UTOPIAN EPISODES by Seymour R. Kesten


Daily Life in the Experimental Colonies Dedicated to Changing the World
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 A report on--and critique of--life in American utopian communities of the 1800's. Kesten, an independent scholar, examines a number of groups, all based on social (rather than religious) ideology. The most famous is New Harmony, which followed Robert Owen's prescriptions against private property; other colonies modeled themselves on the teachings of Charles Fourier or Etienne Cabet. In all cases, Kesten finds, people became utopians through a mix of idealism, desire for education, and reaction against social woes such as slavery and poverty. Most often, what they discovered in their communities was a string of ``bitter ironies'': Instead of a brief workday with plenty of edifying leisure time, utopians lived like monks with, in one instance, 3:00 a.m. wake-ups followed by ice-water baths and a workday that stretched until 9:00 p.m. Bland food was the rule, along with prohibitions against alcohol, tobacco, and, in some cases, all animal products, including leather or woolen clothing. Women enjoyed the emancipation of pants and short skirts but remained subordinate to men. While a few communities like Brook Farm supported personal liberty, others squelched it at every turn: One prominent group in Illinois followed commandments like ``You must marry; celibacy not permitted'' and ``No Catholicism, atheism, or materialism. No religious dissent.'' To Kesten, utopian music, literature, and community newspapers were also arenas for failure, although he points out that some groups broke new ground by redefining privileges of the rich--such as a decent education- -as basic human rights. A bounty of lore for utopia buffs, but Kesten's evaluation seems too downbeat and even nitpicking (e.g., his poring over community documents for contradictions). One wonders what Sir Thomas More would say on the matter. (Thirteen illustrations)

Pub Date: Dec. 1st, 1993
ISBN: 0-8156-2593-6
Page count: 344pp
Publisher: Syracuse Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15th, 1993