Book Review: American Community: Radical Experiments in Intentional Living

American Community: Radical Experiments in Intentional Living. By Mark Ferrara. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2020. 183 pp + notes, index.

Many scholars have jettisoned the baggage-laden term “utopia.” Dictionaries often imprecisely define it as an imaginary and perfect society. Blame Sir Thomas More (1478-1535), who–in 1516–coined the term “utopia” for an eponymous and fanciful book. Then blame those who failed to notice that Utopia was a novel, not a social. At their core, utopian visionaries and their followers are critics of existing society. That’s why Mark Ferrara uses the word “radical” in the subtitle of his new book.

Ferrara, an associate professor of English at SUNY Oneonta, has both a scholarly and personal interest in “intentional living.” His is a brief survey of experimental living piqued by the fact that he and his family live in an intentional community [in] upstate New York. Atypical communities past and present coalesce(d) around a number of ideals: racial, religious, industrial, artistic, environmental, sexual…. What each share in common is that members reject conventional social and economic values grounded in individualism. At best, oppositional communitarians are labeled as odd or foolish dreamers; at worst they suffer ostracism and enmity. Ferrara notes that a significant number of consensual experiments are socialist and is quick to parse the term. Socialism generally calls for “some measure of collective or public ownership of productive property,” but it’s an ancient and variegated concept. Ferrara defines a socialist as “someone who believes in equality and freedom and who consciously uses political, social, and economic machinery to change society in accordance with those ideals” (4).

Ferrara concentrates on intentional communities from the American Revolution to the present, but anchors his study in the Colonial era. He observes that many white settlements such as Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay were utopian in that they were founded by religious dissenters. He concentrates, though, on lesser-discussed individuals such as Pieter Plockhoy (1625-64), Johannes Kelpius (1667-1708), and Conrad Beissel (1691-1768), the respective founders of a Collegiant [sic] community in Lewes, Delaware, New Bohemia in Maryland, and Ephrata Cloister in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Each was a religious outlier who held beliefs that today might be viewed as strange. Ferrara outlines these, but his main purpose is to normalize intentional communities by making us see North America as a repository for those who found hegemonic social ideals too constrictive. It was always such and remains so.

This signals Ferrara’s organizational approach. He divides the body of his text into four sections–“Revolution and Social Reformation,” “Sleeping Cars, Spiritualism, and Cooperatives,” “Theosophy, Depression, and the New Deal,” and “Hippies, Arcology, and Ecovillages”–which roughly correspond to the periods from 1800-1860, the late 19th century, the early 20th century, and post-World War II to the present. That’s a lot of turf to cover in just 183 pages and American Community should be considered as a snapshot of intentional communities, not an encyclopedic sweep. Ferrara has a definite affinity for overtly socialist communities such as Zoar, New Harmony, Skaneateles, Rugby, Kaweah, Llano Del Rio, and The Farm, but he also looks at religious communities, the industrial visions of George Pullman, Eben Draper (Hopedale), and the Endicott-Johnson Corporation, as well as government-built New Deal homesteads, the artistic cooperative of Drop City, Paolo Soleri’s futuristic Arconsanti, and recent experiments such as cohousing and eco villages. Ferrara’s mini profiles of founding visionaries run the gamut from eccentrics to businessmen.

Ferrara is not a historian and he sometimes presents as obscure figures such [people] as Adin Ballou, Job Harriman, Burnette Haskell, and Josiah Warren when they are actually well studied. I also think he was overly critical of the Oneida Community, whose complex marriage system was more salacious in theory than in practice. He is at his best when casting light on those who are less studied, such as Joan Bokaer, Étienne Cabet, Joseph Cohen, Thomas Lake Harris, Stephen Lenton, Isaiah Montgomery, and Kanaye Nagasawa. He also deserves credit for turning his research into a road trip to visit the sites he discusses.

Ferrara oversteps in his afterword. This book can and should be used with undergraduates, but some will take umbrage with what is essentially an attack on free-enterprise capitalism, individualism, middle-class values, and Donald Trump. Although I happen to share many of his views, his concluding remarks are entirely too polemical. His views would work better as food-for-thought questions rather than assertions. After all, contemplating a different way of living is a journey, not a jolt.

Robert E. Weir
University of Massachusetts Amherst

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