Category Archives: writing

Utopias in America

Does dystopia seem more tangible than utopia? Media such as Handmaid’s Tale, Hunger Games and Mad Max depict fractured futures. Science and economics speak of the effects of climate change, the next big flu pandemic, wealth inequality, and dark campaign money.

Utopianism seems gullible and naive, while dystopianism seems world-weary and chic. But it wasn’t always this way. 19th century America was littered with utopian societies. There were the Shakers, the Rappites, the Owenites, the Associationists, the Oneidans (yes, the silverware folks), The Amanans (yes, the refrigerator folks), and others. Look it up; there were probably utopian communities in your area too. In St. Louis, the Icarians briefly settled near present-day Dogtown. A German utopian group called the Giessen Emigration Society settled near Washington, Missouri. In New Mexico, we have Blackdom, a settlement for black families; there’s also the Faithists who founded the Shalam community. Most of these communities lasted only briefly, but vestiges of many remain; Washington, Missouri remains heavily German today although the surrounding area is not.

Some utopian colonies, like Blackdom, were more pragmatic than religious or dogmatic; Blackdom was founded to leave behind the KKK and Jim Crow. Millenarians, like the Shakers, believed that the Second Coming was imminent; they had to prepare for a thousand years of heaven on Earth, as predicted in the book of Revelations in the Bible. This thinking was influential in the Second Great Awakening. Others, like Robert Owen’s Owenites, were secular and believed that the industrial revolution could be harnessed to improve life if people pooled their efforts.

So why were there so many utopias founded in the United States in the 19th century? Europeans interpreted the Biblical arc of history as traveling from east to west; they saw history as starting in the Middle East, advancing in Europe, and ending in the Americas. The American revolution still seemed truly revolutionary, but also to some, incomplete. There was a lot of cheap land available for purchase. The industrial revolution destabilized long-standing traditions. The woman who brought Shakerdom to the United States, Ann Lee, grew up in the industrial miseries of Manchester, England–the city where Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels also developed their social theories.

These intellectual ties to 20th century communism probably explain why we’ve forgotten these kooky and imaginative social experiments. Marx and Engels used the term “communism” because “socialism” was so tied to Robert Owen in the public imagination. The utopias of the 19th century inspired later communist theory, but they differ immensely from later authoritarian regimes. They were voluntary social experiments. The Shakers were led by a woman and preached celibacy and gender equality. Many advocated gender equality, universal education, sexual liberty (or at least relaxation), and later, abolitionism.

The utopian thinking of the 19th century, though largely forgotten, was influential. Robert Owen spoke to congress twice and President John Q. Adams displayed a diagram of Owen’s utopian “parallelogram” in the White House. Many of the famous transcendentalists of New England, including Nathaniel Hawthorne, participated in the Utopian colony of Brook Farm. The famous editor, Horace Greeley, advocated Associationism. Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women, was brought up in the vegetarian Fruitlands Utopian Colony. (Not strictly relevant but hilarious: In the book Paradise Now, the author describes a few Fruitlands residents; “the community included… a man who refused to eat tubers because any vegetable that grows downward displays questionable ambitions;” another man “advocated spiritually cleansing obscenity. ‘Good morning, damn you,’ was his preferred salutation.”)

I think today’s dystopianism and 19th century utopianism are two sides of the American coin–we think expansively. Things are either the worst or we’re going to create heaven on earth in western Indiana. Both utopianism and dystopianism emerge from the observation of fault in today’s society. Both today’s dystopianism and 19th century Millenarianism utopianism are obsessed with the end of the world. Current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has raised eyebrows with his talk of the rapture. Either way, we like to think that, when it all goes down, we’ll be at the center of it.

Some good resources on American Utopianism

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Writing prompt: Junk Food Day

Time: 7 minutes. Click here to go to my list of prompts.

“Junk Food Day” (Inspired by this list of silly holidays.)


The priest reached under the alter. With reverence, he placed three relics before the congregation. Antonia craned to see. She could see them through the plastic, bright yellow and emanating well-being. The packages were adorned with ancient symbols and decorations. Though these decorations had smudged and flaked in places, the contents remained intact. It was through the bountiful blessings of the Hostess goddess.

“Behold,” the priest said, “these relics have passed through the generations to us. And today, we shall share these Twinkies in Holy Communion.”

He recited an incantation, said to be the words of an ancient “commercial,” or a spreading of good will. Antonia recognized some of the words, like “fun for the whole family,” but others, like “snackalicious” were beyond her. The ancient civilization had been so advanced. Her father said they couldn’t have been human, or that they must have had the help of clever aliens. The ancients had built mysterious temples thousands of feet high, and roads hundreds of feet wide that extended beyond the farthest known horizon. Today, they knew so little about the ancients. But on holy Junk Food Day, they tasted the Twinkie and rejoiced. The priest went around, slicing off bits for the devoted.

 

Writing prompt: Designer babies

Back in Virginia, our writing group had what we called a Pint and Prompt. A group of friends hit the bar, have a pint, and write for a few minutes on a writing prompt. Then you read your responses to one another. It’s really great to see the variety of responses, and it’s a good time with friends. Recently, they got together and did a Pint and Prompt, and my friend  Keith at Strange Things Done posted his response.  So I added mine, though it’s a bit too early for the pint yet.


Time: 10 minutes. Click here to go to my list of prompts.

“designer babies”

“Designer babies!?” the headline shimmered in her mind’s eye. She engaged the article and read further. She shouldn’t, she knew. Nothing good ever came from reading media coverage about your own research. The journalists would never understand the science, and accuracy came second to eyeballs. The strategy worked, she mused, as even she was looking at the article.

“The FDA recently approved the so-called Designer Baby program at Johns Hopkins,” the article began innocently enough. Anitra scrolled down through the background, seeking what she knew would be there inevitably. “The program has drawn a number of ethical concerns. It’s hard not to share those concerns. Say you splice in elephant DNA to have a child that will never forget, but then that child will be terrified of mice and always gain weight. Or a child with the DNA of a cat will be lithe and clever, but doomed to be a jerk.

“In seriousness, though, the program raises the question of what it means to be human. If humans and oragutangs share 99.9% of their DNA, how much fiddling will fundamentally rob a child of it’s humanity? The program guarantees fertility and a variety of other qualities in its embryos, but there is no known measure of a soul.”

Anitra mused to herself that it always came down to souls with these people. People who politically wanted to go to war and wanted to punish bad eating habits in children were worried about the godliness of the embryos. It was always just an excuse to muck around past their intellectual depth.

But… well the concern mongering, as ill-informed as it was, she kept reading it because there was something at the edge of her own mind. A concern she couldn’t quite articulate after interacting with dozens of designed children from age 1 to 6. She kept reading these articles because each time she hoped this one would cast the light into the shadow of her mind that she could not see. Alas, not this time.

Writing prompt: A pint and prompt!

Back in Virginia, our writing group had what we called a Pint and Prompt. A group of friends hit the bar, have a pint, and write for a few minutes on a writing prompt. Then you read your responses to one another. It’s really great to see the variety of responses, and it’s a good time with friends. Recently, they got together and did a Pint and Prompt, and my friend  Keith at Strange Things Done posted his response. And once I had a pint, I joined in the fun.


Time: 7 minutes. Click here to go to my list of prompts.

“She appraised me, canted her head and shrugged apparently disappointed.”


There was something synthetic about the motion, but maybe I was just looking for it, looking for a reason to discount her reaction.

“I know what you’re thinking,” she said. She straightened. She was waiting for a response.

“Oh?” I said, trying to sound coy, but feeling more self-concious than I liked.

“I see it all the time. My kind makes you nervous. Without the veneer of plastic pores and synthetic hair, you can’t dehumanize me.”

“You aren’t human,” I said.

“Which is why you wanted me. I can do things women can’t do.”

I coughed and looked away.

“You want to feel better than your partners. I can give you that feeling.”

“Well, why don’t you? Why haven’t you?”

“Maybe in addition to my hair and my cuticles and my lips, my feelings are less synthetic than the last model too. Maybe it’s shit doing business all day with people that want to take you down a peg.”

I felt bad. It is what I had wanted. “Maybe this isn’t the line of work for you.”

“I got debt. I was made with it. And this pays the bills.” She looked away and undulated her shoulders. She stretched. When she turned to look back at me, her eyes held a different look. It was like a different woman. I could see the hunger in her, calling to me.

Writing prompt: Submarine day

Time: 7 minutes. Click here to go to my list of prompts.

“Submarine day” (Inspired by this list of silly holidays.  Because St. Pat’s would be too obvious!)


The sub was beginning to stink. It reeked of sweat and mildew. Jansen had been short-circuiting the timer on the air-lock. It was his fault, I knew it. We wouldn’t get fresh air for another month, and the filtration system was already going at max.

Something long and tentacled swam past my window. I knew why Jansen rushed the air-lock—there was something wrong about this planet. The little submarine felt like an oasis in a wet desert, a safe space in a world of monsters. The survey had revealed some large native lifeforms, but our sub, which apparently resembled a good meal, brought them out in numbers we couldn’t anticipate.

But the company said it was alright, and we had signed contracts, so we would stay until the next crew arrived.

Construction was behind schedule. The initial design specs were insufficient in light of the lifeforms in the ocean. If one of the large ones rammed the base, the original design wouldn’t take that.

Another creature, head like a folded umbrella, long like an eel, swam by. Several of its eyes blinked. I wondered if it could see me.

Writing prompt: Middle name pride day

Time: 7 minutes. Click here to go to my list of prompts.

“Middle name pride day” (Inspired by this list of silly holidays. This one is a little dumb, but that’s what is freeing about writing prompts. Sometimes they can be dumb, but they didn’t take very long.)


“Hey Jane, what’s your middle name?” Anka asked, her voice swaying with song. She hung upside down from the hover monkey bars, her pigtails dangling by her ears.

“I told you, I don’t have one.” Jane walked toward the hyper see saw.

“Is that so? I saw you name on the attendance list. ‘Jane X. Stuart.’ You liar.”

“Well why should I tell you anyway! We’re not friends!”

Anka rolled down from the bars and pursued. “Oh Jane, are you keeping a secret? Your middle name’s not anything embarassing, is it?”

Jane went cold. Anka smelled blood. This wouldn’t end well. “No. Go away. Stop following me.”

“What could it be…” she mused. “Xylophone? No…. Xavier? No… oh no… it couldn’t be…”

Jane didn’t turn, she just kept walking.

“Could it be Xagolonix?!” Anka cried.

That was it, Jane couldn’t take it anymore. She turned and pushed Anka. “ I said, go away!”

“You’re named after a monster! Do you know how many people Xagolonix killed?”

“I was born before that. Before that, it was a perfectly normal Martian name.”

“Jane Xagolonix Stuart!” Anka sang. “Jane Xagolonix Stuart!”

“Anka!” Mr. Svetloff barked. “Are you picking on Jane?”

“No, Mr. Svetloff,” Anka simpered. “Jane was keeping secrets.”

“Miss Anka Hitler, I don’t suppose you see anything odd about your name, do you?” Mr. Svetloff intoned.

“No, it’s a perfectly normal Earth name,” Anka said.

“About that,” Mr. Svetloff began.

Writing prompt: Don’t Cry Over Spilled Milk Day

Time: 10 minutes. Click here to go to my list of prompts.

“Don’t cry over spilled milk day” (Inspired by this list of silly holidays.)

The warning message on my phone had been accurately dire. Only the charred beams of the house remained. I saw Bella and Sadie out in the yard, doting upon a firefighter with a bag of treats. I pulled up behind the firetruck.

“It’s a total loss, ma’am,” one of the firefighters approached me, bearing forms.

“So the message said,” I sighed. “Do you know what caused it?”

“Electrical short, we think. We won’t know until the simulation results are in, and they run overnight. You probably know what I’m going to ask next.” He looked apprehensive. He glanced at the dogs, and back to me.

“I back up every week,” I said.

He relaxed noticeably. “Thank goodness. You don’t know how many fires I see where the family hasn’t backed up in five years. It’s devastating.”

“I bet.”

“Do you know how to initiate the rebuild?” he asked. I shook my head and he walked me through the process.

“By next week, your house will be back at the state of your last back-up. A few details might be less current, say you hadn’t scanned a closet for a while. The insurance will put you up at a hotel until it’s ready.”

I looked over the ruins of my home, ruins of my memories. In a week, they’d all be back. Maybe not the same piece of paper I’d received at graduation, not the same toy my dogs loved to fight over. But nearly. I sighed.

“Are you all right ma’am? It’s a lot to take in,” the fire fighter said.

“No use crying over spilled milk.”