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Paradise Now: The Story of American Utopianism
     

Paradise Now: The Story of American Utopianism

by Chris Jennings
 

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For readers of Jill Lepore, Joseph J. Ellis, and Tony Horwitz comes a lively, thought-provoking intellectual history of the golden age of American utopianism—and the bold, revolutionary, and eccentric visions for the future put forward by five of history’s most influential utopian movements.

In the wake of the Enlightenment and the onset of

Overview

For readers of Jill Lepore, Joseph J. Ellis, and Tony Horwitz comes a lively, thought-provoking intellectual history of the golden age of American utopianism—and the bold, revolutionary, and eccentric visions for the future put forward by five of history’s most influential utopian movements.

In the wake of the Enlightenment and the onset of industrialism, a generation of dreamers took it upon themselves to confront the messiness and injustice of a rapidly changing world. To our eyes, the utopian communities that took root in America in the nineteenth century may seem ambitious to the point of delusion, but they attracted members willing to dedicate their lives to creating a new social order and to asking the bold question What should the future look like?

In Paradise Now, Chris Jennings tells the story of five interrelated utopian movements, revealing their relevance both to their time and to our own. Here is Mother Ann Lee, the prophet of the Shakers, who grew up in newly industrialized Manchester, England—and would come to build a quiet but fierce religious tradition on the opposite side of the Atlantic. Even as the society she founded spread across the United States, the Welsh industrialist Robert Owen came to the Indiana frontier to build an egalitarian, rationalist utopia he called the New Moral World. A decade later, followers of the French visionary Charles Fourier blanketed America with colonies devoted to inaugurating a new millennium of pleasure and fraternity. Meanwhile, the French radical Étienne Cabet sailed to Texas with hopes of establishing a communist paradise dedicated to ideals that would be echoed in the next century. And in New York’s Oneida Community, a brilliant Vermonter named John Humphrey Noyes set about creating a new society in which the human spirit could finally be perfected in the image of God.

Over time, these movements fell apart, and the national mood that had inspired them was drowned out by the dream of westward expansion and the waking nightmare of the Civil War. Their most galvanizing ideas, however, lived on, and their audacity has influenced countless political movements since. Their stories remain an inspiration for everyone who seeks to build a better world, for all who ask, What should the future look like?

Praise for Paradise Now

“Uncommonly smart and beautifully written . . . a triumph of scholarship and narration: five stand-alone community studies and a coherent, often spellbinding history of the United States during its tumultuous first half-century . . . Although never less than evenhanded, and sometimes deliciously wry, Jennings writes with obvious affection for his subjects. To read Paradise Now is to be dazzled, humbled and occasionally flabbergasted by the amount of energy and talent sacrificed at utopia’s altar.”The New York Times Book Review

“Writing an impartial, respectful account of these philanthropies and follies is no small task, but Mr. Jennings largely pulls it off with insight and aplomb. Indulgently sympathetic to the utopian impulse in general, he tells a good story. His explanations of the various reformist credos are patient, thought-provoking and . . . entertaining.”The Wall Street Journal

“As a tour guide, Jennings is thoughtful, engaging and witty in the right doses. . . . He makes the subject his own with fresh eyes and a crisp narrative, rich with detail. . . . In the end, Jennings writes, the communards’ disregard for the world as it exists sealed their fate. But in revisiting their stories, he makes a compelling case that our present-day ‘deficit of imagination’ could be similarly fated.”San Francisco Chronicle

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Kirk Davis Swinehart
…uncommonly smart and beautifully written…By turns elegiac and colloquial…Jennings's sure grasp never falters. The result is a triumph of scholarship and narration: five stand-alone community studies and a coherent, often spellbinding history of the United States during its tumultuous first half-century…Although never less than evenhanded, and sometimes deliciously wry, Jennings writes with obvious affection for his subjects. To read Paradise Now is to be dazzled, humbled and occasionally flabbergasted by the amount of energy and talent sacrificed at utopia's altar. But then, as Jennings so memorably puts it, "Anyone nuts enough to try building heaven on earth is bound for a hell of his own making."
Publishers Weekly
11/09/2015
Jennings reexamines America’s 19th-century utopian projects, viewing them as a response to growing industry and competition in post-Enlightenment Europe, in this thoughtful history. He smartly organizes the book into five sections, each covering a major movement in the “Edenic void” of America: Shakers, New Harmony Owenists, Fourierists, Icarians, and the Perfectionists of the Oneida Community. These movements had many similarities—doing away with property and the family (except the Icarians), preaching cooperation, and focusing on bettering their members—while their fascinating differences owed much to the peculiarities of their founders’ motivating ideologies. Jennings dispels the pastoral image of an easy existence: labor was almost uniformly difficult and money was a consistent problem. But for many, utopian life also had its upsides: attention to education, better diets, fair wages, and sexual liberation were all components of these movements. Perhaps their greatest achievement was gender equality: women found equal rights in many of these communities, and many stepped outside the domestic sphere that confined many of America’s women. Though utopians were still limited in their thinking (particularly in racial terms), Jennings convincingly argues that they were not motivated by “a surfeit of optimism,” but were inspired to find a better society because of a cynical view of the direction that the world around them was heading in. Agent: Amanda Urban, ICM. (Jan.)
Library Journal
11/01/2015
Jennings debuts with the story of an intellectually vibrant period in U.S. history: an era before capitalism became the de facto economic ideology; egalitarianism ran rampant; religious diversity exploded; the unlimited promise of scientific progress tantalized; and the "City on a Hill" American experiment remained attractively tenable. This ideologically fecund atmosphere sandwiched between the New Republic and the American Civil War gave birth to around 100 "experimental communities" that might be described as attempts to build a living paradise on earth. From this abundance, Jennings narrows his account to five movements: the Shakers, Owenites, Fourierists, Icarians, and Oneida Perfectionists. By presenting these five communities beside one another, Jennings permits readers to see the similarities and differences among them. Certain themes, although expressed differently, appear in all five: radical sexuality, communism, scientific curiosity, gender equality, and fervent idealism often expressed religiously. The incongruity of these themes can be expressed, for example with radical sexuality, in which the Shakers disbanded all sex, whereas the Oneida Perfectionists embraced free love; both remained Christian sects. VERDICT Recommended for readers of American history and religion.—Scott Vieira, Rice Univ. Lib., Houston
Kirkus Reviews
2015-09-08
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.
From the Publisher
“Uncommonly smart and beautifully written . . . [Chris] Jennings’s sure grasp never falters. The result is a triumph of scholarship and narration: five stand-alone community studies and a coherent, often spellbinding history of the United States during its tumultuous first half-century. . . . Although never less than evenhanded, and sometimes deliciously wry, Jennings writes with obvious affection for his subjects. To read Paradise Now is to be dazzled, humbled and occasionally flabbergasted by the amount of energy and talent sacrificed at utopia’s altar. But then, as Jennings so memorably puts it, ‘Anyone nuts enough to try building heaven on earth is bound for a hell of his own making.’ ”The New York Times Book Review
 
“Writing an impartial, respectful account of these philanthropies and follies is no small task, but Mr. Jennings largely pulls it off with insight and aplomb. Indulgently sympathetic to the utopian impulse in general, he tells a good story. His explanations of the various reformist credos are patient, thought-provoking and . . . entertaining.”The Wall Street Journal
 
“As a tour guide, Jennings is thoughtful, engaging and witty in the right doses. . . . He makes the subject his own with fresh eyes and a crisp narrative, rich with detail. . . . In the end, Jennings writes, the communards’ disregard for the world as it exists sealed their fate. But in revisiting their stories, he makes a compelling case that our present-day ‘deficit of imagination’ could be similarly fated.”San Francisco Chronicle

“Chris Jennings is a natural storyteller, and his Paradise Now, a five-part chronicle of America’s nineteenth-century utopian dreamers and doers, is the most clear-eyed, sympathetic, and inspiring account I’ve read of this vital chapter in American history in decades. What sort of future did they want? The Shakers, Owenites, Fourierists, Icarians, and Oneidans asked and answered the question, each group in its own way.  Chris Jennings prods his readers to ask the question again—for ourselves.”—Megan Marshall, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Margaret Fuller: A New American Life
 
“Jennings knows how to tell a story, and has the intellectual range to recover both the weirdness and wisdom of America’s brief bout with utopian illusions and ideals.”—Joseph J. Ellis, author of The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783–1789
 
“In a perfect world, work will be irresistibly pleasurable. Women will have equal rights. Money and property will be shared, as will spouses. Or maybe sex won’t be allowed at all? Even better! And once the ice caps melt, the sea will taste like lemonade. Bliss! With good humor, a lively style, and a deep knowledge of the historical scholarship, Chris Jennings tells the goofy, heartbreaking tale of nineteenth-century Americans who believed they could bring about heaven on earth, and managed to live out futures that the rest of us haven’t yet reached.”—Caleb Crain, author of Necessary Errors
 
“Despite marked differences separating these utopian movements, Jennings prizes in all of them their distinctive—and utterly American—optimism in facing a future in which their adherents believed they would usher in a glorious new social order. . . . Readers who resent the constraints of a barren realism will value this deep-probing inquiry into the quest for new social possibilities.”Booklist (starred review)
 
“Jennings proves an able guide to these groups. [His] comprehensive research makes for absorbing reading as he shows how different people attempted to find perfection and how they failed or succeeded.”—Kirkus Reviews

From the Hardcover edition.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780812993707
Publisher:
Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
01/12/2016
Pages:
512
Sales rank:
204,694
Product dimensions:
5.90(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.60(d)

Meet the Author

Chris Jennings grew up in New York City. He graduated from Deep Springs College and Wesleyan University. He lives in Northern California with his dog.

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