UTOPIAN COMMUNITIES. Although they date to the earliest days of U.S. history, Utopian communities, intentional communities created to perfect American society, had become institutionalized in American thought by the 1840s. Various groups, struggling under the pressures of urbanization and industrialization, challenged the traditional norms and social conservatism of American society. Their desire to create a perfect world often lay in sharp contradiction to the world in which they lived, one in which capitalism, the Industrial Revolution, immigration, and the tension between the individual and the community challenged older forms of living.
The first American Utopias grew out of Robert Owen's attempt to create a model company town in New Lanark, Scotland. In the United States, Owen organized the New Harmony Community along the Wabash River in western Indiana in 1825. There the residents established a socialist community in which everyone was to share equally in labor and profit. Just months after the creation of a constitution in January 1826, the thousand residents at New Harmony divided into sub-communities that then disintegrated into chaos. In 1825 Francis Wright established another Owenite community at Nashoba in Tennessee. Wright had hoped to demonstrate that free labor was more economical than slavery, but Nashoba attracted few settlers, and the community closed its doors within a year.
Transcendentalists of the 1840s believed that the true path lay in the perfection of the individual, instead of reform of the larger society. The individualistic quality of transcendentalism gave it a more spiritual than social quality, one that also influenced later Utopian movements. Many of the figures of transcendentalism embraced the liberating qualities of individualism, making man free of the social, religious, and family restrictions of the past. Ralph Waldo Emerson, for example, rejected the decaying Puritan lifestyle of New England's past in favor of the Romantic world of William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. For transcendentalists, a higher reality lay behind that afforded by the senses; a reality in which people could understand truth and eternity. To reach that world, humankind had to transcend the concrete world of the senses in favor of a more mystical definition of nature. To escape the modern world, transcendentalists fled into model Utopian communities.
The most important of these communities was Brook Farm, established in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, in 1841. Residents hoped to free themselves from the competition of the capitalist world so as to work as little as possible, all the while enjoying the fruits of high culture. Unlike their European counterparts, American transcendentalists embraced the quest for a higher moral law. Far from a simple rejection of American society, the creators of Brook Farm, chiefamong them George Ripley, a Unitarian minister from Boston, wanted to create an alternative to the capitalist state, to found a new "city on a hill." The life of the mind that the transcendentalists so valued was one of the most important components of life at Brook Farm. Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, and Dial editor Margaret Fuller all made regular visits. While the cultural life of Brook Farm blossomed, management of its practical matters languished. Ripley's decision to recruit more farmers over thinkers eventually alienated even Emerson. After a serious fire in 1846, the farm was sold in 1847 and the society dissolved.
Not long after the failure of Brook Farm, another transcendentalist community was established at Fruit-lands, Massachusetts. The residents of Fruitlands, originally organized in 1843 by Bronson Alcott and Charles Lane, rejected the market economy and chose a life of subsistence agriculture. But Fruitlands attracted the eccentric more than the genuinely alienated, including a number of "body purists"—one of whom advocated nude moonbathing. As a group, they rejected clothing made of cotton (as it was manufactured by slave labor) and that made of wool (as it was taken from sheep without their consent), as well as root vegetables and all animal food products in favor of fruit and corn meal. As in later Utopian experiments, women failed to enjoy the full benefits of the cooperative society. Instead, as Abigail Alcott noted, women did most of the work while the men passed the day in deep conversation. The colony lasted only through the end of 1844 and was eventually sold at auction, with Lane jailed for nonpayment of taxes.
As Brook Farm and Fruitlands dissolved, converts to the ideas of Charles Fourier in the United States grew to take the place of the transcendentalists. Fourierists believed that small, highly organized communities (or phalanxes) would allow residents to perfectly develop their talents and inclinations, free from the influence of traditional capitalist society. The standard phalanx consisted of 1,620 people living in common dwellings and working in their natural trades. In America, Arthur Brisbane became the chiefadvocate of phalanxes, hoping that they would complete what, to him, was the unfinished Revolution of 1776 by ending wage slavery. By the 1840s, Brisbane and his disciples had founded more than one hundred phalanxes across the country, from New York to Texas. Although most of these communities failed in short order, their existence underscored the general dissatisfaction some workers felt with industrialization and the triumph of the capitalist order.
Other mid-nineteenth century Utopian experiments found some success by organizing themselves around a religious principle or charismatic leader. The Shakers, whose origins dated to the visions of Ann Lee Stanley during the American Revolution, believed that mankind suffered due to the lust of Adam and Eve. Mother Ann favored celibacy as the path to perfection. She and a small group of followers founded a church outside of Albany, New York, in 1774, where they became known as "Shaking Quakers," or Shakers. They withdrew into isolated communities where they could escape from the larger society's wicked nature. They abolished not only property but marriage, demanding a strict commitment to celibacy. By the 1840s, more than twenty Shaker communities had been established in greater New England. Due to their strict rejection of marriage and a reduced number of available converts, the Shaker movement slipped into decline by midcentury and never recovered.
The Oneida Colony, established in New York in 1848 by John Humphrey Noyes, combined the cooperativist movement of the Fourierists and the marriage taboo of the Shakers to produce a new form of Utopian community. At Oneida, the community practiced the doctrine of complex marriage, where all members of the community were married to each other. The community rejected monogamy and marriage as sources of gender inequality and strictly regulated childbirth and childcare. Unlike previous attempts at self-sufficiency, Oneida's silverware production remained profitable well after Noyes himself had been forced to flee to Canada to avoid persecution for adultery.
By the late nineteenth-century, a number of separatist communities were established in the United States. These communities were often constructed on the frontier, where participants could practice their religion free from outside influence. One such group was the Hutterites, an association of German-speaking separatists that established hundreds of communities in the United States and Canada. Unlike the Amish, who rejected the use of machinery, the Hutterites were willing to use modern tools and dress in contemporary clothing, within certain limitations. Hutterite society was strictly ordered and work schedules centrally planned. Founded by Jakob Hutter in the sixteenth century, the Hutterites embraced pacifism and a communal lifestyle. Each community in the Hutterite Brethren played an important role in the creation of new Hutterite colonies. Once a colony reached between one hundred and one hundred fifty members, the community split and established a new settlement. Hutterites migrated to the United States in the 1860s and 1870s, settling heavily in the Dakotas. Their numbers
grew until World War I, when compulsory military service and anti-German sentiment led many to migrate to Canada. The Hutterite Brethren's separatist model, shared by many other religious and secular communities, became common in the following century. Other separatist communes could be found among the Jewish migrants of the Am Olam movement in Louisiana, South Dakota, and Oregon.
Religious Utopian Communities
The industrial problems and the power of Darwinism in the late nineteenth century encouraged the formation of a number of religious Utopian communities. Christian Socialists led by Ralph Albertson established the Christian Commonwealth Colony in Georgia in 1896. There they advocated applied Christianity and published The Social Gospel before disbanding four years later due to financial problems. A group of disaffected Methodists, growing out of the Holiness Movement, created the Society of the Burning Bush. Burning Bush established the Metropolitan Institute of Texas in eastern Texas where profits and property were held in common. The community thrived until the agricultural troubles of the 1920s led to a forced sale. Another in the series of the short-lived communes of the 1890s, the Koreshan Unity communes of Cyrus Teed attacked the Copernican system and taught that the earth was hollow. Teed mixed more standard Utopian ideals of community and cooperation with newer Asian religious traditions. They created communities in Chicago and San Francisco. Eventually, the Chicago group established a third community in Estero, Florida—"New Jerusalem," where most of the Chicago group migrated before eventually dispersing in the 1920s and 1930s. In 1900, another Chicago group, led by the charismatic John Alexander Dowie, established Zion City, which eventually had a population of eight thousand. Dowie raged against the intrusion of the secular world into the religious world. Yet Dowie found little wrong in capitalism. He believed business principles were divinely ordained, attacking even the leaders of the Pullman strike of 1894. Dowie kept a tight grip on community life in Zion City before being overthrown in 1906. Still, Zion City served as jumping off point for numerous post-war healing evangelists, many of whom were Pentecostal, including F. F. Bosworth and Mary Woodworth-Etter. Zion was one of more than twenty-five of these religious Utopian communities established between 1865 and 1920.
Secular Utopian communities were also common at the end of the nineteenth century. Many of these were socialist in nature, and many were inspired by Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward: 2000–1887. Published in 1888, Bellamy's novel describes how the capitalism of the late nineteenth century matured to a state-sponsored and centrally planned economy that ensured equal wages and equality. It sold over one million copies and influenced a number of communes. One such colony was Equity Colony in Washington. Founded by Wallace Lermond, the colony served as a model for socialist government, one residents hoped would later convert the United States to socialism. Named after Bellamy's 1894 novel, it too ran short of money and was later placed under the management of the New York anarchist Alexander Horr. Another socialist colony was created outside of Nashville, Tennessee, by Julius A. Wayland in 1895. Publisher of the socialist newspaper The Coming Nation, Wayland purchased eight hundred acres where middle-class urbanites could mix with socialist intellectuals and poor Tennessee farmers. As it grew larger, the divisions within the community surfaced and ultimately doomed the experiment. In the 1880s, the Kaweah Co-Operative Commonwealth in Tulare County, California, revived the earlier traditions of Brook Farm. Residents included many artists, musicians, and spiritualists. The group fell into infighting, however. Accused of various criminal activities, they were eventually evicted, and Kaweah became part of Sequoia National Park. Still other communities returned to the Shaker and Oneida positions on sexuality and family. The Dawn Valcour Community, a spiritualist–free love commune in Vermont and New York, rejected the rigid Victorian family structure and challenged traditional Protestant definitions of love and marriage.
Anarchist and Other Utopias
In competition with the socialist Utopias were anarchist versions. Josiah Warren founded one such community in Tuscarawas County, Ohio. It was the first American anarchist community, and members invested in the local sawmill. The community eventually collapsed because of epidemic disease and poor finances. Still other societies embraced Henry George's plan to levy a single tax on land values to counteract the wealth accumulated by rental income. Some socialists attempted to establish Single Tax colonies between the 1890s and the 1930s. Fiske Warren of Massachusetts created several such intentional communities, including Tahanto in Massachusetts and Halidon in Maine. While anarchist communities revolved around local control and grassroots democracy, some businesses in the United States found interest in planned communities. One of the most famous of the period was Pullman, Illinois, founded and funded in the 1880s by George Pullman, who manufactured railway cars. Pullman refused to allow its residents, all of whom worked for him, to buy their homes. Residents were paid in Pullman dollars and had to buy from his company store, often at inflated prices. In 1894, Pullman workers protested a planned wage reduction with a strike that eventually led to a national boycott by the American Railway Union, one that made Pullman a symbol of corporate control.
Utopian communities waned in the 1920s. The depression of the 1930s, however, led the U.S. government to create a number of similar settlements, though the theory behind those experiments was not quite "utopian." The Resettlement Administration, in particular, created a number of agricultural communities, hoping to address the growing refugee problem among sharecroppers in the South. Dyess Colony and St. Francis River Farms in Arkansas were two such, though both of them reverted to planter control almost immediately. In the 1930s a few private communities held on, but they remained small and less influential. Two exceptions were the Sunrise Community (Stelton, New Jersey) and the Catholic Worker Movement, both of which ultimately failed as Utopian communal movements.
In the aftermath of World War II, Utopian communities flourished in the United States, especially during the 1960s and 1970s. The youth counterculture of the 1960s spawned not only the Free Speech Movement and antiwar protests, but a longing for rural communes in California, New Mexico, and as far east as Vermont. These communes, like the Utopians of the 1840s, organized in ways that challenged the economic and sexual standards of the day. They rejected materialism in favor of self-sufficiency and were especially important in their early advocacy of stricter environmental policies. Some were clearly escapist, like The Farm Eco-Village, created in 1971 by hippies from the Haight-Ashbury section of San Francisco. Based in Summertown, Tennessee, the Farm produced its own food and power and embraced the simplicity and self-reliance common to Utopian communities of the nineteenth century.
Still others migrated to new religious communities. The Jesus People Movement grew out of the charismatic revivals of the 1960s. They combined the hippie lifestyle with a deep devotion to Christianity. The "Jesus Freaks" represented the power of the new charismatic Christianity among American youth. New Age movements, ranging from yoga and transcendental meditation to the disciples of Sun Myung Moon and his Unification Church, also attracted a large following in the United States. Still others migrated to more cultic communities. The mass suicide and murder of nine hundred members of the People's Temple at Jonestown, Guyana, in 1977 underscored the danger of ideologically homogenous communities led astray by a charismatic leader. Many of the new cults of the 1970s and 1980s encouraged their members to wall themselves off from larger society, often painting apocalyptic visions of a future filled with totalitarianism, race riots, and communist control. Especially disturbing was the emergence of many neo-fascist and racial-religious communities like Identity Christians, who embraced anti-Semitism and the inevitability of a racial revolution, leading in turn to a popular backlash against such extremism.
Internet as Utopia
While religious fanaticism had given Utopian communities a bad name by the end of the twentieth century, other forces worked to revive them. The numbers of and faith in technology-based Utopian experiments grew throughout the last half of the century. Some Utopian communities consisted of groups of people spread across the United States fighting for a better and safer world, like the Sierra Club and Greenpeace. Others continued to employ the older Utopian model of visionary settlements isolated from the larger world. One such technological community was Celebration, a corporate-sponsored Utopian dream of the Disney Company to create the ideal twenty-first century community. Modern Utopian communities increasingly cross into the digital world. By the 1990s, some believed the early Internet could become the long-promised Utopian paradise, where class, gender, and racial stereotypes might be stripped away in favor of complete equality. At first the Internet seemed the triumph of the anarchist ideal. In many places small groups came together on bulletin board systems (BBS), among other media, to create online communities modeled closely on the Utopian ideals of the nineteenth century. One of the best of the early BBSes of the mid-1990s was Heinous.net, where mostly young midwestern university students came together to discuss art, politics, and culture in a professionally moderated and intellectually intense environment. Yet, by the end of the decade, most of these boards were in decline. The Internet grew more corporate and mirrored the larger society from which the early Internet pioneers hoped to flee.
Many of these communities shared a similar set of assumptions and concerns. The Industrial Revolution had challenged American social institutions, forcing working-class Americans to turn first to labor unions and then to Populism. At the same time, industrial society also challenged the assumptions of the Victorian middle class. Many in the transcendentalist era longed for a free-market Utopia, where government nearly ceased to exist and workers profited from a fair balance between capital and labor. Other technocratic Utopians, like Edward Bellamy, Fiske Warren, and George Pullman, believed that the most capable, in contrast to the most political, should be placed in positions of power. Many others, like John Noyes and the Hutterites, found solace in religion, believing that new religious movements would better protect and structure human society. Still others based their Utopias in nature or technology. Many of these philosophies were certainly at odds with one another. Yet the search for an ideal society remained a constant theme throughout the course of American history, dating from the Puritans to the "Jesus Freaks" of the 1970s. All but the most dystopian of the religious movements believed that American society fell short of the ideal and needed great change to ensure the prosperity of all.
Fogarty, Robert S. All Things New: American Communes and Utopian Movements, 1860–1914. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.
Halloway, Mark. Heavens on Earth: Utopian Communities in America, 1680–1880. New York: Dover, 1961.
Kern, Louis. An Ordered Love: Sex Roles and Sexuality in Victorian Utopias. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1981.
Shi, David E. The Simple Life: Plain Living and High Thinking in American Culture. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2001.
"Utopian Communities." Dictionary of American History. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 10, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/utopian-communities
"Utopian Communities." Dictionary of American History. . Retrieved September 10, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/utopian-communities
Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).
Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.
Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:
Modern Language Association
The Chicago Manual of Style
American Psychological Association
- Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
- In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.
Ideal Societies. For some Americans who felt that the new nation’s promise to make a better life for all was not being realized quickly enough, the answer was to withdraw from society and form Utopian communities, safe from the depravity and corruption of the rest of the world. These people were perfectionists, meaning that they believed it was possible to create an ideal society here on earth rather than having to wait until the next life. They held many different visions of the perfect society, almost as many as there were Utopian communities, but they can be divided into two types: those who withdrew from society to live in a more traditional, religious world safe from contamination; and those who hoped to reform (not escape) society by creating experimental communities that would serve as models for the rest of the world. While these communities varied in size and duration, they all shared the hope that through an experiment in communal living they could create a paradise here on earth, be it secular or religious.
Transcendentalist Utopias. There were two wellknown transcendentalist utopias, the first of which was Brook Farm, started by George Ripley in 1841 near Boston. The idea behind the community. Ripley wrote, was “to substitute a system of brotherly cooperation for one of selfish competition; …and thus to impart a greater freedom, simplicity, truthfulness, refinement, and moral dignity to our mode of life.” Among the famous writers associated with Brook Farm were Margaret Fuller and Nathaniel Hawthorne, who both lived there for a while, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, who made frequent visits. The community was a joint-stock venture and subsisted on communal labor, manufacturing items such as sashes, doors, and blinds. But the jewel of the community was its school, which attracted many students preparing for Harvard. When in 1846 a fire consumed a new (uninsured) building, members decided to dissolve Brook Farm due to financial troubles. A less successful transcendentalist community was Fruitlands, started by Bronson Alcott and Charles Lane in 1843 near Harvard, Massachusetts. Lane dictated that all members practice celibacy and follow a vegetarian diet and that their farm not utilize animal labor, which he considered as bad as enslaving human beings. If it had not been for the women and children, who brought in the crop while “some call of the Oversoul wafted all the men away, ’’ Louisa May Alcott wrote, the community would have starved. Within the year Lane left, withdrawing his money and leaving Fruitlands to dissolve.
New Harmony. This secular Utopian community, the first of its kind in America, was founded in 1825 by Robert Owen, a British industrialist who had seen the degradation and poverty of the working class in England. Without a specific plan but a general faith in perfectionism, he hoped to create a society where workers labored together instead of viewing themselves as individuals, thus providing the inhabitants with economic security and a more satisfying social life. Intrigued by claims Owen made about the future of his society, nine hundred people appeared at New Harmony, Indiana, to undertake the experiment. To begin, Owen owned all of the land and equipment, intending eventually to ease the society into communal living. He and his sons were in charge, but Owen was absent for long periods of time and did not provide a clear, concrete vision for the community or precise rules for governing it in his absence. The community prospered economically, producing candles, soap, hats, and boots and operating saw- and gristmills, but housing was inadequate, and the town was overcrowded. Lacking leadership, the community had a difficult time solving these problems. And when in 1826 Owen broadcast his radical views denouncing private property, the institution of marriage, and organized religion, he was roundly attacked in the American press, weakening public support for the community. Many inhabitants, dissatisfied with Owen’s views or desiring a religious emphasis in their everyday lives, left New Harmony to create their own offshoot communities. In 1828 Owen sold the land and property to community members and withdrew from the experiment. Many lived on in New Harmony as small-time farmers or artisans.
TRANSCENDENTAL WILD OATS
Louisa May Alcott’s satirical account of what it was like to live in her father’s experimental utopian community, Fruitlands, describes the founders’ intentions and reveals the stark differences between the spiritual concerns of her idealistic father and the more practical concerns of her mother:
This prospective Eden at present consisted of an old red farm-house, a dilapidated barn, many acres of meadowland, and a grove. Ten ancient apple trees were all the “chaste supply” which the place offered as yet; but, in the firm belief that plenteous orchards were soon to be evoked from their inner consciousness, these sanguine founders had christened their domain Fruitlands.
Here Timon Lion (Charles Lane) intended to found a colony of Latter Day Saints, who, under his patriarchal sway, should regenerate the world and glorify his name for ever. Here Abel Lamb (Bronson Alcott), with the devoutest faith in the high ideal which was to him a living truth, desired to plant a Paradise, where Beauty, Virtue, Justice, and Love might live happily together, without the possibility of a serpent entering in. And here his wife, unconverted but faithful to the end, hoped, after many wanderings over the face of the earth, to find rest for herself and a home for her children.
Source: Louisa May Alcott, “Transcendental Wild Oats,” in Alternative Alcott, edited by Elaine Showalter (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1988).
Nashoba. Frances Wright, a Scottish reformer, was inspired by the New Harmony experiment to form her own community in 1826. She had a plan to end slavery in the South without negative repercussions for slaveholders
by creating communities where slaves could work the land, learn skills they could use to support themselves, and eventually buy their freedom. After they were free, Wright intended that they would be sent to Haiti or Africa. In addition, she hoped to create a cooperative community where people of both races could live together based on the Owenite model. She bought 640 acres in western Tennessee, called Nashoba, where she implemented a pilot program. She bought fifteen slaves who worked under an overseer, but the land was difficult to farm, and little was accomplished. Owen, who visited Nashoba in 1827, described what he saw: “Three or four squared log houses and a few small cabins for the slaves the only buildings. Slaves released from the fear of the lash worked indolently under the management of Whitby (the overseer), whose education in an easy-going Shaker village had not at all fitted him for the post of plantation overseer.” Eventually Wright had to accept that her dreams of an interracial community that allowed all of its inhabitants to reach their greatest potential were not being realized. She spent most of her time away from Nashoba, either at New Harmony or promoting her ideas, which included free love, sexual equality, and interracial relationships, all of which drew intense censure from an American public that branded her “a female monster whom all decent people ought to avoid” and made her plan untenable. In 1828 she returned to Nashoba to find it bankrupt. She had the slaves freed, transported to Haiti, and set up in their own homes.
Seymour R. Kesten, Episodes: Daily Life in Experimental Colonies Dedicated to Changing the World (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1993);
"Utopian Communities." American Eras. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 10, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/utopian-communities
"Utopian Communities." American Eras. . Retrieved September 10, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/utopian-communities
Modern Language Association
The Chicago Manual of Style
American Psychological Association
FRUITLANDS. SeeUtopian Communities .
"Fruitlands." Dictionary of American History. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 10, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/fruitlands
"Fruitlands." Dictionary of American History. . Retrieved September 10, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/fruitlands
Modern Language Association
The Chicago Manual of Style
American Psychological Association
In her novel Redwood (1824), Catharine Maria Sedgwick (1789–1867) 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. 178–181) 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 union—all 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"—a neologism from the Greek ou, "no or not," and topos, "place"—in 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 world—Plato's Republic, Acts 2:42–47 in the New Testament, and Utopia—each 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 (1683–1727), Woman in the Wilderness (1694–1720), Bethlehem (1741–1844), and the Ephrata Cloister (1732–1934) were founded by Labadists, German Pietists, Moravians, and Seventh Day Baptists respectively—all 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 Kelpius—founder of the Woman in the Wilderness community—calculated 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 history—one 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 (1803–1882) 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 (1804–1864) 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—a poet, a merchant, and a yeoman—all 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 (1795–1868)—the author the Green Mountain Boys (1839) and other adventure novels—published 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 (1819–1891) 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: 1820–1870
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" landscape—all 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 (1771–1858), 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 Harmony—an 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 (1800–1878) 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 (1809–1890) left for Europe for an extended student's tour of the continent. There he met Charles Fourier (1772–1837), 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 1840—the 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 (1802–1880) 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 members—often far fewer—with a shifting population of temporary members, visitors, and unreliable hangers-on. Its experiments in agricultural self-sufficiency were mostly disappointing, but the community school was considered a success. Labor remained divided along traditional gender lines, with women completing domestic chores and men engaged in hard labor. The experiment lasted just five years, from 1841 to 1846, with the last two years under Fourierist governance; the community disbanded after it was razed by a fire.
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: 1820–1870
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"—a 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—a society of bunglers who must learn difficult lessons about the failure of their reformist zeal.
"Transcendental Wild Oats" (1873), Louisa May Alcott's (1832–1888) 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 (1799–1888), 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.
Alcott, Louisa M., and Clara Endicott Sears. Bronson Alcott'sFruitlands. Cambridge, Mass.: Riverside Press, 1915.
Beecher, Catharine. An Essay on Slavery and Abolitionism, with Reference to the Duty of American Females. Boston: Perkins and Marvin, 1837.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. "Culture." 1860. In Essays & Lectures. New York: Penguin, 1983.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Blithedale Romance. 1852. Edited by William E. Cain. New York: Bedford/St. Martin's, 1996.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. Twice-Told Tales. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1882.
Melville, Herman. Moby Dick; or, The Whale. 1851. Edited by Luther S. Mansfield. New York: Hendricks House, 1952.
Ripley, George. "Letter to the Church in Purchase Street." 1840. In Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Blithedale Romance, edited by William E. Cain, pp. 405–410. Boston and New York: Bedford/St. Martin's, 1996.
Sedgwick, Catharine Maria. Redwood: A Tale. New York: E. Bliss and E. White, 1824.
Thompson, Daniel Pierce. The Shaker Lovers, and OtherStories. Burlington, Vt.: C. Goodrich & S. B. Nichols, 1848.
Brewer, Priscilla J. "Emerson, Lane, and the Shakers: A Case of Converging Ideologies." New England Quarterly 55, no. 2 (June 1982): 254–275.
Durnbaugh, Donald F. "Communitarian Societies in Colonial America." In America's Communal Utopias, edited by Donald E. Pitzer, pp. 14–36. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.
Foster, Lawrence. "Free Love and Community: John Humphrey Noyes and the Oneida Perfectionists." In America's Communal Utopias, edited by Donald E. Pitzer, pp. 253–279. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.
Francis, Richard. Transcendental Utopias: Individual andCommunity at Brook Farm, Fruitlands, and Walden. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1997.
Holloway, Mark. Heavens on Earth: Utopian Communities in America 1680–1880. 2nd ed., rev. New York: Dover, 1966.
Lauber, John. "Hawthorne's Shaker Tales." Nineteenth-Century Fiction 18, no. 1 (1963): 82–86.
Madden, Etta M. Bodies of Life: Shaker Literature and Literacies. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1998.
Oved, Yaacov. Two Hundred Years of American Communes. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 1988.
Pitzer, Donald E. "The New Moral World of Robert Owen and New Harmony." In America's Communal Utopias, edited by Donald E. Pitzer, pp. 88–134. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.
Sargent, Lyman Tower. British and American Utopian Literature 1516–1985. New York: Garland, 1988.
Stockwell, Foster. Encyclopedia of American Communes 1663–1963. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1998.
Daniel R. Vollaro
"Utopian Communities." American History Through Literature 1820-1870. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 10, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/culture-magazines/utopian-communities
"Utopian Communities." American History Through Literature 1820-1870. . Retrieved September 10, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/culture-magazines/utopian-communities