly. The sort of basic idea of all of these communities is inventing society from scratch, from the ground up. So, where better to do that than a place where nothing already exists?
Rico Gagliano: You focus on five groups in your book. What did they have in common? You say they were all in touch with each other. And sometimes people would actually move from one of these societies to the other. What did they all share?
Chris Jennings: Just the fact that they were in touch and that people went from one to the other is kind of amazing, because in certain ways they were really different.
Some of them were sort of avowedly secular and atheistic. Some of them were very radical Protestants with strong ideas about the fulfillment of prophecy. And yet, they were kind of friends. And some of them had no sex. Some of them were having, you know, their version of free love.
So, I think what they shared was this sort of logic of utopian thinking, which is, they– these weren’t the communes we think of from the ‘60s where people said, “The world is corrupt and we need to go up into the woods and kind of live in a garden of innocence and create a good community just for ourselves.” These people were really preoccupied with transforming of the whole world. They just wanted to do it by building ideal communities.
Rico Gagliano: Kind of as an example.
Chris Jennings: Exactly. They were very optimistic, not surprisingly, that people would really rapidly start imitating what they were doing. And before long, the whole globe would be blanketed in these little communities.
Rico Gagliano: Right. And according to your book, some of these communities did spread. Which I found surprising, because most of them you describe as — this is your quote — “communistic.” They shared material wealth and labor. I just wouldn’t expect that idea to be popular in this country where we’re used to communism as a four letter word. And where there’s this idea that we have always been a nation of individualists.
Chris Jennings: Yeah. That was surprising for me to research. I mean, I think the majority of people in America were probably advocates of individualistic, capitalist democracy at the time. But you could come here and preach socialism without it shocking people.
And I think a big reason for that, is that, you know, the communism that Americans first really got to know was explicitly godless. Marxian. And I think that Americans take their faith pretty seriously. These people, some of the leading communists — and that’s their word, not mine — they were calling themselves communists, of the 19th Century, are very religious.
They think that the Bible is unequivocal about mandating the abolition of private property. And, you know, the Bible’s a big book and you can find passages that do seem to bear out what they’re saying. So, they took it as a religious mandate to be communistic.
Rico Gagliano: Many of these, communities were founded by some very strong figurehead. Which one of them stands out to you?
Chris Jennings: I think I found myself most fascinated by John Humphrey Noyes, who’s just an incredibly intelligent kid who grows up in Vermont, goes to Dartmouth, he’s well-educated, he’s gonna become a lawyer. And then has this really life-changing religious experience and set up this community.
Rico Gagliano: The Oneida Community, right?
Chris Jennings: Yeah, the founder of the Oneida Community, which is in Upstate New York. Though he was indeed the boss of the community, he fostered a really democratic community spirit. And they didn’t really have rules.
He had this vision of a community in which divine inspiration would flow through the community as a whole. So, rather than saying, you know, “No one’s allowed to stay up past midnight,” they would change that every week and say, “OK, now we’re all gonna be up past midnight.” [Laughs.]
They were constantly changing, and I just think it’s a really interesting example of leadership.
Rico Gagliano: What tended to be the downfall of these utopian groups? Why didn’t they last?
Chris Jennings: It really varies from place to place. At Oneida and a couple other places, including with the Shakers, getting actually too wealthy was sometimes a problem. They got a little nervous about letting new people in. ‘Cause they’d all suffered through this, building a home in the wilderness, and having malaria, and sleeping outside, and digging up the rocks from the field.And they weren’t so comfortable, once they’d made this very comfortable life for themselves, with new people just jumping onboard.
Rico Gagliano: And taking over what was theirs. So, so much for communism, by the way.
Chris Jennings: Exactly. Exactly. But some of them collapsed because of excessive wealth. Some of them collapsed because of internal conflicts. Some of them… You know, fire was a big thing in the 19th Century. You realize when you read any part of the history of an era earlier than ours, that things are always being ended because of fires. Several communities had… Brook Farm, probably the most famous of any of these communities, really ran aground when they had a big fire.
Rico Gagliano: And then just can’t recover from it.
Chris Jennings: Yeah, they’re just in hock. They’re in debt. Charles Fourier — who never even came to United States — had this fantasy of a building he called a phalanstère, which was gonna be sort of the future habitation of the human race.
And the Brook Farmers spent a lot of their money and a lot of their energy building themselves a big old phalanstère that they were gonna move into. And right before it was done, literally like weeks after it was done, it burned down while they were doing interior carpentry.
Rico Gagliano: The opposite of Utopia.
Chris Jennings: Exactly.
Rico Gagliano: It does occur to me: did any of the ideas from these communities end up getting accepted by the larger society? Do you see something coming from one of these communities that we now kind of take for granted?
Chris Jennings: Yeah. I think these people had such a loose grip on the rules and the forms of society in which they lived, that they were able to see things 100 years ahead of the rest of us. All of these communities believed strongly in female equality, you know, at a time when that was a radical notion.
And they believed children should get a free education. Everyone thought that sounded crazy. They thought there should be a place you could go and you can get books for free. These are all ideas that people scoffed at in 1840 or earlier. And now, they’re completely well within the mainstream. You would have to go pretty far on the right of the American political spectrum to find people that want to abolish public education.
So their utopianism, though it also had them expecting oceans tasting like lemonade, got them to see some things that everyone around them couldn’t see that clearly.
Rico Gagliano: That was, that was Fourier right? Fourier believed that eventually the oceans would taste like lemonade.
Chris Jennings: Yeah, as a consequence of what he imagined as a really awesome global warming. The ice caps are gonna melt, and that’s gonna make the ocean taste like lemonade.
Rico Gagliano: Oh.
Chris Jennings: He thought it would be a good thing, though.
Rico Gagliano: If only that were true. That is true utopian thinking.