Paradise Now: The Story Of American Utopianism by Chris JenningsParadise Now: The Story Of American Utopianism by Chris Jennings

Paradise Now: The Story Of American Utopianism

byChris Jennings

Hardcover | January 12, 2016

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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 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
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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Title:Paradise Now: The Story Of American UtopianismFormat:HardcoverDimensions:512 pages, 9.54 × 6.63 × 1.53 inPublished:January 12, 2016Publisher:Random House Publishing GroupLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0812993705

ISBN - 13:9780812993707

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THE SHAKERS American Zion And was Jerusalem builded here, Among these dark Satanic Mills? —WILLIAM BLAKE Cottonopolis Ann Lee was born four decades before the Dark Day, on Leap Day 1736. She was the second of eight children born to a Manchester blacksmith named John Lees and a woman whose name is lost to history. They lived in a small apartment on Toad Lane, a narrow street of smithies and alehouses. In the mid-1700s, Manchester was ground zero for the nascent Industrial Revolution. When Lee was little, the blocks of the city were interspersed with small farm plots. Shiploads of cheap, slave-picked American cotton and a handful of technical innovations transformed the city. By the time Lee was a young woman, Manchester had begun to fill with unskilled workers from the countryside looking for work in the new mills. The invention of the spinning jenny, a machine that allowed one person to operate many yarn spindles at once, revolutionized the production of thread. Spinning, which had formerly been done by independent artisans or in the evenings by farmers’ wives, became a profitable full-time trade. The jennies spun a surplus of thread, accelerating advances in weaving technology. Groups of wealthy landowners built large mills where water- and steam-driven looms churned out inexpensive cloth. Artisan weavers and spinners could not compete. Many sold their small plots of ancestral land and joined the exodus into the city. Peasants who had previously fed themselves from their own meager acreage and often didn’t eat much at all began to live off factory wages. Little is known of Lee’s early life. She never went to school. When she was eight, she began to work on a loom. The hagiography written by her followers after her death offers a portrait of their prophet as a severe young woman. The plump little girl relished hard work, the official record reports, and was “never addicted to play as other children.” From an early age she “was impressed with a sense of the great depravity of human nature, and of the odiousness of sin.” In the cramped apartment that Lee shared with her seven siblings, her parents’ sex life was probably on full display. It was certainly within earshot. Repulsed by the “indecent nature of sexual coition,” Lee chastised her mother for submitting to her father’s lust. This insolence earned her regular whippings. After Ann left the textile workshop, she worked as a velvet cutter. For a time she prepared fur for hats. Later she served as an assistant in a lunatic asylum. Religion was one of the few things that was not in short supply on Toad Lane. By the time Lee was twenty-three, she and other members of her family had joined a prayer group led by Jane and James Wardley, a pair of Quaker tailors who lived in Bolton, a few miles north of Manchester. The Wardleys believed that God spoke directly to them and that the Second Coming of Christ was imminent. Like other religious dissenters of their day, they denounced the official Anglican Church as the work of the Antichrist. The group that met in the Wardleys’ home felt the Holy Ghost in their midst and acted accordingly. Disturbed by their spastic singing and dancing, their neighbors called them jumpers, shiverers, or shaking Quakers. Much of what the Wardleys preached derived from a group of French mystics who had settled in England at the end of the seventeenth century. In 1685, Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes under pressure from the Vatican and his devoutly Catholic second wife. For a century, the edict had protected the rights of Huguenot Protestants to worship openly throughout most of France, though never in Paris. In response to their sudden loss of liberty, many Huguenots immigrated to England, Prussia, Holland, and North America. Others remained in France and waged a violent insurrection, burning churches and killing priests. They became known as Camisards for the light linen shirts (camisa) they wore to identify one another on night raids. Some Camisards were burned at the stake. Others were stretched on the wheel. Among those exiled to England, many settled in Manchester. The French Prophets, as they came to be known, danced wildly, spoke in tongues, wrestled with invisible devils, spoke of an imminent millennium, and specially prized the prophetic gifts of women. By the time Ann Lee was worshipping with the Wardleys, the notion that the end of the world was imminent had special force in Manchester. The conditions in what William Blake would soon call Britain’s “dark Satanic Mills” were indeed hellish. The workers’ precincts were a knotted tangle of covered passages and narrow, winding alleys. Fresh water and plumbing were almost nonexistent. Slimy, stagnant creeks bubbled with miasmatic gases. The poorest workers went barefoot through alleys that dead-ended at muddy pools of urine and shit. This gray, life-refusing landscape would have a powerful influence on modern utopian and socialist thought. A decade after Mother Ann and her Shaking Quakers left Manchester to build a new, perfected society in North America, Robert Owen, the founder of Indiana’s New Harmony community, came to town. Owen was born poor, but he ended up on the winning end of the city’s brutal economic equation. Even so, his sympathies remained with workers like Ann Lee. His time in the mills inspired dreams of a secular paradise in which working people would enjoy all the comforts and dignity of the wellborn. A generation after Owen left, the mills of Manchester inspired and bankrolled the writings of Marx and Engels. Manchester’s factory economy, which took off when Lee was a young woman, left people who had formerly lived according to little more than the rain and the soil at the whim of a powerful new force: the global market. The constant presence of excess workers in the city was necessary for those rare times when cloth production peaked. When demand slackened, the looms slowed. Thousands of men, women, and children became instantly superfluous. Since they did not own (or hold tenancy upon) any land, they could not even raise the meager subsistence that their parents had. This situation—a permanently impoverished labor surplus—drove wages ever downward, creating huge fortunes for a small group of mill owners while ushering workers into lives of squalid confusion. Industrial accidents—crushed legs, mangled fingers, broken arms—were commonplace. In the damp slums, epidemics came and went like weather. Many reformers assumed that the new competitive industrialism would not last long. How could something so inhumane survive? As one commentator later wrote of Marx, the utopian reformers in Manchester mistook “the birthpains of capitalism for its death throes.” The religiously minded fell back on the eternal conviction that justice, in one form or another, was coming. Wrongs will be made right; the least will come first; Babylon will fall.

Editorial Reviews

“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“Thoughtful, measured, and surprisingly relevant.”—Chicago Tribune “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