The Rumpus Interview with Chris Jennings

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Radical technological progress has failed to halt the world’s evils, and the evidence dominates the headlines. The poisoning of Flint, Michigan, more than 4.5 million Syrians displaced, the undeniable proof of climate change; it’s no wonder the Doomsday Clock is set three minutes to midnight.

At a moment when the heartbreak of our present can feel overwhelming, and political rhetoric casts the future as something to fear, Chris Jennings’s stellar history of America’s forgotten 19th-century utopia projects is an essential reminder of other ways of living.

Relegated to footnotes, or valued, improbably, for their design aesthetic, the utopians that Jennings makes his focus—the Shakers, Owenites, Fourierists, Icarians, and Oneida Perfectionists—thrived during the decades before the Civil War. In radical protest against injustice, they established vibrant oases of free love, communal property, and women’s rights. Paradise Now: The Story of American Utopianism reveals why it’s more important than ever to approach the future with creative vision.

Full disclosure: Chris and I first crossed paths as classmates at the dystopia that is high school. We caught up in the Random House offices on the week of his book’s publication to talk about why utopia makes for bad fiction, how physical labor builds community, and the terrible danger of romanticizing the past.

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The Rumpus: So much of this history was new to me, so maybe a good place to begin is by asking how you came to this subject matter to begin with?

Chris Jennings: I sort of stumbled into it. I was really interested in 20th century communalism and alternative communities, the boom of communes in the 60s and 70s. That led me back to the 19th century. I was shocked to find what I would describe as far more utopian ideas in the 19th century than in the 20th century. Not only were the ideas so extreme, but surprising people were adopting them. These weren’t college kids on acid. They were preachers, and bankers, and farmers, and the salt of American society subscribing to ideas that now seem so wild to us. These people had the most radical visions of what the future could be. And this was happening in an era we don’t typically associate with sexual experimentation, or communism, or things like that.

The Jacksonian era is generally talked about in terms of individualism, and the development of free market capitalism, and Victorian prudery. It was shocking to find a parallel history to that—a bunch of Americans with very different priorities. I stumbled on to these people, and then became completely fixated on them. The question that drove me was: how did these reasonable people adopt these extremely unreasonable ideas?

Rumpus: One thing that was really striking was to see these isolated communities intersect with other movements happening at the same moment in American history. In particular, I’m thinking of Nauvoo, Illinois where the Icarians [followers of the French utopian socialist, Étienne Cabet] begin building their community on the grounds of a recently abandoned Mormon city.

The Joseph Smith revelation is published as The Book of Mormon in 1830 and that’s about the time that a lot of these utopian projects are beginning. It made me wonder: what’s the distinction between founding a religion and founding a utopia?

Jennings: That to me was one of the most exciting, and weird puzzles of this book: how are the most religious people and the least religious people of their time all drawn to very similar visions of utopia?

unnamedThe Shakers, for example, are devoutly religious, and their ideas are primarily focused on the second coming of Christ and they’re own personal salvation. And then there are these others utopian leaders who are famous in their day for being irreligious. Atheist isn’t really the right word because they tended to believe in some sort of Enlightenment, capital ‘N’ Nature kind of god. But these were people who in their times were criticized as infidels.

The religious and irreligious are agreeing with each other almost all the time. Their rhetoric is the same, and their plans are the same. Through slightly different interpretations, they all think the same thing is going to happen, that the Earth is going to be perfected and that humans are going to do the work of perfecting it.

Some people think God is going to guide those humans. The Oneida community and the Shakers both believed that they had received revelations about how to build the New Jerusalem that the Bible says is coming. The secular utopians basically said the exact same thing, they just took the Bible out of the equation. The religious and the secular groups recognized each other as fellow travellers. They exchanged newsletters and asked each other questions like, “What’s a good soup pot to use if you’re making dinner for 800 people?” They had these practical connections.

Rumpus: Nauvoo wasn’t the only example of utopians taking up residence inside already existent structures, and the reason why was largely practical: they would take what they could get. But if given the opportunity, the founders had very clear, and often very elaborate, design ambitions. Was the shared communal physical work of building the utopia part of what created cohesion?

Jennings: There are two instances I studied in which a community moved, amazingly, into an preexisting village built by other, earlier communalists. The Rappites were a German millenarian sect I mostly leave out of the story, even though they are fascinating, because they’re focused on salvation and retreating from the world, as opposed to transforming it, like the other groups I write about. They were moving from Southern Indiana to Pennsylvania, where they had originally settled when they came from Germany. They were looking for someone who wanted to buy a pre-built town, which wouldn’t have been appropriate for any kind of normal settlement. That’s when Robert Owen [Welsh industrialist and utopian socialist] buys the village and founds New Harmony.

And then there’s the example you mentioned already, which is the Mormons being run out of Nauvoo, and again they were looking for buyers for this custom built communitarian village, and the Icarians bought it.

In all of these communities, architecture had a really strong effect on how people thought. And you’re right, the people who moved into these ready-made villages never made peace with it. In both cases, having lacked the experience of building their community—like the Oneida community did, or the Shakers did—they craved the experience of starting from scratch. With the Icarians, moving and starting over becomes this compulsion. They move seven times, and leave these nice limestone houses that had been partly built by the Latter Day Saints [Nauvoo] to live in drafty wooden shacks out in the middle of the plains in Iowa. They had much worse accommodations than they had in Illinois, but they stayed there for thirty years.

Rumpus: Your book made me realize how much physical space shapes the imagination. This was a moment in history where there was still so much wilderness, and people felt they could envision what civilization would look like there. It’s not about reform, it’s the opportunity to build from the beginning. We don’t have that opportunity now. Do you think that impinges upon our imagination about the future?

Jennings: I think it does. One of the things that’s amazing about reading the private writing of these folks is that they enthusiastically describe things which we have now seen, and which are widely regarded as unappealing. They’ll write, “It’s going to be beautiful, we’re going to have a town of 1,000 stone buildings that are all identical.” And we as modern readers think, we’ve seen that; that’s bad Soviet architecture or a public housing project. Nobody fantasizes about living there.

The vision shared by both [French utopian] Charles Fourier and Robert Owen was for an entire town to fit into one structure. Owen’s design for what he called a “parallelogram” was essentially to have a whole city in one building, laid out around a huge quadrangle. Fourier’s scheme was to build a massive Versailles-like structure that he called a “phalanstery.” In both cases they had these architectural dreams that we now recognize as pretty unappealing. But if you’d only ever lived in small wooden house in the middle of wilderness, it sounded much better. Especially because it provided intense community, and these people lived in incredible isolation.

Rumpus: Brook Farm [founded by Unitarian minister George Ripley and his wife outside Boston in 1841] ultimately becomes a Fourier phalanx, but it begins as a kind of retreat for many Transcendentalists, including Emerson and Margaret Fuller. They sympathized with the utopian project, but never ultimately found a home there. Why do you think that was?

Jennings: The shift that Brook Farm goes through from its first phase to its second phase is, to me, the neatest capsule of what this whole story is about. Brook Farm starts as this type of community that seems familiar to us now. It kind of seems like a hippie commune. There are Harvard grads, free thinkers, feminists, abolitionists, well-to-do people who want to go write poetry and live on a farm and cook and laugh and have a good time. As they themselves described it, it was an “inward facing” community. They were focusing on making a better existence for themselves, which I think is also the driving force of 20th century communalism in the US, the thought being that the world is corrupt, and we’re going to build this little garden of innocence.

That instinct is very different from what happens when Brook Farm becomes a Fourierist phalanx. The community turns outward and becomes about changing the whole world. They are no longer there to have a good life for themselves. In fact, they’re willing to suffer quite a bit, because the whole point of their community is to become a lever for transforming all of society.

The reasons why the community made the switch was because some of them, particularly those who were really at the helm of the community, began to feel like their initial project was somewhat dilettantish. They were mostly Unitarians and they had this strong social gospel. This was during early industrialization, and people in Boston were starving and working in miserable factories. The South was rotten with slavery. Their feeling became, ‘We have to make our community about fixing the world.’ They go from hiding out in their poetic idyll to being sort of utopian activists, focused on triggering the transformation of human society along the lines that Fourier describes.

The biggest names in the Transcendentalist literary circle visited the community regularly, and supported it, but they couldn’t live there happily. Hawthorne [who was briefly a resident] left for reasons I’m sure make sense to you; he couldn’t get enough writing done in a house full of people playing music, and arguing. It was too busy. Margaret Fuller was already a celebrity, travelling around the world. Emerson, who was the axis around which that whole community turned, just didn’t like Fourier’s ideas very much. He thought it was all too rigid and programmatic. He said, “Fourier had skipped no fact but one, namely life.” He thought it was an inhumane system—the day is scheduled too precisely. He didn’t think it would work, and he was right.

Rumpus: You mention that John Noyes moved his community from Vermont to Oneida, New York in 1848, the same year that the first women’s suffrage convention took place in nearby Seneca Falls. But the utopians felt no particular kinship with the reformers. They thought they would inspire change just by living as an alternative example. In the final chapters of the book you talk about the fact that this is a period before the Civil War, and before we thought legislation was the means through which we thought equality or justice would be achieved. Do you see utopian’s failure to connect to other activists as a reason for their ultimate demise?

Jennings: They did actively reject what they called “incremental” reforms, and it lead to some of their least proud moments, for example in the tepid way they respond to abolitionism. The Oneida Perfectionists, along with some of the others, believed that feminism, and abolitionism, and other causes that they pursued in their own way without participating with other people outside of their communities, were all piecemeal reforms. That’s what makes a utopian a utopian, this idea that they were going to create a whole new world from scratch. They didn’t want to fix problems one at a time. If someone invited them to a feminist convention, their answer would have been, ‘In the new world women will have total equality, so lets spend our energy creating that whole new world.’ And to their credit, the women at Oneida probably had far greater practical equality than what any of the women gathered at Seneca Falls experienced in their lifetimes.

Rumpus: Dystopia is much more present in fiction than utopia is. Why? In narrative terms everyone understands the seduction of the disaster, but are there other reasons?

Jennings: I think you nailed it—utopian fiction is really boring. I had to read a lot of it, and it’s not that much fun. But they’re fascinating to me as historical documents. Cabet [Icaria’s founder and author of the utopian novel, Travels in Icaria], is writing in the 1830s, and his idea of the perfect society reveals a lot about his time. But his book is uniquely bad.

The epigraph to my introduction is an Oscar Wilde quote: “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not even worth glancing at…” Part of the point of that epigraph is that even if you were living in utopia you’d be imagining utopia. The fatal flaw of most utopian visions is that they’re fundamentally static, and that’s not a comfortable place for humans to live. Fourier was very good at imagining a utopia that is constantly changing and very busy, but a vision of paradise that would have been most tantalizing to an underfed overworked factory worker in 1840 doesn’t have much appeal in fiction because it’s not a story.

Rumpus: Most people are much more familiar with the communes of the 60s and 70s, and I was trying to make sense of the relationship between that movement and the 19th century utopians. The nineteenth century utopian projects were effectively ended by the Civil War and the 20th century communes were in large part a response to the Vietnam War. Does the relationship between the two movements have anything to do with war?

Jennings: I worry that I may have overstated the impact of Civil War on the utopians. By the time the Civil War comes, most of the communities were quite separated from the wider American society. Their rhetoric is still about transforming the world, but they’re not having that much traffic with their neighbors.

In some ways these people experienced the Civil War less than any other Americans. The Shakers were exempted from fighting, The Oneidans were sort of accidently exempted. Most of the communities were north of any of the heavy action of the war. (The Shaker villages in Kentucky were trampled by both armies, however.) But the Civil War was so long, and so violent, and so local. It was literally in people’s backyards.

The thing that had fueled these utopian communities was a literal belief, and not just a general sense of optimism, that the earth was about to become a paradise. That idea cannot hold water after the war. The Enlightenment faith that things are getting a little bit better each decade becomes difficult to support. People recognized that there had just been a war that was worse than the war of 1812, and worse than the Revolution; things were clearly not getting better and better.

So there’s that change of general consciousness, and then there’s this boom after the war, this expansion into the West. It was like the 1950s. The American economy was pumping at top speed. The kinds of people who would move into these communities and organize their lives around a utopian dream now had dreams about the West. The thought was, ‘We’re going to go to California, where the soil is black and ten feet deep, and there are no rocks, and there’s gold in the hills.’ The West becomes the surface onto which people project their fantasies, where once the future had been the place they projected their fantasies. So it’s not just the war that ends the utopian communities, but what follows.

Rumpus: In the conclusion you identify the current American impulse to make a utopia of the past; both that we’re unable to imagine a more perfect future and that we’re locating utopia in a past that we know to be imperfect.

Jennings: It’s crazy. And it’s not surprising the type of people who do that. They’re people who probably imagine that they would have had a better time in the past. I wouldn’t imagine you’d encounter a lot of black people saying ‘Oh, the ‘50s, that was when America was great.’ It’s very dangerous because the past was imperfect, and you can’t go back anyway.

Rumpus: You write that a precondition of utopia is a feeling of dissatisfaction with the world as is. That’s an ever-thus condition in some ways, but at certain moments in history that sentiment feels collectively louder than at others. Do you think we’re in a moment like that now?

Jennings: I don’t think I should be in the business of making big pronouncements about where we are now, but I would say that dissatisfaction is as acute now as it was then. What’s different, and what I think we can learn from these people, despite their abundant folly, is that we’re not using the future as the organizing principle for our critique.

Utopians don’t say, ‘The world’s corrupt, women make less money, people of color are oppressed at every turn.’ You don’t list the problems of the world; you describe a world in which those things aren’t the case. The critique is implicit and as a result it’s kind of a positive critique. You’re not listing what’s bad, but rather what would be good—you’re oriented toward this positive vision.

Because the utopian’s worldview was framed around moving toward this perfected future, it helped stimulate the private exertions that add up to social progress. Progress is work. People need to build things and sacrifice and have a harder life for things to get better. On its own, I don’t think even the most brilliant critique stimulates that kind of effort as well as an appealing vision of the future.

Some people just think utopians are idiots who are imagining rivers of candy and not really engaging with the world’s ills, and sometimes that’s surely the case, but I think that imagining the perfected society is a way of expressing your disgust with the current state of affairs.


Lindsay Whalen is a writer and editor based in New York City. More from this author →