Jennings demonstrates how “no moment in history or place on the globe has been more crowded with utopian longing and utopian experimentation than the United States in the middle of the nineteenth century.”
The many communes established during this time had much in common as they prepared for the second coming. The looming millennium egged on the leaders of these movements, who sought not a place but a time of peace, equality, and abundance. The Shakers, Owenites, Fourierists, Icarians, and Perfectionists attracted scores of people who gave up their lives to join others in search of “the dream of utopia.” All bought large tracts of land, promoted collective ownership, and adhered to a structured workday. The author proffers a number of plausible reasons for the rise of these groups. The Industrial Revolution was eliminating the single artisan, and the arrival of factories fed the economic inequality that condemned people to filthy urban environments. Each group built a small, working prototype community, and each based their group on farm, school, and home, with education and feminine equality paramount. Members came from a broad swath of the population, including Nathaniel Hawthorne and Charles Dana at the Fourierist Brook Farm. Although they either over- or understressed individuals, none of the groups could grasp the complexity or variety of human desire. Their aims were admirable, but they suffered from a lack of basic agricultural success. The Shakers and Perfectionists succeeded due to their marketable inventions, including clothespins, bear traps, and cutlery. They may have been similar in many ways, but the differences were marked—e.g., Robert Owen worked to shape men to an ideal, while Charles Fourier demanded that institutions adapt to humans. Jennings proves an able guide to these groups, who “proceeded from the assumption that humankind is somehow meant to live in utopia.”
The author’s comprehensive research makes for absorbing reading as he shows how different people attempted to find perfection and how they failed or succeeded.