Title Reviewed:
America's Communal Utopias

Author Reviewed:
Donald E. Pitzer

Stephen J. Stein


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 93, Issue 4, pp 397-398

Article Type:
Book Review

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America's Communal Utopias. Edited by Donald E. Pitzer. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997. Pp. xxi, 537. Illustrations, notes, selected bibliographies, maps, appendix, bibliographical essay, index. Clothbound, $60.00; paperbound, $24.95.)

In this volume Donald E. Pitzer has assembled a group of distinguished essayists, all of whom are authorities on particular communal societies. The communal Utopias discussed in this collection include some that appear in virtually every volume of this sort (e.g., the Shakers, the Oneida Community, the Mormons, the Harmony Society, the Owenites) as well as others that receive less attention (e.g., Roman Catholic religious orders, Theosophists, Jewish agricultural colonies, the Koreshan Unity, and communal groups in colonial America). In addition, there are essays dealing with Fourierism, the Amana colonies, the Icarians, Bishop Hill, the Hutterites, Father Divine's movement, and socialist Utopias in California. Pitzer's volume provides readers an excellent survey of the variety of communal societies in the American experience.

Each of the essays includes several helpful items: extensive endnotes, a timeline identifying the most important dates in the story of the group in question, and a selected bibliography. In addition, the volume contains a forty-five-page list of communal Utopias founded in America before 1965 and an annotated bibliographical essay. In toto, this volume represents a substantial achievement.

The challenge facing Pitzer was also substantial. How might he assure uniform coverage of groups that were anything but uniform? For example, barely twenty pages are devoted to the more than two centuries of Shaker history involving some twenty thousand Believers, whereas forty-seven pages focus on the much more modest Owenite experiment involving a few hundred members during two decades. Meanwhile, the task facing Lawrence J. McCrank, the author sketching the history of Roman Catholic orders and monastic groups in America, exceeded that of all the other essayists. Not surprisingly, one discovers some unevenness in the scope of the essays and in the amount of detail.

It is not completely clear who the primary audience is for this volume. Those already familiar with these groups will not discover much that is new. Those unfamiliar with these groups may find the extensive annotation intimidating and unnecessary, especially in view of the redundancy that exists among the endnotes, the selected bibliographies, and the bibliographical essay at the end of the volume. Yet both specialists and the uninitiated will profit from this collection.

In his opening essay Pitzer sketches what he calls a "developmental approach" to the study of communal groups. That approach, he suggests, ties together the essays in this volume and allows one to see how communal societies assume different forms at different stages of their development. He sees this notion as an alternative to formulas that talk of communal success or failure simply in terms of longevity. On the barrenness of the latter measure he is certainly correct. Some of the essayists in this volume nod in their closing paragraphs to his "developmental" notion, but those nods, frankly, do not add a great deal to an understanding of these groups on either a theoretical or a historical level. Good historical writing about such groups has always recognized that multiple influences gave rise to communal societies in America and that their legacies live on in a variety of ways even after the communities themselves have passed from the scene.

STEPHEN J. STEIN, Chancellor's Professor and chair of the Department of Religious Studies, Indiana University, Bloomington, is the author of The Shaker Experience in America: A History of the United Society of Believers (1995).

Published by theĀ Indiana University Department of History.