REVIEW: A Road Trip Through America's Utopias (Which Were Not All that Perfect)

Utopia Drive: A Road Trip through America’s Most Radical Idea by Erik Reece.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 368 pp.

By Ann Fabian

Back in October of 2015—months before the country took its terrifying dive into the political abyss—Erik Reece went looking for traces of America’s utopian dreams.   He’s read a lot about the early years of the 19th century and about the Americans who tried to imagine alternatives to the market-based capitalism surging around them.  He finally decided to get into his truck and drive a loop up from Kentucky to Virginia, out to Ohio and Indiana and up into New England to see what he could find of the old utopian communities.

Those of you who’ve read Reece’s 2009 memoir, An American Gospel: On Family, History and the Kingdom of God, know that he is the son and grandson of Baptist preachers and that his father, struggling with depression, committed suicide when Reece was a little boy.  In Reece’s mind an unforgiving strain in American Puritanism helped push his father to his early grave, and Reece grew up hungry for an alternative tradition—“an American Gospel that equates nature with virtue, that finds in the land ethic a model for our human communities.” 

In all his books, Reece turns to a roster of heroes who have helped him see an alternative America: Thomas Jefferson, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, Thomas Merton, Wendell Berry, and Jesus, a man he coyly describes as a “Mediterranean street preacher.”   At times, he calls on a few more personal heroes: biologist Lynn Margulis, his mentor; the writer and artist Guy Davenport; and his boyhood idol, Pete Rose.Reece, who teaches writing at the University of Kentucky, still has a trace of the preacher in him.  Utopia Drive: A Road Trip through America’s Most Radical Idea is Reece’s latest meditation on the ideas that might help us out of the environmental and spiritual wasteland we’ve created around us.

He addresses Utopia Drive to an America on the verge

of both environmental calamity and an intractable federal plutocracy—a government given over to the rich by a bewildered, defeatist populace.  Americans live in a world we are too ready to accept.  We acquiesce too easily to the inevitability of the way things are.  Indeed, many of us think of our consumer culture as its own version of utopia, where we are absolved of the responsibility to question where our food, our clothes, our cellular devices, our energy come from.  Of course an astonishing amount of cruelty and violence makes this utopia possible—a violence done to the land, a violence to human and non human life.

That’s a tall order for a summer book, but now with political calamity to add to Reece’s list, I’ll give him a pass.  Today, we can use hordes and swarms of utopian visionaries—naked and clothed, meat eating and vegan, chaste and randy—just so long as they equipped with optimism about human nature and ready to help us all imagine better futures.

It’s true that utopias usually fail and sometimes take a frightening absolutist turn, but as Reece points out most begin with a kind of courageous eccentricity and a stirring sense of optimism about building a better world.  And sometimes people were happy, singing, dancing, weeding, building, and swapping work for a good meal.    

Reece started his two-week road trip with a visit to a recreated Shaker Village not far from his home in the hamlet of Nonesuch, Kentucky.  Accounts of the Shakers, with too little sex, and the Oneidans, with too much, bookend Utopia Drive.  Ticking 3,000 miles onto his truck’s odometer, Reece visits contemporary alternative communities in Virginia and New York; rides a bike around New Harmony, Indiana; makes a pilgrimage to artist Joseph Cornell’s house on Utopia Parkway in Queens (since Cornell’s box worlds are utopias, maybe?); spends a night in Oneida; visits the inspiring Evergreen Cooperative in Cleveland; and interviews impossibly articulate communards, archivists, and inn-keepers in Kentucky, Virginia, Indiana, and Massachusetts.   

But the bulk of Utopia Drive is taken up with Reece’s free-associating ramble through the philosophy and history of American utopian thinking.  Recently published good books by Christopher Jennings (Paradise Now: The Story of American Utopianism) and Ellen Wayland-Smith (Oneida: From Free Love Utopia to the Well-Set Table—An American Story) suggest we have a hunger to know something of our utopian past.    

There’s overlap in the stories these three authors tell.  Like Reece, Jennings looked into utopias “born in the fever dream of religious revelation and the waking nightmare of early industrialization,” but Jennings wrote to figure out what prompted intelligent hard-working people to set up new communities.  He sympathizes with their efforts to answer big questions about work, marriage, money, and property.  Wayland-Smith went back to Oneida to pick up her family story in the “complex marriage” of the New York perfectionist community.

Of the three, Reece’s book is the most personal, and he took a risk as a writer setting a personal story as the compass for this road trip.  While I share his interest in alternative traditions, we’d part company over the contours he gives his alternative America and over his unrestrained enthusiasm for Jefferson, Thoreau, and Pete Rose.  

I’m sure my tastes would have made me an obnoxious companion on his road trip, but reading Utopia Drive I kept imagining myself as his annoying passenger.  Day one, I would remind him that Jefferson’s agrarian utopia was built on the labor of people he owned as slaves.  He built his lovely ideas on their work.  Where do they fit in Reece’s alternative America?  

Then I would have needled him to read Danielle Allen’s brilliant account of the democratic authorship of the Declaration of Independence (Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence) and badgered him with Allen’s idea that equality is as important to the nation’s founding as freedom.  

Then we would have fought over his assertion that Thoreau is “the greatest prose stylist this country has ever had.”  I would have made him read Kathryn Schulz’s elegant takedown of his man at Walden as a humorless narcissist.   I’m sure Reece missed Schulz’s essay, since he was packing up to leave on his trip just about the time her “Pond Scum” appeared in the October 19th issue of The New Yorker.   
With Jefferson and Thoreau out of the way, we would have taken to arguing about Pete Rose, not Rose’s disgraced present incarnation as a pitchman for “Sketchers” but our childhood memories of his glory days.  To Reece, watching Rose was like watching “an artist.”  In my Dodger-inflected girlhood, Rose was a stubby villain, a determined hustler, but short on a baseball artist’s grace.

And then, if he hadn’t dumped me off at a highway exit, I would slip the cast recording of Hamilton into his CD player while he was complaining about potholed roads in Vermont and try to persuade him to give a nod to the financier and to the Federalist notion that a strong state is sometimes necessary to promote the common good.    

And finally, if we were still talking back in Nonesuch, Kentucky, I would read him a few chapters from Huckleberry Finn.  If I played my cards right, Reece and I would be friends again, utopian allies, laughing at Twain’s description of the “Royal Nonesuch.”

I just need to convince him that there are many alternative Americas.   They include the utopias he visited but also people working toward equality, communities collecting taxes to repair roads and writers tuned into the strain of the country’s irreverent humor.  

Ann Fabian is an American historian.  She is working on a book about herpetologist Mary Cynthia Dickerson.