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A Tale of Two Utopias

These Parts: Nauvoo, IL--Two movements, Mormanism and Icarianism, come together in a single peaceful town on the Mississippi river. Why did one flourish while the other faded into obscurity?



The cafe on Mulholland, the main street of Nauvoo, advertised fresh fruit of the season and homemade blueberry muffins. The fruit turned out to be "fresh frozen" peaches and strawberries: this was in June. The muffin might have been homemade, but a long time ago in a home very far away. The walls of the cafe were festooned with the stuff of retro-Americana: farm implements, geese in bonnets, floral wreaths, yards of calico.

We were having breakfast in the Illinois town that some have called the "Williamsburg of the midwest." We had come searching for the remnants of a lost civilization, the Icarians, one of the longest-lived of the hundreds of utopian communities that sprang up throughout pioneer America.

There isn't much left in Nauvoo dating from the 12-year Icarian occupation of the town; even the memory of their presence is in retreat. The Icarian Restaurant and Bar, which looks like it saw its heyday sometime in the 1940s, is closed and for sale. In the cemetery where many of the Icarians were buried, only one headstone advertises "Free Thoughts" among the standard footnotes to devout lives and faith in divine redemption. The meticulously reconstructed buildings that make Nauvoo a "Williamsburg" belong not to the Icarians but to the group that preceded them and occupied the town for a similar span of time: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, more commonly known as the Mormons. The last Icarian building, the community schoolhouse, was demolished in 1972 to make way for the excavation of the Mormon Temple.

It was from Nauvoo that the Mormons began their great push west to Utah. It was here that their founder, Joseph Smith, was arrested and led to his fate, murder by a mob at the jail in Carthage, Illinois, some 50 miles east. In Nauvoo the Mormons have established a living museum, investing heavily in historic preservation, to rehabilitate not only buildings but also the early, troubled history of their church.

And they've done a creditable job on both rehab projects. Several dozen structures have been restored to their 19th-century appearance, and it's easy for a visitor to get caught up in the laid-back feeling of the simpler time they recall--too easy, perhaps, since the time of the original Mormons at Nauvoo was anything but peaceful.

So we came to Nauvoo to search for the remnants of one faded utopian community and found them dwarfed by the living, breathing presence of quite another, a virtual Jerusalem for a movement that became what is today the world's fastest growing religion and one of the world's wealthiest. The two movements, Icarianism and Mormonism, represent the two sides of the utopian coin, the secular and the religious. Their coming together in a single peaceful Mississippi river town prompts a question: Why did one flourish while the other lapsed into relative obscurity?

If the sheer number of experiments is any indication, utopianism used to be fairly respectable, or at least commonplace, in the United States. More than 600 utopian communities were founded here between 1663 and 1950. And this number includes neither the paper societies, those plans that never got off the ground, nor the counterculture societies of the 1960s and 1970s.

In the 19th century especially, utopian socialism was viewed by many as the rational expression of federalism. It was a big country back then, with limited communication between outposts. Self-reliance was a requirement for anyone who would settle at the fringes, and with the seats of official power so distant, settlers needed to establish systems of community order that were coherent and sustainable. Even Horace Greeley, Republican candidate for president and publisher of the New York Tribune, advocated the communal socialism proposed by the Frenchman Charles Fourier, based on his philosophy of "passionate attraction." The activities of various socialist experiments frequently made the Tribune's front page.

The 19th-century communities could be divided into two groups: those organized on religious principles, like the Shakers, and those, like the Fourierist colonies that Greeley endorsed, based on nonreligious social principles. Both needed a kind of ideological cement to hold them together, a mutual vision or dream, which John Humphrey Noyes, founder of the long-lived Oneida Community (Putney, Vermont, 1841-1879), called "afflatus."

This "inspiration," as dictionaries define the word, was a far stronger feature of religious communities and accounted, according to Noyes, for their longer survival compared to their nonreligious contemporaries. Religious communities had strong doctrinal elements to which all members were required to adhere. Some of these doctrines were malleable: certain religious communities were encouraged to follow the biblical injunction to "go forth and multiply" when land and food were abundant, and were similarly enjoined from sexual contact when times were lean.

Nonreligious communities, on the other hand, generally adopted organizing principles that were fundamentally centrifugal, such as free speech and individual liberty. Even when not dominated by such principles, these communities were frequently organized by people fleeing from rather than cleaving to something. Consequently such communities were bound by "a negativity rather than an affirmation," as Nathaniel Hawthorne said of his fictional community Blithedale, which was considered a thinly veiled portrait of George Ripley's Brook Farm Community (West Roxbury, Massachusetts, 1841-1847). These communities could agree on what they didn't like, but patching together a universally acceptable action plan was a different matter.

Icarianism, though avowedly Christian, was one of the nonreligious movements, and it was hit by the double whammy of weak afflatus and centrifugal ideology. Its founder was another French socialist, Etienne Cabet, who started his political career as a midlevel bureaucrat in the government of the "citizen king" Louis-Philippe. In appreciation for his role on the Insurrection Committee of 1830, which had helped bring Louis-Philippe to power, Cabet was made attorney general of Corsica. But he was "too much of a natural conspirator to be silenced by preferment," as Mark Holloway put it in his book Heavens on Earth; Cabet soon pamphleteered his way out of political office and into a five-year exile in Great Britain. There he met Robert Owen, the Welsh philanthropist who'd founded (among others) the socialist community at New Harmony, Indiana (1824-1827). By the time he returned to France in 1839, Cabet had written a novel, Voyage en Icarie, which sketched out his ideal society.

Cabet's novel drew a great deal on Thomas More's Utopia. The action takes place on an island distant from Europe, where an advanced civilization has created a society based on principles of equality and social justice. Workplaces are pleasant and the workday ends by one o'clock. A key component of Cabet's philosophy was the absolute elimination of private property. The jealousies and social inequities created by individual ownership were seen by Cabet as the basis of human suffering. His economic models were the early Christian societies, which, he claimed, owned everything in common.

When Voyage en Icarie was published France was in political turmoil, at war in the Middle East and experiencing labor unrest at home. The novel rapidly sold out five printings. The number of Cabet's followers at the time can't be accurately established, since political activity was officially banned and driven underground, but readership of Cabet's periodical Le populaire was estimated at 50,000 in 1843. In France alone the peak membership in Icarian societies is estimated to have been between 100,000 and 200,000.

As the Icarian movement grew, Cabet's followers began to agitate for the establishment of a colony based on Icarian principles. Though Cabet had conceived his society as strictly theoretical--it had never occurred to him that he might found a living example--an advance guard of colonists was recruited, and Cabet, apparently at Owen's urging, entered into a contract to purchase a million acres of land at Red River, Texas.

Arriving in Texas, the first Icarian colonists learned that they had been swindled on the land deal. They had bought a million acres, all right, but the plots were laid out checkerboard fashion, with no two abutting. Another purchase of land would need to be made before the community could farm or build a village. The settlers stuck it out in malarial conditions for three months, then retreated to New Orleans to regroup. Colonists continued to arrive from France. After a year in New Orleans, the Icarians learned that Nauvoo was looking for a population to replace the recently departed Mormons, so there they went.

The Icarians took over some of the Mormon buildings, including a communal dwelling, a school, and various mills and workshops. They assembled a library of 5,000 volumes, at its time the largest in the state. They conducted theatrical and musical performances and extended the right of basic education to women and girls.

The government of the community was conducted by a comite de gerance, elected by a general assembly and supervised by a president. All the adult males of the community belonged to the general assembly; Cabet was routinely elected president, as a mark of respect, and exerted strong control over the comite, which vested ever stronger powers in him.

But Cabet was a visionary, not a manager. Crop failures, harsh winters, and poor decisions regarding industrial and agricultural enterprises raised doubts about his ability to direct the community. Opposition grew in the general assembly, and Cabet responded by tightening the reins of control. He spied on his opponents and banned the use of tobacco and whiskey. Political turmoil interfered with the work of the community and the colonists' sparse existence grew meaner. The community split into pro- and anti-Cabet factions.

Finally, in 1856, the assembly elected three anti-Cabetists to the comite; the pro-Cabetists on the comite, now in the minority, refused to recognize them. It seemed to the majority that the community's founding democratic ideals had been trampled by the pro-Cabet faction. Fighting between the two groups broke out in the streets of Nauvoo, and the new directors had to be installed by force. The Cabetists withdrew to their own building, refusing to work. In October, Cabet was formally expelled. He led a group of 180 followers to Saint Louis, where he died on November 8, reportedly in "an apoplectic fit."

The loss of the 180 members severely disrupted the Nauvoo community, which hastened a planned move to Corning, Iowa. In the 1870s the younger members of this Corning community, influenced by the writings of Karl Marx and the International, agitated for a more active role for Icarianism within the communist movement. Their elders, content with their first sustained period of relative comfort since their arrival in the United States, resisted the radicals. Again there was a rift in the community. In 1878 the common property was divided between the younger and older groups, although the two continued to live side by side in diminished prosperity. A small group moved to Cloverdale, California, in 1883, forming "Icaria Speranza," which lasted until 1887. Death and apathy overcame the remainder at Corning. In 1898, the 21 survivors divided up the remaining 1,000 acres.

Before the Icarians there were the Mormons. Their prophet, Joseph Smith, was born in Vermont in 1805 and raised in upstate New York. Church legend has it that as a young man Smith was led by an angel called Moroni to discover several golden tablets buried in the woods. These tablets recorded the history of the descendants of the prophet Nephi, who left Jerusalem in 600 BC and sailed to America with some followers. Nephi's elder brother, Laman, was sinful and corrupt, so God punished him with red skin, a curse that was passed on to his descendants. The divinely favored children of Nephi, or Nephites, were born with white skin, while from the Lamanites descended all the dark-skinned people of the Americas.

Smith translated the contents of the golden plates (they had been written in "reformed Egyptian") with the aid of "seer stones," magic rocks that had also been divinely provided. With the assistance of a stenographer, Smith recorded the conflict between the Nephites and Lamanites in the Book of Mormon.

The book was denounced as blasphemous within weeks of its publication in 1830. Nonetheless it began attracting adherents, and Smith, assisted by his brother Hyrum and a few devoted followers, began to organize his church. He announced that his was the true church of Christ, the religion that Jesus himself had practiced. Joseph Smith established himself as a prophet of God, in the tradition of the Old Testament prophets and, now, the Book of Mormon. Thus was born the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The same international communitarian impulse that had nurtured Icarianism influenced the development of Smith's young church. The Rappites, Shakers, and Owenites had established their communities in the United States. Ralph Waldo Emerson commented on this trend, writing to Thomas Carlyle: "Not a reading man but has a draft of a new community in his waistcoat pocket." In Smith's interpretation of communitarianism, the property of each member was turned over to the church, which then returned to each member a portion of the community's wealth deemed sufficient to support himself and his family.

Smith and his early followers set out from New York to found the New Jerusalem. Several communities of Saints (as the Mormons call themselves: non-Saints are "gentiles") were established, beginning in Ohio. Nearly everywhere Smith's followers were greeted with suspicion or outright hostility, and not just on account of their "blasphemous" doctrines. Smith and his inner circle also engaged in some rather suspicious business enterprises. In 1836 in Ohio, Smith established the Kirtland Safety Society Bank Company, which seems to have operated a lot like a classic pyramid scam. The collapse of this company fanned the flames of anti-Mormonism and forced the Saints to seek a home farther west.

Their new home, Missouri, was a slave state, and this fact was to be key in the Mormon's eventual evacuation to Illinois. According to the Book of Mormon, the blackness of Africans' skin demonstrated that they had been cursed by God. But as children of God, people of color were also seen to be redeemable: the cleansing of their souls would result in the whitening of their skin. After a great deal of doctrinal debate within the church, the Saints came to believe that this religious viewpoint was consistent with the abolition of slavery. Missouri might have been willing to tolerate blasphemy, but it drew the line at abolitionism. After a brief and often bloody residency, the Mormons were expelled, forced across and up the Mississippi into Illinois.

Nauvoo was known as Commerce when the Mormons arrived, reflecting perhaps the wishful foresight of the residents, whose entire settlement consisted of three frame houses and one of stone, plus a couple of blockhouses. No less wishful was the name the prophet bestowed on the town: according to Smith, Nauvoo meant "beautiful place" in ancient Hebrew. This translation is unsubstantiated by either linguists or eyewitnesses; at the time, Nauvoo was a swamp. Undaunted, ambassadors from Nauvoo began energetic recruitment of converts from England, attracting several thousand in the early 1840s. (By 1845 Nauvoo had 15,000 residents; Chicago had 8,000.) The construction of a great temple was begun. Smith was installed as both mayor of the town and commander of the local garrison of the state militia, the latter having been established through some political finagling in Washington and Springfield. As the power and influence of the Mormon community grew, not to mention its arsenal, again the surrounding "gentiles" became aroused and began to organize against them.

Rumors circulated regarding alleged orgiastic practices under the Mormon system of "plural marriage." The gentiles' suspicion only deepened when the Mormons adopted ritual practices loosely based on freemasonry. Smith grew more grandiose and autocratic as local opposition increased; in February of 1844 he announced his candidacy for president of the U.S. After a group of renegade Mormons published a newspaper condemning him and his inner circle, Smith made a fatal mistake: he ordered the destruction of the press that had printed it. He was arrested for this act and transported to a jail cell in Carthage. "I am going like a lamb to the slaughter," the prophet said, though Illinois governor Thomas Ford had personally guaranteed his safety. That night--June 27, 1844--a mob stormed the jail, killing Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum.

The death of the Smiths, of course, was not the death of Mormonism. Brigham Young, who had been in charge of the recruitment of English converts, led the Saints not just to a new home in Utah, but also to a defining chapter in their theology of persecution and redemption. And they have returned to western Illinois, the scene of the greatest indignity against them, to construct a more palatable history.

Lillian Snyder knew vaguely as she was growing up that her great-great-grandfather, Emile Baxter, had been an Icarian, one of those who stayed in Nauvoo when the majority of the colony moved west. But it wasn't until she was doing her doctoral dissertation in the 1960s that Snyder, now a retired sociology professor, began to investigate the movement in depth. Her research helped her clear up some questions she'd always had about her own choices in life. Why were she and her family so concerned with social issues? Where had her love for art and music originated, her love for learning? She found in Cabet's early writings great similarities with her own points of view.

From a hundred-year-old beekeeper's barn built by her grandfather, Dr. Snyder now guards the scattered remnants of the Icarian movement. She directs the Icarian Heritage Society, which maintains a small museum and a large network of families descended from the original group. The Heritage Society holds annual "Icarian Weekends," reunions organized around cultural themes, such as "Art and Photography" and "The History and Demonstration of the French Quadrille." In the loft of the bee barn, Dr. Snyder has organized a library of works on the general subjects of utopianism and social reform. Last year her society cosponsored, with the Mormons and a group called the Communal Studies Association, a symposium on utopianism in the U.S. that drew some 125 participants from 50 states and several foreign countries.

Like the Icarian experience in Nauvoo, Dr. Snyder's library rests on Mormon foundations. Limestone slabs from the Mormon Temple, which was destroyed by fire and storm in 1848, were used in the barn's construction. Similar slabs pop up in unexpected places throughout the town, some of them displaying the sunburst motif that decorated the capitals of the temple's columns. Although her family's homestead is otherwise unrelated to the Mormon period, having been constructed some 50 years after the move to Utah, Dr. Snyder has had several offers from Saints eager to buy her out.

The majority of the Mormon reconstruction activity has taken place on the hill where the temple was built (at the western end of Mulholland Avenue) and on the river flats where most of the Mormon homes and commercial buildings are located. On our way down to the flats from the Snyder place, roughly a 15-minute walk, we passed a small store window displaying a pair of crude cardboard churches, a road forking as it leads to each of their doors. A hand-drawn sign stands at the fork. It reads: "Jesus or Joseph, you must choose."

On the flats, the river unfolds to the west and all traces of the 20th century have been banished. A dozen or so of the simple brick buildings of the Mormon period have been painstakingly restored. Bolts of cloth are stacked on the counter of the dry goods store, cattle graze on the pasture. At every turn in the restored area there's a leaflet or a talking diorama or a church elder in period costume poised to tell you the story of the church and its founder.

Outside the Latter-day Saints Visitors' Center, at the foot of Main Street, stands a pious statue of Joseph and Emma, his first wife. Together they preside over the "Monument of Women," three groupings of bronze statues showing women performing traditional tasks: quilting, sewing, child rearing. The statues are wearing ankle-length gowns except for one sculptress in a knee-length number and espadrilles. The day I was there a teenage girl was having her picture taken with her arms wrapped around the statue representing "Woman at Prayer." Occasionally a calming female voice emanated from the bushes, to deliver a brief sermon on the centrality of women to the Mormon faith. There was no mention here or anywhere else among the various displays at Nauvoo of the prophet's other wives, who numbered between 20 and several dozen, depending on whose version you believe.

Utopianism generally has a bad name. In the minds of many it conjures up a fantasyscape wherein the gullible cohabit with the ineffectual. It's not considered rational to be a utopian, to build castles in the air and then attempt to rent them out to others.

But the fantasyscape is just one aspect of utopianism. In The Story of Utopias Lewis Mumford described what he saw as two distinct types of utopian conjecture: the utopia of escape and the utopia of reconstruction. In the first, the scope of the visionary can be personal and even banal, in the category of speculating on how to spend a $40 million lottery prize. It doesn't have, and isn't meant to have, a practical side. On the other hand, according to Mumford, the utopia of reconstruction is "a vision of a reconstituted environment which is better adapted to the nature of and aims of human beings who dwell in it than the actual one; and not merely better fitted to their actual nature, but better fitted to their possible developments. If [the utopia of escape] leads backwards into the utopian's ego, the second leads outward--outward into the world."

What is it that planners and policymakers do, if not to envision "a reconstituted environment which is better . . . than the actual one"? And politicians? Remember the "New Covenant"? The "Kinder and Gentler Nation"? What are these themes if not calls to utopia? It's only after the election that the rational side of politics emerges to remind us that our dreams will be undone by the limitations imposed by reality.

Which brings us back to breakfast in Nauvoo and to the issue of afflatus (although I'd prefer a word that sounds less like a Bronx cheer). The Mormons have certainly endured, apparently by dint of virtually bulletproof afflatus, but what is it exactly that has been preserved here? Visitors to the Mormon shrines hear a tale of a peaceful group of righteous settlers unjustly persecuted for their beliefs. There's no mention of plural marriage, or the destruction of the printing press, or the Ohio banking scandal. The Mormons are pitching their utopia by appealing to the American yearning for a vanished way of life. In the Mumford system, the Mormons' utopia is one of escape rather than reconstruction.

That restaurant in Nauvoo wasn't offering us real muffins and real fruit: it was offering us the idea of a breakfast in a past that not only was not our past, but might never really have existed. It offered a retrograde utopia of escape that fits perfectly with the Mormon version of Nauvoo.

Our journey to Nauvoo ended where all journeys end eventually: at the cemetery. It sits at the edge of town, the last shred of Nauvoo before the riverain landscape gives way to the eastern oceans of cornfields. After some searching we located the last avowedly Icarian tombstone, tucked under a tree; the detail in its carved limestone has lost some of its sharpness, but its message still resonates.

"Hommage to Free Thoughts," reads the tombstone, somewhat ambiguously, I now realize. Does it advocate escape, or reconstruction? Or did its creator realize that in his own time, as well as ours, it might be possible, even necessary, to accomplish both?

For information on Nauvoo and environs, see the Visitors' Guide in this issue.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Nathan Mandell.

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