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'Utopia Drive' Chronicles 'Quiet Revolutionaries' Who Tried To Live Outside Society


From the Shaker communities of Kentucky to modern day cooperatives in the northeast, North America has for a long time been kind of soft clay, a place to try to build something new just over the horizon. Driven by religious zeal or a belief in the perfectability of human society or a plain old hunger for a place with a lot fewer rules, the map of the United States is dotted with the remains of places that tried and mostly failed to build a lasting new way to live.

In his new book "Utopia Drive," Erik Reece explores the history of the Utopian impulse on American soil with a sense of urgency about the current moment in our country. He joins me now from member station WUKY in Lexington, Ky. Erik Reece, welcome to the program.

ERIK REECE: Thanks. Great to be here.

SUAREZ: Over and over as I read the book, I found myself thinking is there any other place in the world where there were this many attempts to create a society within a society that would try to be a better version than the regular one?

REECE: I don't think so. I mean, part of that has to do with just the size of the country obviously. But it's funny when you think about sort of European and Russian revolution, you think of this kind of violent overthrow or assassinations - that kind of thing - that are directly taking on the government. But what's really fascinating about these American utopias is that they weren't doing that. They were these quiet revolutionaries who were just trying to work outside the system in a way that would be so successful that it would sort of render the system unnecessary.

SUAREZ: In a lot of cases, when people remove themselves and go to their own place, they are viewed with wonder, hostility, suspicion. A lot of lurid tales circulate about what's going on in that place.

REECE: Yeah. I think that's right. I think part of that is because, you know - you take the Shakers for instance, and they were literally trying to recreate the early church where, you know, it says in the book of Acts that the early Christians shared all property in common. And so they were trying to reenact this radical version of Christianity that was not a version that Americans really were interested in or wanted to accept. There was so much antagonism early on against them that they just felt like the only way they could make this work is just to, you know, separate themselves off. But, you know, the problem with the Shakers, and a lot of the other communities, was because they separated themselves off then, you know, people did start coming up with these lurid rumors about orgies and things that never happened.

SUAREZ: Well, take us to some of the communities you visited, some of which probably are familiar to some listeners and some of which are totally new.

REECE: I went to communities that, you know, were vibrant and existed in the 19th century that no longer exist. And then I went to communities that are still going strong today. In Louisa County, Va., what you have there is some very loose zoning regulations, which basically means you can drop 100 hippies onto a farm in Louisa and nobody really cares that much. And so a community like Twin Oaks took root there in 1967 and is still going based on, you know, many of the same original utopian principles. The main difference being they don't believe in a charismatic religious leader. They believe in just absolute egalitarian, so visiting a place like that was really interesting. They let me stay for free. I got free room and board if I would do a little work, and so I harvested some cumbers - and working next to these modern utopianists, and just, you know, sort of talking to them about what their day-to-day life is like in utopia.

SUAREZ: You introduce us to anarchists, communists, socialists, people on fire trying to build a blessed society. But in some ways, they have some things in common. They think they can tame human avarice, greed, even lust.

REECE: Yeah. That's right. You can compare completely chaste community like the Shakers to a free-love community like the projectionists and a night in New York. And, you know, you look at them, and they're almost doppelgangers of one another, and yet they both survived for almost 100 years because they developed a system that was incredibly self-sufficient, incredibly egalitarian built on profit-sharing, stewardship of the land. And so, you know, they had all those things in common, even those - in some of the societies it came out of a religious impulse. And in other societies, it came out of a completely humanitarian impulse.

SUAREZ: Are there some ideas that were sort of tried on for size in these 19th-century communities that almost made them a dress rehearsal for the ethics of 21st-century America?

REECE: I think so. I think (laughter) one of the interesting things about this book coming out right now is that there's a lot of similarities between what Bernie Sanders' supporters think and what these early utopianists thought. They were coming of age at the beginning of the 19th century, and there were 200 of them at the time In this country. And they were responding to religious upheaval, but they were responding to the Panic of '37, too. And so they just thought, you know, this country isn't working. It's been taken over by corporate interests, and so all these things you hear from Bernie Sanders about the 1 percent and about income inequality, I mean - this was being articulated in very similar language by a lot of the early utopian visionaries.

SUAREZ: Erik Reece is a writer and professor of English at the University of Kentucky. His latest book "Utopia Drive" comes out Tuesday. Erik Reece, thanks a lot for joining us.

REECE: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.