PARADISE NOW; The Story of American Utopianism by Chris Jennings
Book Review by Tin-Can Jim:
Mr. Jennings book brings her visions, and the visions and stories of other utopian thinkers of the 19th century America, back to life. In this age of uncertainty, climate change, ecological destruction and pessimism, a time when we are now inundated, titillated and disturbingly entertained by visions of an unstoppable future dystopia, it was refreshing and inspiring to read the stories of Americans who believed in a great future. I think we could use a little utopian vision in our lives now. If you are interested in history, humor, heartbreak, tales of human vision and hope, I highly recommend this book.
Read Below: for a more extensive review of this book.
PARADISE NOW; The Story of American Utopianism) by Chris Jennings
By the beginning of the 19th century the fresh new country of America still had the appearance of being a blank slate to many, a land of endless possibilities, it called like a siren to progressive thinkers of the age. With vast tracks of virgin land and a fluid, democratic system of government set in place, endless new ways of developing, of organizing, of living and of thinking about the structural foundations of societies could be experimented with. America became a laboratory where unorthodox religious views could be freely expressed, and where social scientists could plant seeds. Many believed with passion and with a boundless, energetic optimism, that these seeds would take root and grow into a new Utopian existence for all of humanity. As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in a letter to Thomas Carlye, ” We are a little wild here with numberless projects of social reform…Not a reading man but has a draft of a new community in his waistcoat pocket.” Hundreds of experimental communities sprung up in American during the 18th century. Some were successful for many decades and had a lasting effect on America, some fizzled soon after forming.
In his first book, Chris Jennings dives into the forces that brought these new communities into existence. He artfully and academically explores how five specific Utopian movements were established, functioned and eventually failed. With anecdotal skill he tells the stories of the people who dared to dream big and who implemented, what they thought to be, better ways in which humans should live together. He focuses on five of these groups; the Shakers, Owenites, Fourierists, Icarians and the Oneidians. Each of these had similarities. Most thought that the giving of equal social, economic, and political power to women, to workers and to all people, regardless of class, was the key to human well being. They all feared the dangers of unfettered commerce. Most were true communards who believed that private property was, by its nature, divisive and corrosive to human flourishing.
Some of the innovators of these movements, like Ann Lee of the Shakers and John Humprey Noyes, who founded one of the most successful communities in Oneida, New York, were inspired by Christian theology, particularly the book of Acts. Both Lee and Noyes experienced religious revelations which spurred them to action. Both communities respected and borrowed ideas from each other. They both believed that their time was one of the millennium, a heavenly existence on earth. Both believed in the social evils of traditional marriage. The Shakers embraced celibacy and believed that cooperative work, compassion, functional simplicity and cleanliness all made aspects of the Holy Spirit accessible to humans. They believed in the perfect symmetry of heaven and earth. It was reflected in their architecture, their furniture and in the straight parallel lines in which they plowed their fields.
The Oneidians, often referred to as ‘Bible perfectionists’, took up the practice of ‘complex marriage’, where every adult group member was married to every other adult group member. Consensual sex was encouraged and practiced with the same vigor and enthusiasm that work was. Sexual freedom and communal work were believed to be ways to promote pleasure and unity. They didn’t believe in the Calvinist or puritanical nature of sin. Sex, they believed was a gift from God and not anything to feel guilty about. Noyes believed that humans were now sinnless by the fact that Jesus had already returned. Male continence was practiced effectively as a form of birth control. Children, those born in, and those brought into the community, were given liberally inspired educations in the arts, in theology and in the sciences. Plays were produced and performed, dances organized, orchestras assembled, book clubs attended, lectures on everything from philosophy and mathematics to modern ideas about horticulture and astronomy were given.
The Onedians could not be thought of as an insulated ‘cult’ in the modern pejorative sense of the word. They openly expressed their ideas with the public and with the press. They encouraged visitors to their communities. Many had huge libraries and embraced free thinking and debate. Great writers and intellectuals of the American Renaissance were members, supporters, guests and lectured at Odeina. At its height the community had thousands of members. Women were treated as equals. They generally wore their hair unfashionably short, had an equal vote in community decisions, worked in the fields, helped raise barns and swung hammers, as well doing shift turns in the kitchens and in the nurseries. The men did the same. This openly expressed progressiveness helped to both popularize the Utopian movement and to also vilify it in America. It was embraced, or at the least, tolerated by abolitionists, suffragettes, vegetarians and the like. It was vilified by many Calvinsits, Puritans and capitalists. Outside pressures by religious zealots and threats of prison by law enforcement led to the breaking up of the the community at Onedian.
Horace Greeley, the influential abolitionist and founder of the New York Tribune, helped finance and gave voice to the Fourierists. He also gave a voice to little known writers of the time like Karl Marx, Edgar Allen Poe, Margaret Fuller and Mark Twain. Fuller became a supporter of the communities. Marx and Engels influenced many who founded communities and Phalaxes. Nathaniel Hawthorne, who spent time working and living in a Shaker community and who invested in the Fourierist community, Brook Farm near Boston, wrote, “On a whole, they lead a good comfortable life…a man could not do a wiser thing than to join them.” Hawthorne set a couple of his allegorical short stories in a utopian community. But after five months of laboring in the fields and shoveling manure he wrote, “Oh, labor is the curse of the world, and nobody can meddle with it without becoming brutified!”. It seems the real problem is that he wasn’t getting any writing done and later wrote Emerson that he regretted not “seeing it to the finish.”
The education reformer and also a promoter of Brook Farm, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, giving voice to the growing distaste for city life, wrote in a Jeffersonian tone, “a true life, although it aims beyond the highest star, is redolent of the healthy earth. The perfume of clover lingers about it. The lowing of cattle is the natural bass to the melody of human voice.” Many of the wealthy and refined young men and women from Boston found themselves milking cows, guiding plows through feilds or teaching at the Brook Farm boarding school. It was a progressive and popular Unitarian minister and his wife who led the way in the forming and the financing of Brook Farm. They were George and Sophia Ripley. Both were members of the, Emerson inspired, Transcendental Club. Henry David Thoreau, was too. He identified with many of what the Brook Farmers endorsed. In a 1837 address given at Harvard he echoes many of the feelings of the Utopians by describing, “the commercial spirit” as a national illness: “It infuses into our thoughts and affections a degree of its own selfishness; we become selfish in our patriotism, selfish in our domestic relationships, selfish in our religion.” These words were not considered heretical at that time in America. It was before capitalism was sanctified as the only legitimate economic system. But when it came for Thoreau to join the Farm he backed out and made his stand by the shore of Walden Pond saying, “I’d rather keep bachelor’s hall in hell than go to board in heaven.”
Mr. Jennings suggests in his book that there may have been no man who had more influence on the Utopian movement in America than that made by a man who never set foot on the North American continent. He was a French clerk. His name was Charles Fourier. And as bizarre as it sounds, he had, as Jennings put it, “…a passion for fruit that bordered on obsession. In a fruit bowl he saw the whole world.” As an example, Fourier believed that there had been 4 significant apples in human history. The first being the one that led to Adam and Eve being expelled from heaven.
The second apple was the famous “Apple of Discord” that triggered the ten year siege of Troy and the beginning of the bloody history of Western Civilization.
Apple number three was seen in 1666. It was observed falling from a tree by a young Isaac Newton while strolling through an orchard. From witnessing the apple’s direct decent to the ground, Newton was inspired to derive the force of gravity and to determine the motions of the Universe.
The fourth apple was seen by none other than Fourier himself in 1790. He was eighteen years old at the time. He saw the apple on the menu of a Parisian restaurant when visiting the city for the first time. He noticed that the apple costs 14 sous. It was the same price as one could buy one hundred apples in his home town, the small city of Besancon. He later claimed that this incredible mark-up opened his eyes to the perversion of competitive markets and led him to write, in Jennings words,” ..the most dazzling vision of Utopia ever set to paper.”
Fourier’s father was a successful textile merchant and determined to have his son follow in his footsteps, that being working in his father’s business, and that becoming a good Catholic. “I was taught at catechism and at school that I should never lie,” Fourier wrote, ” then I was taken to the shop to be trained at an early age in the occupation of lying, the art of selling.” One day, at the age of seven and working behind the counter in his father’s shop, he told a customer that, he the customer, was being shortchanged. This earned him a vicious beating from both of his parents. From that day on he swore an “eternal oath” against commerce.
Fourier had a first hand view of the upheaval of society as he witnessed the French revolution and it’s bloody aftermath. It woke up his political consciousness. He also witnessed how inexpensive cloth imports from Great Britain flooded into France and decimated the market. Hoping for an early retirement and seemingly backtracking on his aversion to commerce, he boldly invested 50,000 livres of inheritance money in a wholesale purchase of cotton, sugar and coffee. He planned to sell it in Lyon just as the city was being besieged by the revolutionary army. All was taken from him by the starving city inhabitants. The cotton bails were used as street barricades. He was broke and worked as a bookkeeper, a clerk and a salesman in Lyon. When Lyon fell to the revolutionaries, Fourier hid in the woods as the guillotine covered the streets in blood. The wealthier homes in town were destroyed. The revolution finally ended in 1799. Fourier survived and was disgusted by the waste and violence that he had seen. He was determined to think of a better way. He then decided to write a book.
The book that he wrote was called, The Theory of the Four Movements. It was published in 1808 and was just the first part of a massive opus that claimed to present a theory of virtually everything, not just economics and social reform. He wrote about the connectivity of the everything in the Universe and of his belief that it all could be scientifically understood. He wrote about everything, from the formation of minerals, the principles of musical harmony, the life cycles of beetles, the ins ands outs of human sexuality and of planet terraforming. Fourier meticulously laid down his ideas like a mad, eurodite prophet. He believed that human society and human nature could be understood with the same precision that science understood the chemical makeup of water, and that Man was just a blank slate destined to be shaped by society and time. In Fourier’s mind, given the right environments, and living in the ideal system, there would be no limits to what human beings could achieve. It was left up to Fourier himself to discover the system that could untap the means by which people would find Utopia. The key to doing this, in Fourier’s mind, was to form a society where “the forces of Passions” could be unleashed. These were the forces implanted by God into Man and into all of nature. Society has thus far dampened and suppressed these passions. Letting the “attraction of Passion spring freely…will produce a state of social harmony akin to the way in which disparate notes add up to a symphony.” he boldly proclaimed. He laid down in his book a precisely wrought view of human progress. Fourier wrote about the thirty two distinct periodic epochs which Man is destined to pass through, sixteen ascending and sixteen descending. It is the whole epochtic history of human consciousness and culture. He believed that we were in the chaotic age of Civilization now, a time that precedes paradise. He defined Civilization as a time of turmoil, competitive markets and loneliness. From there, Fourier thought the next strange would be that of “Harmony” for , not just people, but the entire planet. It would last for 70,000 years after-which the decent would begin. Harmony would be the epic age when the wisdom would be acquired to harness the power, the wealth, the knowledge and the technology that capitalism in the age of Civilization had accumulated. Fourier believed that he had discovered God’s perfect plan to release the Passions of the Universe.
One of Fourier’s own passions was to discover a taxonomy of passions, of which he believed there were twelve total. He believed that every human had a combination of these 12 and that there were a possible 810 “passional types”. Every aspect of nature, he believed, were bound by the laws of passions, from individuals, to empires, to the earth itself. The “ascending vibrations”, when applied to humanity, could be directly correlated to the status of women in society. He wrote, “Social progress and changes of a historical period are accompanied by the progress of women towards freedom. Extensions of the rights of women is the basic principle of all social progress.” This was radical thinking back in 1808 when the freedom of women was often associated with vice, poverty and disease. Now the empowerment of women has been shown to be a good indicator of general well being in a society.
Jennings writes a lot about Fourier’s “discoveries”, some so fantastical and bizarre as to make one wonder if he was indeed insane. While reading the story of Fourier’s life and his philosophy, it made me think of the Aristotle quote, “There is no great genius without a touch of madness.” For not only did Fourier write about how future Utopian cities, or Phalanxes, as he called them, would produce perfect social order that would render power itself obsolete, he wrote that in the age of Harmony, disease and poverty will disappear, climate will become ideal, mosquitoes would go extinct as will girafes, which were “far too gangly for a perfect globe.” He thought that human industry would make the planet warmer, (in a good way). For as the globe warms the polar ice will melt and produce a “Boreal Liquid”. This fluid will mix with seawater. In Fourier’s words, “this liquid will give the sea a flavor of a kind of lemonade known a aigresel”. In other words, he believed the oceans would turn to lemonade.
Fourier wrote of how all the creatures of the planet would change with the freeing up of human passions. Great benevolent amphibians would be used to pull ships across the lemonade seas, lions would turn into docile “antilions” and would serve humans as a taxi-animals. Even humans would transform by becoming amphibious, develop replaceable teeth, grow seven feet tall and have long vertabrate tails which, at their ends, would have a small hand “as strong as an eagles claw.”
In spite of all his wild ideas about the future, his notion that a perfect structuring of society could indeed be achieved, could show a viable path towards human well being, sexual equanimity and could bring with it a long standing peace and contentment among all people. It was a powerful, and compelling message to many interested in social reform.
Charles Fourier did not see his ideas take root in America. He died in his small Paris apartment in 1837. It was the same year that financial panic erupted in America. Crop prices plummeted. Inflated land prices dropped and a long recession set in. Widespread unemployment and discontent brought more talk of the evils of capitalism. It was fertile ground for the Utopian’s visions of communal living to spring from. Nine years prior to this the the American, and future Flourierian apostle, Albert Brisbane, sailed to France.
Brisbane, only nineteen years old, already a land magnet from Batavia, N.Y., was anxious to learn about continental intellectualism. He studied French poetry and philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris. He learned the German language and traveled to Berlin, spent an afternoon with Goethe and attended lectures by Hegel. After having seen enough of “Christian civilization for a while”, he traveled to Greece and Turkey where he was disturbed by the congested poverty he witnessed in Athens and Constantinople along with the wealth disparity he saw in the cities of Europe. To Brisbane, after listening to Hegel’s talks about history, it seemed like a trip back in time. After another long swing through the great European capitals he ended up back in Berlin. During his travels through different lands and cultures he became more acutely aware of how social institutions directly affected the lives of ordinary people. He saw how Democracy itself couldn’t bring about equitable prosperity and happiness. He became less interested in abstract philosophy and literature and more interested in social science. After reading the work of a popular french utopian Henri de Saint-Simon he wrote that, “the idea of a great social reconstruction took deep root in my mind”. It is then that a Saint-Simonian friend of his from Paris sent him a book, apparently it was a treaty on farming. He randomly flipped to a page where on it was written in large type, “Attractive Industry”, followed by, “organizing human labor as to dignify it and render it attractive.”
The light-bulb illuminated full blast in Brisbane’s head. Before even finishing one chapter of the book he was singing its praises to his intellectually inclined, high society friends in Berlin. The book was, Traite’ de association domestique-argricole, par Charles Fourier. In May of 1832 he left Berlin intent on meeting the author of the book. He found the aging Flourier working in the offices of La Reforme Industrielle, a weekly publication dedicated to the advancement of utopian principles. Brisbane worked for two years at the offices and gave Flourier, who was always short on cash, money for biweekly lessons. He immersed himself in Fourier’s ideas and worked alongside Victor Considerant and other Flourierian disciples. Soon after he found himself sailing to New York with a valise full of Fourier’s writings. He was intent on dedicating himself to bringing Fourier’s ideas out of these books and onto the land of America. He was convinced that establishing just one Phalanx would be the trigger to setting in motion a domino effect that would change the entire world. For when the masses would see how contented and happy humans can be living together, then the unions of brotherhood, the Phalanxes, would spread rapidly.
Brisbane set up base in Manattan editing the Fourierist paper The Phalanx. Greeley started publishing his articles in the Tribune. Brisbane spread the Fourian message to the masses. Only two years after his first article appeared in the Tribune twelve separate phalanxes were inaugurated. The community at Brook Farm adopted the flourian label and a successful community was started all the way in the prairies of Wisconsin. The Wisconsin Phalanx, started with 80 people soon grew to a population of over 200. It instituted a modified version of flourierism, having a saw mill, a modest wooden phalanstery, an elaborate scheme for organizing agriculture and industrial work. They established a free school. banned alcohol, raised cattle, grew buckwheat, potatoes, and turnips. within a year they had their own post office and they were clear of debt.
In 1843 a Fourierist convention was held in Rochester, NY. Five seperate phalanxes came out of that meeting. The Clarkson Phalanx acquired 1500 fertile acres on the shores of lake Ontario. They were determined to follow the ideas of Flourier as near as possible and were soon to number 450 individuals that included a breakaway group of Quakers, and representatives from almost every Christian denomination, including Catholics and even one self proclaimed atheist.
By this time, the mid 1840’s, the Shaker communities were at their high point in America. Over 20,000 people across the country would live in these communities that were inspired by an English immigrant, Ann Lee. Mother Ann, as she was later to be called, was the skinny daughter of a Manchester blacksmith. She would be considered by many to be the Second Coming of Christ. They thought that it was she who was destined to lead humanity into a New World Zion, an austere, celibate, communist paradise. Though she died way back in 1784 in Watervliet, NY. her vision of utopia did not.
Tim Can Jim