WITHOUT SIN by Spencer Klaw


The Life and Death of the Oneida Community
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 Disturbing tale of a 19th-century utopian community. Klaw (The Great American Medicine Show, 1975, etc.) wrote this with the cooperation of descendants of the Oneida Community, who granted him access to unpublished memoirs and letters. The result is a thorough if somewhat blinkered look at a daring experiment in social and biological engineering, a sort of Victorian brave new world. Oneida was the brainchild of John Humphrey Noyes, a preacher and writer who believed himself to be God's chosen instrument. Like other utopians, Noyes taught the perfectibility of the human being; more controversially, he also condemned monogamy in favor of sexual libertinism. After some false starts--including an arrest on morals charges--Noyes put his theories to the test in 1848 by establishing his own Eden in Oneida, New York. At first, the community flourished. Inventions poured out, including the stainless-steel cutlery still manufactured today; members enjoyed courses in languages and science, as well as equality in food, clothing, and shelter. But too often Noyes's activities seemed a forerunner of China's cultural revolution. Romantic love and celibacy were banned; at 13 or 14, girls lost their virginity, usually to Noyes himself in sessions known as ``interviews.'' Privacy was nonexistent, and members were subjected to scathing public criticism of their every fault. Noyes ruled as absolute dictator, wielding power by manipulating sexual privileges. His social experiments reached their nadir with ``stirpiculture,'' an attempt to produce superior human beings (with Noyes blood involved, if possible) through breeding experiments. Predictably, the community's idealism faded rapidly, and, by the 1880's, Oneida was more or less defunct. Effectively told, although Klaw is too busy praising Oneida life for its liberalness to grasp the parallels to modern religious cults, including the Branch Davidians. (Eight pages of b&w photographs--not seen)

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1993
ISBN: 0-713-99091-0
Page count: 352pp
Publisher: Viking
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1st, 1993


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