Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Communes in the American Literary tradition

Those of you who got this by RSS might be surprised to see Beth say she's not a scholar of American Literature. That's because blogger seems confused about who posted this and, of course, it was Eloise. Sorry for the confusion!

A student of American Literature might be forgiven for feeling that the communes associated with it, especially Fruitlands and Brook Farm are reflective of all communes and their inevitable failure.

I am, it should be said, most definitely not a scholar of American History, and despite my role in Literature Alive! not a formal scholar of American Literature either. However, a search on wikipedia shows a short list of notable American communes, one of which, the Harmony Society lasted for over a century - hardly a failure by any measure - although this was, it appears solely a religious community. Another religious community, the Oneida community survived for 30 years, although it only really flourished for 6 of those, although its dissolution wasn't to nothing, rather to the foundation of a silverware company.

Internationally the Kibbutizm of Israel are well known and survive and thrive, producing a large proportion of Israel's movers and shakers and are, of course, another religious organisation in many ways.

So, we must really ask, why do the literary communes fail and the religious ones seemingly thrive, at least for a while?

If you read a little around the subject the answer becomes blindingly obvious, even painfully so. The successful communes, by and large, have people striving for redemption through manual labour. They may be crafters (as in Oneida one would presume, and as explicitly the case in Harmony), agricultural workers (as in many Kibbutizm) but they place value on keeping body and soul together.

Fruitlands, in particular and as shown in rather harsh relief in Transcendental Wild Oats, placed almost no emphasis on food, warmth, clothing and the like, focusing instead on allowing the members to develop their artistic and spiritual natures above all else. Louisa May Alcott lived on Fruitlands, and is perhaps one of the people best placed to satirise it.

Let's invoke Maslow for a moment, and his infamous Hierarchy of Needs.

The religious communes all seem to work up these levels - the community makes sure that the community will survive first and foremost, then works on making it thrive, and this allows them to have the leisure to work on the higher elements, including their own salvation. The poets and philosophers seem to believe that they are above the needs of food, shelter, intimacy, and can simply exist at the level of morality and creativity without the underpinning structures of food, clothes and the like.

Whist we might laugh at them now, the images of artists starving in garrets or, like Keats, dying young of consumption after neglecting their bodies are too common for us to ignore completely. Perhaps the communes should be regarded in this light too, a group of people who are not really connected to the real world, which leaves them prone to starving if left alone, but maybe also gives them the viewpoint on the world that lets them write great poetry too?

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