Transcendentalism and Utopias
1800-1848 : By Mary Ann Enerson and Matthew Fastow
So, what is "transcendentalism"? And how does it relate to utopia?
Stop 1: Brook Farm (Boston, MA)
Stop 2: Walden Pond (Concord, MA)
Walden Pond is a small pond located right outside the city of Concord, Massachusetts and inspired Henry David Thoreau’s book Life in the Woods. Life in the Woods is a reflection on man’s simple living in natural surroundings and is heavily influenced by Thoreau’s Transcendentalist beliefs. Henry David Thoreau lived in a small self built cabin near the pond on land owned by his Transcendentalist friend Ralph Waldo Emerson. Thoreau believed in man’s individualism and stated that following social customs is a waste of life and to instead look towards the wildness and freedom in nature. The rejection of social customs shows how Thoreau and other transcendentalists’ beliefs differ from society’s, which is primarily focused on wealth, capitalism, and industrialization. Thoreau’s rejection of societal custom is reaction to the changing values of society and the decreasing morality of it and highlights regional differences between certain groups of people.
Stop 3: The Shakers (Albany, NY)
Stop 4: The Oneida Community (Oneida, NY)
The Oneida community is a small town tucked away in central New York, only of several hundred inhabitants, mostly former industrial workers. All of the property in the town is owned communally, and the inhabitants own operate a very successful steel trap business, which supplies animal traps for many hunters in New England and Canada. The willingness of New England’s industrial workers to join the Oneida community elucidates social divisions within America. The community’s founder, John Humphrey Noyes, sought to emulate the simpler, localized, agrarian societies in pre-revolutionary America. Such action was reactionary in response to the political and social discontent which accompanied industrialization. A distinct difference emerges between those who profit from industrialism -- the Northern aristocracy -- and those who suffer from it -- the Northern working classes. Moreover, due to the slave-based, agrarian society of the south, virtually all Oneidans come from urban centers in New England. Another division emerges here, this time between agrarianism in the south and industrialism in the north.
Stop 5: The Harmony Society (Harmony, PA)
Stop 6: A Fourier Community (Utopia, OH)
There are almost 100 small Fourier communities in New York and the Midwest, inspired by the anti-capitalist French philosopher Charles Fourier. Following his teachings, property is owned communally within these towns, and inhabitants work in labor units called “phalanxes.” Most notably, these labor units defy gender stereotypes of the era; men and women work alongside each other to accomplish both domestic and agricultural work. Such equality makes Fourier communities appealing to women seeking equal rights as their male counterparts. By contrast, the phalanx unit demonstrates the perpetual gender inequality in the rest of the US, where men are expected to earn a wage through field or factory labor, and women are confined to the domestic sphere. In addition, these communities appeal especially to educated farmers and craftsmen with access to Fourier’s work, who are increasingly opposed to the unpredictability of mercantile capitalism. Similarly to the Oneida community, Fourierism demonstrates clear divisions between those in support of and opposed to industrialization.
Stop 7: The Mormon Community (Nauvoo, IL)
Nauvoo is the second home of the Mormons, after being forced out of Jackson county by Protestants, who were wary of their polygamy practices. The town resembles other typical early American farming communities, centered around the newly built Nauvoo temple. The Mormons embody strongly conservative values, such as community coherence and patriarchy, as well as tenets of capitalism, such as frugality, hard work, and enterprise. The movement provides an outlet for those who were increasingly disenfranchised with the religious institutions of their day, but not quite radical enough to partake in fully communist utopias. Because of its origins in upstate New York, a rural environment, the successful and independent yeoman farmers were less opposed to capitalist values than urban industrial workers. This discrepancy points to ideological differences between rural farmers and industrial workers in early America.