Very often, an intentional community that no longer exists is referred to as a failed utopia. You usually see those two words together: failed and utopia. Brook Farm is sometimes described as having failed because it disbanded after the Phalanstery burned down; but had you visited one or two years after its founding, you would have encountered a thriving, successful venture.
Labeling a community as having failed just because it’s no longer around assumes permanence was its primary goal. A better gauge, I think, is whether it fulfilled its objectives during its lifetime, no matter how fleeting its span might have been.
And yet even by that metric, it’s hard to argue that Fruitlands was anything but a disaster.
Like Brook Farm, Fruitlands was founded by members of the transcendentalist movement. In May 1843, Charles Lane, an eccentric Englishman who found America more fertile for his utopian dreams, bought a 90-acre farm about 16 miles west of Concord, Massachusetts. There, he and his bestie Amos Bronson Alcott founded the Fruitlands commune. Several other members, as well as Alcott’s family — which included a young Louisa May Alcott — joined them.
Lane and Alcott were much more rigid than the Ripleys at Brook Farm. The Fruitlands ethos preached strict self-sufficiency, with Lane writing that the “Exchange of Commodities, useful & useless” was bad for human nature, which complicated their acquisition of those things they couldn’t produce themselves (Lane even went so far as to not recognize the farm as being his property). The Fruitlanders were abolitionists, so no cotton was allowed because it was picked by slaves; but neither was wool, as they were vegans. They were also raw foodies, so most cooking was out, and they shunned root foods as being unhealthy. Even candles were forbidden as the wax appropriated the labor of bees, so everyone went to bed as soon as it was dark.
It’s not an easy thing to survive a New England winter with only linen clothes and no potatoes, onions, or beets in the cellar. While Lane and Alcott did relent on some things — they bought an ox to plow and a cow for milk — by December the Fruitlanders were starving and deserted the project. Amos sank into a deep depression. His wife Abby took the reins and brought the family to a friend’s house where they could again wear warm clothes and eat a decent meal, and gradually she nursed her husband back to health. If there’s a moral to be learned from the Fruitlands experiment, it’s a feminist one.
Louis May Alcott wrote a barely fictionalized satire of the experience called “Transcendental Wild Oats,” which is available in her collection Silver Pitchers. By all means, read it — if not for its depiction of her father’s folly, then for its sympathetic portrait of her long-suffering mother.
Another interesting character at Fruitlands was Joseph Palmer, who prior to joining spent 15 months in prison after defending himself from an attack by hooligans trying to shave his beard. After Fruitlands, well, failed, Palmer bought the farm and lived there for 20 years, which suggests it wasn’t the land or climate so much as the ideology that ruined Lane and Alcott’s dream.
You can visit Fruitlands where, unlike Brook Farm, you’ll find some of the original buildings intact. Fruitlands also served as an inspiration for Bonaventure, the fictional transcendentalist farm that’s the setting for my novel, A Season of Whispers, which is out tomorrow.
Season is set in 1844 in a fictional transcendentalist commune called Bonaventure, located in eastern Connecticut. Bonaventure was influenced by two real-life transcendentalist communities, one of which is Brook Farm, located in the outskirts of Boston.
Brook Farm was founded by George Ripley, a Unitarian minister, and his wife Sophia as an experiment in societal reform. Both had been inspired after visiting at least one intentional community founded by German immigrants (in Ohio, IIRC) and after spending the summer of 1840 on a farm in West Roxbury reading about the French socialist Charles Fourier.
The Ripleys sought to establish a communal arrangement that ensured “a more natural union between intellectual and manual labor,” separate and apart from “the pressures of our competitive institutions.” Their sense of socialism was much less rigid or ideological than what we may think of. Brook Farm was organized as a joint-stock company, in which members bought shares (at $500 a pop, equivalent to about $13,900 in today’s money) in exchange for three hots and a cot and a dividend from the profits. Only a very few Brook Farmers actually paid that much, however, and it’s doubtful anyone saw a penny in return. Brook Farm was also nondenominational, notable as most utopian settlements usually required subscribers to uphold a specific religion or creed.
For a few years, Brook Farm became a kind of sun around which the transcendentalists orbited. Both Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller, editrix of The Dial (which was The Atlantic or New Yorker of the movement), declined to join but were frequent visitors.
Nathaniel Hawthorne joined in April 1841 after purchasing two shares, the other for his future wife Sophia. Hawthorne soon became disillusioned with farm work, particularly with all the manure, and found the labor left him too tired to write. After vacationing in Salem for a few weeks in September, he finally left the farm permanently in November — without ever receiving a refund of his shares. A decade later, Hawthorne fictionalized his Brook Farm experience in The Blithedale Romance, a comical novel I can’t recommend highly enough.
One of the issues the Brook Farmers struggled with was how exactly society should be reformed. What would a perfect society look like? What did “reform” mean in practical everyday terms?
Although the farm grew crops with middling success, Brook Farm supported itself mainly through the day school run by the Ripleys. By 1844, the enterprise was successful enough for them to shift into a new phase, in which they leaned heavily into Fourierism, costing them several members as a result. Fourier was quite specific how people would live under his system, even down to the architecture; and so the Brook Farmers embraced austere poverty in order to build a Phalanstery on the property, a sort of communal dormitory constructed around a common green space. Construction continued until March 1846, when the nearly completed Phalanstery burned to the ground.
The disaster ruined Brook Farm, and while the Ripleys eventually recovered — George Ripley went on to become a successful journalist and editor of Harper’s Magazine — it took them 13 years to pay off the debts accrued by their utopian experiment.
Today you can visit the Brook Farm Historic Site but you may be disappointed as nothing from the era remains (the oldest building is a print shop built in 1890 or so). Still, you can roam the area, which includes a cemetery, and get a feel for the land.
Averoigne and Its Malcontents. Inpatient Press, a small publisher in New York, has produced a trade paperback of Clark Ashton Smith’s stories set in Averoigne, a medieval French province haunted by vampires and sorcerers. Even better, they’ve published it in the style of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series from the early 1970s, with the line’s distinctive art and minimalist typography. Ballantine editor Lin Carter published four books of Smith’s work in the series and planned a fifth — Averoigne — but the series was canceled before the book could appear anywhere except the Sandman’s library shelf.
For years I’ve chronicled various attempts to produce the missing fifth volume. In 1995, publisher Donald M. Grant began advertising a hardback edition edited by Ron Hilger, but for decades that book remained vaporware. It finally appeared 21 years later, published by Centipede Press as an expensive collector’s edition that ran only 200 copies. Hilger says a paperback version is forthcoming from Hippocampus Press, release date TBD. Meanwhile in June, Pickman’s Press published their own e-book collection of the stories.
Hilger is none too happy about the Inpatient Press paperback, labeling it a “pirate edition,” an “illegal publication,” and a “fraud” because it wasn’t authorized by Smith’s estate, which is operated by Smith’s stepson. Inpatient informed me, however, that the book is perfectly legal — they used the Weird Tales versions of the stories, which are in the public domain.
Place Settings. I like to listen to podcasts about pirates, vintage RPGs, and 19th-century history, but for awhile I’d been searching without satisfaction for a podcast about utopian intentional settlements. Then, lo and behold, along came Curbed with their series Nice Try! An early episode discussed the Oneida community in upstate New York, which is one of my favorite examples of the utopian arc: what began as voluntary social experiment eventually devolved into a dysfunctional, if not horrific, cult. Not to mention an internationally known tableware company.
Coincidentally over at LitHub, author Caite Dolan-Leach discusses how she used Oneida as a template for the modern-day utopian commune in her new novel. Likewise I used Brook Farm and Fruitlands as models for Bonaventure, the setting for A Season of Whispers — although as far as I know, Dolan-Leach’s book doesn’t involve whispering walls and mysterious disappearances.
My senior year of college, I had a part-time job in the student union. It involved being something like a facilities manager, only I wasn’t an actual manager. I made rounds through the union to keep it clean and functional. If a bulb was out or something was broken, I filed a maintenance request; but if somebody had spilled coffee, I broke out the mop. I counted rolls of toilet paper in utility closets and removed outdated announcements from the bulletin boards. Sometimes I manned the information desk. Those kinds of things.
My shifts began at an awkward time in the evenings after I had eaten in the union dining hall. The difference in time, usually less than an hour, wasn’t long enough to be useful — not enough to study in earnest, although sometimes I would catch up on my assigned reading. Besides, who wants to prep for work by doing work?
Instead, I would watch TV. The union had two TV lounges. At that time of day, one was usually dark and silent. The other was packed so solid some people had to sit on the floor.
The first time I ducked into the popular lounge, I froze in my tracks. The entrance was to the right of the television, so I saw the entire audience illuminated by the glow of the screen in three-quarters profile. Every single face was black.
Now I have to confess what threw me off wasn’t just the black audience — it was also the show they were watching. It was Star Trek: The Next Generation. It had been Patrick Stewart’s baritone, overheard in the hallway, that lured me into the lounge in the first place. I thought to myself, Black people like Star Trek?
In hindsight, it’s not at all strange when you consider Trek history — even Martin Luther King, Jr. was a fan — but this was my first encounter with black fandom, or what’s sometimes called black nerd culture.
Watching TV with this group became a regular habit during my senior year. After dinner I would often stop by the TV lounge, wade deep into the room, and (usually) find a seat against the back wall to watch. Alas, since I arrived after the show began and departed before it finished, I never spoke to anybody. We were all too busy watching.
And this audience didn’t just watch Star Trek. Oh no. There was commentary.
What transpired in that lounge was essentially a live version of Mystery Science Theater 3000, only a thousand times funnier. Before me was the screen broken by the anonymous silhouettes of the people in front, all of them cracking wise at the perils faced by the crew of the Enterprise-D. Imagine watching TV with a room full of your favorite comedians — that’s what it was like. I learned to chew gum while watching so I could bite down sometimes to keep from screaming with laughter.
While they often made fun of the interior Star Trek, the crowd also criticized Star Trek the TV show. There’s one episode I remember in particular. Picard and the gang had beamed down to a planet inhabited by blonde, blue-eyed people. It might have been some kind of shore-leave episode. The natives wore flowey garments and were very friendly to the off-worlders — theirs was a perfect, utopian world, full of beautiful white people with blonde hair and blue eyes.
The room went off.
“Oh, they on the Planet of the Aryans.”
“It’s the Hitler World!”
And on and on. They shredded that episode. I think I might’ve been crying in the back.
But you know what? I had a little epiphany in that TV lounge. The Enterprise crew flew hither and yon across the galaxy encountering all sorts of extraterrestrials with sagittal crests and bumpy nose prosthetics, and yet usually those aliens only had one skin color. Black actors would turn up as Klingons like Worf but even that wasn’t consistent because some Klingons were just white actors wearing shoe polish. Just as every alien planet mysteriously looked like southern California, likewise the aliens themselves always coincidentally had pink skin.
If you’ve read my previous thoughts on Black Panther, it may not surprise you that I was very excited to see Wakanda’s realization on the big screen. I didn’t have to wait long. Early in the film we experience a flyover of the countryside before piercing the shield dome to encounter Wakanda’s main city. The skyscrapers have none of the gloomy spires of Gotham or even the blocky pyramids and temples of Egypt (which might be expected since BP’s tribe worships Bast, the Egyptian cat goddess); instead the rounded organic forms of the skyline strongly reminded me of the beehive structures and asymmetrical curving walls of Great Zimbabwe. There are too many details I could geek about — the dragonfly VTOL ships, the throne rooms, the five tribes’ distinguishing customs and clothing and palettes — but suffice to say, Wakanda makes every Star Wars planet look gray and ho-hum by comparison.
Black Panther is unique in comics in that the character is inexorably entwined with his setting. Even Batman can’t share that claim: the Gotham of the Bob Kane era is indistinguishable from any generic cityscape, featuring none of the Gothic art deco we now associate with the Dark Knight. Meanwhile, the very first appearance of BP in the July 1966 issue of Fantastic Four takes place in his home country. Wakanda and its mashup of African culture and super science was baked into the mythology of Black Panther from the very beginning.
Often the settings in fiction are interchangeable; the action can be switched from city to suburbs to rural country without much trouble. In others, the setting is intrinsic. In much the same way as cutting a major character changes a story, moving a Western to New York City radically transforms the original intent into a very different work. Setting, in other words, itself becomes a main character, a silent player on the stage — excise the character, and the original concept is wounded or at least altered so drastically it becomes something else.
Black Panther would not be as successful a character (or now, a franchise) without Wakanda, and the tightly written script by director Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole understands that. A major theme of the film asks what responsibility does Wakanda have to the rest of the world, and more specifically, to the black world. When you are rich and powerful, is hermitism and quietude a valid strategy of self-preservation or is it complicity with evil? If engagement is preferred, what shape should it take? The film’s plot is an internal monologue of Wakanda the character, expressed through T’Challa and Killmonger. More than just visually depicting the country, Coogler and Cole perfectly communicate the tension inherent in the whole concept of Wakanda.
Black Panther is a solid film with strongly defined characters and great acting (I couldn’t decide which antagonist I loved watching steal scenes the most: Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger, Andy Serkis’s Klaue, or Winston Duke’s M’Baku). Is it the best MCU film yet? I’m still partial to Winter Soldier, but Panther is definitely at the top of my list. I suspect that with its box-office success and the difficult job of introducing a whole slew of new characters behind it — and assuming Marvel keeps Coogler and Cole onboard — the next Black Panther may be the next Winter Soldier. In the meantime, I’ll just have to be patient and go see this one again.
Update:The capital city of Wakanda, so I’ve learned, is Birnin Zana, and Chadwick Boseman has said the cinematic version of Wakanda is based upon the real-life kingdom of Mutapa, the 15th-century successor state to the kingdom of Zimbabwe. Great Zimbabwe, which was built beginning in the 11th century, was the capital of the Zimbabwe kingdom.
In the back story of “Black America,” the Confederacy was defeated. But instead of enduring the painful eras of Reconstruction and Jim Crow, African-Americans received reparations. The former slaves and freedmen claimed Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, a nation known as New Colonia.
That nation has a “tumultuous and sometimes violent relationship” with the United States, which is described as both an ally and a foe.
I have to wonder if Black America is a replacement for The Man in the High Castle, which is entering its third (and final?) season. Regardless, the possibility of independent nations occupying the geography of the real-life Lower 48 is an alt-hist concept I adore — I’ve used it more than once in my short fiction. Amazon, you had my curiosity but now you have my attention.
Black Panther is a hero in the Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark mold, a super-wealthy bachelor who uses science and athleticism to pound on bad guys. There are no secret identities — everyone knows who BP is: he’s T’Challa, the king of the African nation Wakanda, which is a mix of grass huts, deep jungle, and 1970s futurism.
The essay is a departure from my usual stuff, very loose and free floating, a sepia stream of consciousness about comics and growing up in a household where futurism was literally just laying around on tables or bolted to the roof. Whereas Panther’s color resonated with many black readers, it was the setting that captured my imagination, and still does: I nearly jumped out of my seat at the brief glimpses of Wakanda at the tail end of this year’s Captain America: Civil War.
As of this writing my essay has received 20 retweets and a dozen likes on Twitter, more than my book ever did, suggesting maybe I should write about pop culture more often. Unfortunately I’m poorly qualified for the job: I generally hate TV (some exceptions may apply), I can count the frequency I go the movies in a year on one hand, and the number of video games I’ve played to completion since 2011 tallies at exactly three. I love music but not being a musician myself I feel I lack the vocabulary to adequately speak about it. Which leaves book blogging, something I’m hoping to do more of in the new year.
Rereading my old BP comics within the full and complete context of “Panther’s Rage” has been gratifying, with Wakanda coming across as smaller than I remember (the sci-fi technology is largely confined to T’Challa’s palace) and yet bigger (more dinosaurs! snowy mountain wastelands chock full of yetis!). It’s interesting being at an age now where I can experience a phenomenon both as contemporary futurism and as retrofuturism. Something like Vernean steampunk will forever be out of reach as a potentiality and exists only for us as a quaint, even naive, vision of how things were supposed to be; but by simply living past tomorrow we can experience both the very real possibility and the hindsight of existing in what invariably turns out to be a different future.
I was recently talking to my dad about the solar panels on his house, which are solely for heating water. When I asked him whether photovoltaic panels were available in the 70s, he told me no, not commercially — the technology was in its infancy. And yet as we spoke while driving through the streets of his town, we spotted several houses with PV arrays on their roofs. Wherever you go there you are, but almost never where you thought you’d be.
I’ll be there on opening day in 2018 when the MCU Black Panther movie drops, and I’m sure I’ll have many opinions about it. Maybe I’ll even write some of them down. Meow.