Skip to main content
Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Utopia Drive

A Road Trip Through America's Most Radical Idea

Erik Reece

Farrar, Straus and Giroux





Mile: 000000

The corner of Fifth and Elm Streets in Cincinnati, Ohio, has held a certain significance for me since the day I stood there with my parents, as an eight-year-old in 1976, and watched the Cincinnati Reds return to the city after their seven-game victory over the Boston Red Sox in what was, as my father told me then and as I still believe, the greatest World Series ever. I made note of the cross streets where we stood because I felt sure that catching a glimpse of Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, and Johnny Bench would be the most important thing that had happened up to that point in my life, and might well be for some time to come.

Ten years later I was scanning the “radical thought” section of a used bookstore in the town where I had just arrived for college. My eyes fixed on the faded purple spine of a book by George B. Lockwood called The New Harmony Movement. It is a history of this country’s first secular utopian experiment, undertaken in 1825 by the Scottish industrialist Robert Owen in a small Indiana town called New Harmony. The copy I pulled from the shelf was a first edition published in 1905; its cloth cover had been worn smooth, and the gilt lettering on the spine had almost disappeared. Still, there seemed to me something talismanic about the book; it held, after all, a secret—the secret of society. I slowly flipped through its pages until I hit upon this passage: “On the 18th of May, 1827, there was unpretentiously opened at the corner of Fifth and Elm streets in Cincinnati a small country store, conducted on a plan new to commerce. It was the first Equity store, designed to illustrate and enact the cost principle, the germ of the cooperative movement of the future.” And 149 years later, I would stand at that same corner, the crossroads of utopia, as it turned out, to watch a ticker tape parade for the world champion Reds.

I can point to that afternoon in 1986 when I bought The New Harmony Movement for a few dollars as the first day of my fascination with a strange coterie of nineteenth-century world menders—men and women such as Robert Owen, “Mother” Ann Lee, John Humphrey Noyes, Josiah Warren, and others—who plotted paradise across the eastern United States. From 1820 to 1850, close to two hundred utopian communities sprang to life. In 1840, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote to his British friend Thomas Carlyle, “We are all a little wild with numberless projects of social reform. Not a reading man but has a draft of a new community in his waistcoat pocket.” Commercial employment had grown “selfish to the borders of theft,” said Emerson, so there was nothing for the virtuous American to do but “begin the world anew.” It was, after all, a very young country. Such things seemed possible. What’s more, the religious revivals that stirred unexpected foment at the beginning of the nineteenth century convinced many men and women that Christ’s Second Coming was imminent and they had better start preparing an earthly kingdom. Many secular utopias were a response to the economic Panic of 1837, when, much as in 2008, reckless speculation sank banks and plunged the country into a prolonged depression. As a result, a number of Americans fled urban life and went looking for more just and compassionate ways to organize human affairs. Others simply saw communal living and sharing as a means to better realize the country’s founding principles; in the United States of the early 1800s, the newly coined word socialism carried none of the heretical freight it does today. What these communities all took up, in one form or another, was an experiment in radical idealism.

Two decades later, the Civil War brought most of those experiments to an end. But contrary to the common perception, the majority did not fail because their founding principles proved naïve, or overly optimistic, or contradictory to the inalterable selfishness of human nature. In fact, many were great successes, and their stories have been obscured only by the larger American story of a union preserved, slavery abolished, and the rise of an industrial economy. That economy also helped to crush the utopian movement in this country, and it ultimately created an American consumer culture so unsustainable and so devoid of idealism that we now stand on the verge of both environmental calamity and an intractable federal plutocracy—a government given over to the rich by a bewildered, defeatist populace. Americans live in a world we are too ready to accept. We acquiesce too easily to the inevitability of the way things are. Indeed, many of us think of our consumer culture as its own version of utopia, where we are absolved of the responsibility to question where our food, our clothes, our cellular devices, our energy come from. Of course an astonishing amount of cruelty and violence makes this utopia possible—a violence done to the land, a violence done to human and nonhuman life.

To resist, or at least escape for a while that air of inevitability, I began to conceive in my mind a road trip through this country’s alternate economic and social history—its utopian past. For twenty-five years, I had been casually reading and collecting materials about those nineteenth-century visionaries. Last October, I finally felt ready to go. With a map of the eastern United States spread out across my kitchen table, I plotted my prospective route with a green marker. It would start right down the road from me, at the site of a Shaker community called Pleasant Hill, and it would end in Oneida, New York, where the perfectionists, led by John Humphrey Noyes, invented a free-love philosophy called Bible communism, which was at once the opposite and the apotheosis of the chaste Shakers. My plan was to pick through the ruins and the reconstructions of those utopian dreams in the hope of piecing that story back together. I wanted to examine those remains to find what images and ideas might be exhumed and perhaps breathed back to life. The economist Milton Friedman, who was wrong about a great many things, was right, I think, when he said, “Only a crisis—actual or perceived—produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.” Because I believe our country is in the midst of great political, economic, social, and environmental crises, I decided to set out in search of those alternatives that now seem impossible but might soon prove inevitable.

I will not, of course, visit every utopian community that ever took shape in this country, and the account that follows is in no way meant to present a comprehensive history of the American utopian movement. I’m not a social scientist; I’m a guy with a truck, a gas card, and a few boxes of old books shifting around in the cab. In fact, I made a deliberate decision to limit my peregrinations to the eastern states. That leaves out communities and movements such as the Mormons of Utah, the Icarians of Iowa, Colorado’s Drop City, and Paolo Soleri’s “ecotopia,” Arcosanti, in the Arizona desert. Among others. This, unfortunately, could not be helped. I am afflicted by a bizarre mental illness whereby the analytical portion of my brain stops functioning whenever I cross the Mississippi River. While it’s all fascinating out there, out west, I’ve spent my whole life in the eastern United States, and as a result, I don’t trust my instincts to read the western geographical and cultural landscapes with any real sense of understanding or acuity. But more than that, of the two hundred or so utopian communities that formed between 1820 and 1850, almost all of them took root in the eastern half of this young country. It was here in the East that preachers, publishers, and backwoods prophets began the hard mental and physical work of conceiving paradise on earth. Many of those visionaries eventually wandered or were forced westward, but the elemental intellectual history of the utopian movement still lies, or is buried, on Long Island, in upstate New York, or on the banks of the Wabash River in Indiana. Beginning near the latter and roving east toward the former, I suspect there will be plenty to see.

*   *   *

Road trips are usually fueled by restlessness and discontent, a deeply personal reason to get away from one place and go look for another. In his classic travelogue Blue Highways, William Least Heat-Moon lamented, “Daniel Boone moved on at the sight of smoke from a new neighbor’s chimney; I was moving from the sight of my own.” That’s not quite the case with me. It isn’t some sense of personal disaffection that sends me off on my solitary way. Last year I married my ex–best friend’s ex-wife and we bought a house far from town, on a forested hillside that overlooks a beautiful body of moving water called Clear Creek. If that sounds like a country song with a happy ending, maybe it is. The point being: I like my woodstove and my chimney just fine. In fact, the closest town to our house is a little hamlet about five miles up the road called Nonesuch. And if you think about one of the Greek roots of the word utopia, outopia, “no place,” then Nonesuch itself suggests something of that original meaning. According to the Kentucky Atlas & Gazetteer, “The origin of the name is obscure,” but it would be easy to see how an extremely fertile farmland overlooking the Kentucky River might have looked rather inspiring, perhaps even utopian, to an early settler such as Boone. And here it’s worth remembering that the other Greek root of the word, the one most people forget or ignore, is eutopia—not “no place,” but rather “good place.” Often one hears political commentators reject some idea or proposal because it seems too “utopian.” What they are saying, of course, is that they find the idea too implausible, too unrealistic, too naïve. Yet given the grim state of our nation, why not engage in a little utopian thinking? Given that our current political and economic systems bear only the slightest resemblance to anything called democracy, why not consider the alternative—especially the radical alternative? Even as a parlor game, a thought experiment, why not consider where that future might take us? As Anatole France once said, “Without the Utopians of other times, men would still live in caves, miserable and naked.” Then he added, “Out of generous dreams come beneficial realities.” The argument for utopian thinking is not that it represents some fantasy of escape, some “No Place,” but rather that it holds out the specter of a more beneficent reality, something substantially better than what we have: a Good Place. As I set off from Nonesuch, that is what compels me to go.

Yet besides the vague phrase “good place,” what exactly do I mean by the term utopia? Perhaps I should establish at least a working definition before going anywhere. It is of course subject to change, but at least it will get this show on the road. To wit: a utopia represents a community’s deliberate separation from the larger society so as to enact a new form of organization that offers both a critique and a corrective to the values of the dominant society. Let that stand for now as a way of designating a collective of social radicals, which all utopianists are, from, say, eight liberal vegans living in a group house.

There are, at least to my thinking, four different versions of utopia, and as I venture forth, these will act as the four points of my mental compass. Along the north–south continuum lie what the great social critic Lewis Mumford has termed “utopias of escape” and “utopias of reconstruction.” The former are largely works of fiction—Plato’s Republic, Thomas More’s Utopia, Samuel Butler’s Erewhon (nowhere spelled, almost, backward)—while the latter tries to set up what Mumford called “a condition for our release into the future.” The utopia of escape takes place on floating islands and in imaginary pasts, while the utopia of reconstruction conceives of a near future that offers a vital corrective to the present. Along the east–west axis lie what I call the utopias of solitude and the utopias of solidarity. In Albert Camus’s short story “The Artist at Work,” a poor painter named Jonas retreats to his attic garret to work for months on one painting. He hardly comes down for meals or to speak with friends. When he does finally appear, he announces that his painting is done, then promptly faints from fatigue. His friends and family climb up to have a look, but all they can discern is one tiny word painted in the center of the canvas, and no one is quite sure if the word is solitude or solidarity. Both words, however, suggest a utopian impulse, even if Camus intentionally leaves it ambivalent as to which path the artist, or anyone, should follow. Nathaniel Hawthorne went off to the famous Boston commune Brook Farm, at least briefly, to join George Ripley’s experiment in solidarity; Henry David Thoreau adjourned to the solitude of Walden Pond so he could, as William Ellery Channing said, devour himself alive. No doubt this compass will point in several directions at once—Thoreau walked the ten miles east to visit his friends at Brook Farm—and sometimes all four. While each of these utopias sits at a separate end of its continuum, none is necessarily exclusive.

*   *   *

I think a book like this, the story of a road trip, needs some kind of daimon, some patron saint or guardian angel. For mine, I choose the Angel of History, as conceived by the German critic Walter Benjamin, and I imagine its image dangling from my rearview mirror like one of those cardboard air fresheners. Benjamin invented this daimon based on the Paul Klee painting Angelus Novus. Looking like no other ethereal visage in the history of art, Klee’s wide-eyed angel floats against an orange background, its wings raised, its gaze fixed on something that appears to be happening over our shoulders. In one of the more enduring fables of our time, Benjamin imagined a violent storm sweeping the Angel of History farther and farther into the future. The angel’s wings are spread open, and its gaze is fixed regretfully upon the past. “Where we perceive a chain of events,” Benjamin writes, “he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet.” The angel would like to go back and awaken the dead, fix what has been smashed. But the storm fills its wings, propelling it farther into the future. And like all great storms, this one has a name: Progress.

Today the storm of progress goes by other names: growth, capitalism, technology, genetic modification, bioengineering. In a way, I will be driving against all these headwinds in an attempt to retrieve this country’s utopian past, along with the possibility of a fundamentally different future. To some degree, as I’ve said, all of us as Americans imagine ourselves being swept into the future by forces we believe are beyond our control, too powerful to be stopped. Yet for the first time in human history, they may be sweeping us into a future that has no futurea future of catastrophic climate change, diminishing natural resources coupled with a world population of nine billion by 2050, and ecosystems that are no longer sustainable because of human overuse and abuse. I say this not as someone trying to win an argument, but as a writer whose work is motivated largely by a fear of what the future holds, a fear of what we have brought upon ourselves. However, that fear, at least for me, is somewhat leavened by the lingering utopian impulse that imagines a course different from the trajectory we are now following. In other words, it is not too late for the Angel of History. It can’t go back and fix the past, but it might salvage those ruins and build something new out of that wreckage.

Walter Benjamin believed that certain revolutionary moments can break the trance of history’s forward march and release us onto a new path. It is as if a trapdoor lurked within history’s linear narrative, and through that door we might escape into the future dreamed of by the Angel of History—the future that isn’t scarred by catastrophe. Utopia, by definition, is a product of the imagination, and therein lies its power: it imagines something better, then calls on us to enact that vision.

*   *   *

Sometime around the middle of the nineteenth century, a Scotsman named A. J. Macdonald made it his life’s work to visit every utopian community in America and document what he found there. John Humphrey Noyes, the founder of the Oneida perfectionists, remembered him as small in stature, with dark hair and sad eyes. “We imagine that the sad scenes he had encountered while looking after the stories of so many short-lived Communities had given him a tinge of melancholy,” Noyes later wrote. Macdonald amassed a great deal of material for his book, but he died of cholera in 1854, before he could bring his project to completion. Noyes, wanting to write his own history of what he called “American Socialisms,” tracked down Macdonald’s brother-in-law, who had Macdonald’s whole cache of documents boxed up in an attic. He was happy to be shed of them, and Noyes was more than happy to take possession of what turned out to be 747 pages of materials, including pencil sketches and watercolor paintings of various communities, along with wood engravings of the men and women who had called the communities into being. Macdonald had also written a preface to the book that would never be published. “I performed the task of collecting the materials which form this volume,” he wrote, “because I thought I was doing good.” And though his archive would surely have buttressed the anti-utopian argument—there were, after all, many cases of failure—Macdonald hoped his volume would “increase the charity” of readers when they realized that “it was for Humanity, in nearly all instances, that these things were done.”

It remained, Macdonald said, for a “future historian” to continue the work he had begun: to prove that “it is possible yet, in the progress of things, that man will endeavor to cure his social diseases” by learning from both the successes and the failures of the American utopian movement. I am far from a historian, but I take his challenge seriously enough to set out as he did, to retrace parts of his sojourn in that same spirit and with the same desire: to discover a radical idealism that might deliver us from our social diseases, and unto a humanity more worthy of the name.


Copyright © 2016 by Erik Reece