The Romantic, Failed Experiments of American Utopias
The physical layering of utopian life on particular plots of land is not so unusual in the United States. Once an 18th- or 19th-century utopian community had cultivated a tract for communal living, unsurprisingly, the land was primed for the next generation’s version. The weird thing is you don’t have to do that much digging before you hit another stratum. You’ll often find that, for instance, a permaculture intentional community in rural Oregon today bought the land from the Jesus People Shiloh Youth Revival in the 1980s, and that they bought it from some descendants of the Aurora Colony, and so forth. There have, to be clear, been a lot of such experiments, especially in the mid-19th century. Ralph Waldo Emerson famously wrote a letter to Thomas Carlyle in 1840, saying, “We are all 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.” He wrote this letter while he himself was experimenting at Brook Farm in Western Massachusetts, and while the country was entering into what writer Amanda Kolson Hurley calls “Peak Commune.” There is a lot of layering in the story of utopianism in America, and the general thrust of that unfolding sounds a little like this:
It’s 1681 or 1763 or 1830. So-and-so Jansson or Van Wort of somewhere-or-other, Sweden or Germany or England, decides the Lutherans, or the Anglicans, were sent by the devil. There should be no mediation between man and God, no tyrant king bequeathing spiritual access. So he promptly breaks away to create the Community of True Inspiration or God’s Real People or We are the Realest Ones, etc. He and his small band of followers, who by then have adopted some kind of dress and mode of worship to distinguish themselves, promptly have a mass burning of Lutheran (or Anglican) hymnals and literature. Simple enough. They hang out in Northern Europe. They live in a shared shack, or a final vestige of the commons. But then that guy (Jansson, Van Wort, etc.) runs into so-and-so Bartlett or Godrich or Randolf who, himself, is in the middle of trying to reform the Dutch Reformed Church, but having no luck reforming the reformed, they join forces. They bestow prophecies. The blending of their two groups produces a new name, and a new theology: the Zoar Community or the Harmony Society or the Most Divine of the Most Divine. They believe in adult baptism or ecstatic dancing or that the end is nigh or that no one should speak in church, but often, above all, they believe in communal living, of a life where “all things are held in common” as modeled in the book of Acts after the crucifixion, when Christ’s followers give up everything they own and go underground for 40 years or so, living in symbiotic communitarianism out of sight of the Roman Empire.
So, it’s the early 19th century now, and the new group—Zoar or Harmony or what-have-you—embarks to scope out land for a settlement in the New World, and for no reason I can figure out, they dock in New York, but often or sometimes go all the way to central Pennsylvania or Illinois. There, they claim a tract of land in a snowy, muddy lowland near a Swedish Methodist church that they already think is heretical, and they build semi-underground log cabins, and everyone comes out from Switzerland or Sweden or Germany, tons of people dying on the way on the ship, and tons of people dying in those freezing cabins, trying to live out their imagined reconstruction of first-century “biblical” communism. But then there are schools! Tanneries! Businesses of all stripes, operating in a sort of small-scale divine socialism, for a little while at least—but then something goes wrong (something always goes wrong): cholera or smallpox or they don’t make enough money or a violent husband or theological or ideological disagreements or (usually) the commune leader says that God says that he can have sex with whoever he wants, or that everyone has to stop having sex altogether. Some people die, others run off to join a different utopian community, sometimes (and not infrequently) to the Shakers, who by then have colonies all over the Northeast, though Mother Ann herself has died. Others run to cities, others stay in the falling-apart community because they don’t know what else to do and eventually a town forms around them, and they cash in on that, they incorporate, and within a generation the utopian project is erased, assimilated. It’s just Yellow Springs, Ohio, or New Harmony, Indiana, or Aurora, Oregon. Or it’s just the Amana Corporation or Oneida Flatware & Silverware.
Utopia-making emerges in force especially during times of economic and social precarity.
But at the early stages of the community’s unraveling, before things have really fallen apart, so-and-so Splendorf or Gilbert arrives one day. He’s an American, born and raised. He looks on at the tannery, the communal dinners, the women’s clothing, and he says, My, my, this seems like a really cool thing you’ve all got going on here, or he says, The Lord is telling me I must start my own community, a corrective to this one! (while just offstage or behind him someone is puking from a horrible flu, or others are coming to blows about the doctrine of total depravity, or the tannery is burning down). But first he literally tours utopian communities for a decade (this happens a lot), joining them and dropping out, or sometimes just dropping in for a bit—Woman in the Wilderness, Bohemia Manor, Mill Creek—then breaks with them, or begins to revise their beliefs and leaves when he finds he can no longer conscionably carry on. He goes to the woods, defeated, and starts anew: a slightly different take on prayer, on agricultural practices, on belief about the holy spirit or sex or which rules the leader of the group is exempt from. Living with all things in common remains a constant, but the rest is up for grabs. Then, just like that, unbidden, people kind of form around him, developing a sort of celibate utopia that lives and thrives (in a way) for five years or one year or eight years. And then another guy visits this new commune, and says, My, my, this seems like a really cool thing you’ve got going on here … But then it’s the late 19th century, early 20th century even, and before that new guy can get his utopian community up and running, his socialist Transcendentalist communitarian settlement of whatever type, the United States is flush, wealthy, and everyone’s like, “Who needs communitarianism? We’ve got houses and bread now!”
Utopia-making emerges in force especially during times of economic and social precarity—after wars, depressions, natural disasters, sexual revolutions. And when a utopia issues from a Christian framework or tradition—whether during the Second Great Awakening, or today in liberationist or fundamentalist communities alike—it almost unilaterally grounds the understanding of that divinely pure or sanctified life as something that takes place only by a life lived in community. Almost always, Christian or not, the American utopia vanquishes the nuclear family, the blood tie, the marriage, often sex, so that we are only, all of us, strangers and pilgrims together on the same path.
But it is also often the case that when we are talking about American utopian communities—when we look at a shelf in the library dedicated to the topic, for instance—we’re framing it as a historically specific phenomenon, something that happened in the 19th century, largely in Western New York and its outlying colonies, that took the form of several particular movements, many of which passed through a particular piece of property at one point or another. And it is also often the case that, under that rubric, we’re talking almost exclusively about white Protestants, or people who have at least gone rogue from a European Protestant theology. And it seems to me that the life those communities created, which we call American utopias, was more or less a paltry mimesis—consciously or not—of the kind of life that North American Indigenous people had been living on that land for centuries and were, at that time in the mid-1800s, defending with their blood and bodies.
For this reason, perhaps, these European-descendant American utopian communities are inherently tragic not only because they are always, every single time, doomed to failure—and often quick failure, sometimes disastrous failure. They are tragic because they rarely consider at whose expense they exist, or what kinds of privileges they’ve been afforded to position themselves as makers of a “perfect” place. Do the makers of these communities forget, and always imagine that this time, unlike the others, they’ll last forever? Or are they like me, a little romantically obsessed by the will to create an ideally communal life that I know will ultimately perish, that is only here for a second, that will ultimately be proved in time to have been the totally wrong thing, and yet which I must strive after anyway?
Despite all my certainty of folly, I am also sincerely seeking models, skimming communities—both historical and contemporary—for what might be useful or replicable in my own life, or in the lives of my friends, or (however crazy this sounds) more generally for my country people in all of their variety. What are the constant forms, the possible architectures, of developing a happy or ethical life under late-stage capitalism? What do you have to give up, or reduce, or invent? What does a shared ideology provide, and what does it threaten when it becomes the bedrock upon which the project exists? Could the basis of a utopian community be purely material then—cohousing, school, organization, residency? Or just a shared car and washing machine? And what about the horror of people not cleaning up after themselves? It is a question that has been pressing at my friends and me since our early 20s, but which has become painfully urgent as the rapid piling-on of adulthood has taken place, and especially as my husband and I became young caretakers of his still-young, but suddenly profoundly disabled, father in one of the most expensive cities in the world. When we passed the two-year mark of caring for my father-in-law, it had become extremely clear that, since we do not come from a multigenerational household, nor belong to a dense city block or other organic forms of interdependence, our lives will otherwise be (and already are) shaped by all the forces in the United States that, if left to work uncontested, will ebb toward isolation.
But every time I think about it for more than one minute, it’s not clear that I’d ever be a very good communard. I especially balk at all of my dreams of utopia because I am actually not a very attentive family member. I rarely make it back to the West Coast. I take forever to return my friends’ phone calls. I google my book all the time to see what people are saying (not much). I let my mother-in-law and sister-in-law do all the cooking on Thanksgiving. I can be extremely lazy, not leaving the house for days—just writing, eating, reading, working from home, watching TV. I have been in a more or less monogamous relationship since I was 19 years old, which became my life’s primary infrastructure—and while I think, at least, I’ve been a pretty decent partner for a decade, I am beginning to feel despair about how the whole thing can sustain itself at a moment when my husband needs me most—though he claims to need me for nothing. How do you learn to be the kind of person who could make a communal arrangement, much more complex than a marriage or a nuclear family, work?
This edited excerpt from Heaven Is a Place on Earth: Searching for an American Utopia by Adrian Shirk, Counterpoint Press (2022) appears with permission of the author and publisher.
Adrian Shirk is an essayist and memoirist. She is the author of “And Your Daughters Shall Prophesy,” named an NPR Best Book of 2017. She is a frequent contributor to Catapult, and her essays have appeared in The Atlantic and Atlas Obscura, among other publications. Currently, she teaches in Pratt Institute’s BFA creative writing program and lives at the Mutual Aid Society in the Catskill Mountains.