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Harmonies, Old and New

In the Midwest, winter can crush you. It isn't always as harsh and long on the great prairie as it was this year, but you can count on it being a haul. The skies hung gray for months; in February the temperature hovered below zero for weeks at a time. Our backyard was a small frozen lake so that even our dog couldn't get the traction to cross. Faraway friends phoned to say things like, "My daffodils are almost done blooming! And I'm wearing shorts!" One morning I woke up and knew my sense of humor was gone. I needed a trip south.

Planning our route to someplace warm started to cheer me up. I began to sing: "Kentucky, you are the sweetest land outside of heaven to me... Kain-tuck-eeee... your laurel and your redbud tree..." and, "Hey, Porter. Hey, Porter, what time did you say? How much longer will it be before I see the light of day?"

But hold it! My husband thinks we already live too far south, so he was plumping for a spring trip to frozen Wisconsin. Dan tries to stay north of the Mason Dixon line, wherever that is, whenever possible. Why? A while back a prominent neoconservative, it might have been Norman Podhoretz, said that the Civil War has no meaning for Jewish-Americans. I've got news for you, Norman. I married one who still takes it very personally.

"It's spring break, and I want to go someplace where it's spring. Memphis is only 400 miles away on the Interstate."

"I don't want to cross over into Kentucky," he stipulated.

"But Kentucky fought with the Union..."

"Only two-thirds of them. And when they came home, they refused to ratify the 13th and 14th amendments." Blinded by facts. I could get into it with him about the Klan in Illinois, but compromise is the word of the day, and the compromise is Southern Indiana.

In what is now called the "tri-state area," Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky meet near Evansville. A little neck of Indiana sticks out where the Wabash and Ohio Rivers come together. In older times this was the crossroads for all kinds of trade, exploration and industry, and before the railroads the rivers were the easiest way into the coal fields and the prairie. Southern Indiana and a lot of Southern Illinois feel and sound more like the South than the North, and the trees and plants are more Mississippian than Michigander.

Just above this river junction is the site of two radical 19th-century social experiments. Harmonie, Indiana, was settled in 1814 by German primitive Christians who thought they lived in the Final Days. Led down from Pennsylvania by Father George Rapp, the Harmonists were pacifist, celibate communitarians, determined to purify themselves before the Millennium. At Harmonie they found themselves on 30,000 productive acres, becoming embarrassingly prosperous and more and more engaged with the worldly world. They spent ten years in Indiana, growing fruit, brewing beer, singing and dancing. But when the world as they knew it didn't end, at least not as abruptly as predicted, and thousands of recruits never arrived from Württemberg, Rapp moved them back to Pennsylvania to plow their energies into another new town.

Rapp sold the whole of Harmonie to Robert Owen, the wealthy Scottish manufacturer and utopian socialist, who moved his family there determined to build a collectivist community based on skilled labor, education and reason. According to John Humphrey Noyes, founder of the Oneida colony and advocate of "complex marriage," Robert Owen and his followers, especially geologist William Maclure, had an incalculable impact on American culture and thought from their outpost on the Wabash. They experimented with novel educational techniques, dumping training in classical languages for a philosophy that combined mental and manual skills. Owenites founded the first kindergarten in United States, started the first public school system, and the first free libraries establishing 100 in Illinois and Indiana by 1840. Sons of the founder, Robert Dale Owen and David Dale Owen were among America's premier scientists. Zoologists, artists, naturalists and the rambunctious socialist-feminist-abolitionist Frances Wright followed Owen to Indiana, drawn to his brain trust in the woods. Thousands of interested experimenters were right behind them, and Noyes tells us that in these years the backwoods of Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana teemed with communes. In the mid-1820s, the words "utopian" and "communitarian" were on everyone's lips.

More than a century and half later, Owen's descendants have reclaimed the old town, restored many of its early 19th-century buildings and had it declared a national historic district. As we spilled out of the station wagon, spring seemed to pull up next to us. The daffodils peaked, Magnolia trees opened all over town. We were almost warm, almost south. We could smell it.

My family got oriented at Richard Meier's Athenaeum, a white tile and glass building with jutting planes and harsh angles. It's said to face the spot where the Harmonists first landed. I'm not much of a fan of the architect, so I sat outside and thought grumpily about how Athenaeums on the East and West Coasts are graceful Greek revival buildings. I always end up wondering if I was born in the wrong century. Athenaeum used to mean "house for community learning" not "conference center and gift shop." Dan reported that the orientation film was really not very good, but I should ungrump. There's a nice old antiquarian bookstore, some reasonable restaurants, a beautifully landscaped pool for the kids, and walking paths beside the river.

Since little old towns, echt or ersatz, discovered or reconstructed, are no rarity in this part of the world, New Harmony's main selling point is its utopian history. It is startling to read "Come Home to Utopia!" on its Web site because nobody in the United States today knows what Utopia might mean, much less utopian socialism. Who knows how to come home to something they've never heard about?

Still, New Harmony is harmonious. Its streets are uncrowded, its houses an interesting mix of ancient and new. It has no asphalt parking lots, no fast food and hardly an ATM in sight. On the historical reconstruction side, the town is pleasant. Old buildings have been restored with respect, without cuteness. There's a realistic mix of settlement periods, and William Maclure's Mechanics Institute and great library are still there to be used. 

But as is typical of many reconstructed pasts, unpleasantness has dropped out. So close to Kentucky and the big rivers, New Harmony makes little mention of slavery, except to say that the Rappites and Owenites were abolitionists. What could relations with their neighbors have been like? And there's no explanation of why the Owenite community fell apart after only three years. Writing in the 1870s, Noyes blamed bitter squabbles over land, and he argued that land fever was a great destroyer of experimental communities. True socialism would grow up in the industrial cities.

In fact, New Harmony defines Utopia as a retreat from conflicts of the world. In theory, it is nondenominational. Its "church without walls" designed by Philip Johnson features an altar by Jacques Lipschutz in memory of the victims of the Warsaw ghetto. A meditation maze blends an old Harmonist tradition with Americanized Buddhism. But the closer one looks, the more signs of Christianity one finds: there are walls with the Ten Commandments, and decorative plaques everywhere featuring Madonnas, crosses, and doves. Paul Tillich is buried here. It's a quietist, individualist Christianity, not millennial and communal like the Harmonists'. Owen, who so vigorously rejected religion, must be spinning in his grave. It's perfectly suited, I noticed, to the hard driving executives talking on their cell phones at the edges of the pool, while, presumably, their wives are having meditation classes and seaweed wraps. You can relax, get in touch with your inner whomever, and still do a deal.

In retreat from all this placidity my son and I headed out to a catfish camp to look for fossils. The river's winter trash was caught high in the sycamores, and with the Wabash still out of its banks, it turned out to be a bad time for rockhounding. But this is what Wabash life really looks like. Ramshackle cottages on stilts tumble down the bank, mixing with tidy house trailers. Clamming and musselling used to be big industries on the river, but now it's given over to recreation. There's an all-terrain vehicle racetrack, a little bait shop, and a campground. There's no display of the deep past here at all, but on the other hand, river-rafting is an ancient way of life.

John Humphrey Noyes wrote, "although this great Community and all the little ones that followed it failed and disappeared in a few years, the movement did not cease." "The embers of it are in the heart of the nation today." "Owen and his followers -- especially his son Robert Dale Owen and Frances Wright -- continued to educate the country with newspapers, public lectures, and 'Fanny Wright' societies till their ideas actually got foothold and influence in the great Democratic Party." 

The 1870s were a radical time, so we can forgive Noyes for exaggerating a little. It's hard to imagine Fanny Wright's ideas about the equality of women and blacks, education, sexual freedom and birth control holding sway in the Democratic Party today. In all, the 1820s look a lot wilder than most of the 20th century.

After two days in New Harmony, our family harmony restored, we headed back north in a driving rain, powering straight up the Indiana-Illinois line to Danville. We made a quick stop in sad Terre Haute to see the Eugene Debs house, now a museum belonging to the Southern Indiana University. After falling into desuetude at the hands of a fraternity, it has been restored to the way it looked when Debs and his wife lived there, a middle-class mausoleum of deep upholstery and heavily curtained windows. My husband and kids loved it -- Dan waxed enthusiastic about Debs's long career as a fighter for justice, and his presidential campaign from a prison cell. But I was depressed by the unending plaques memorializing leaders of the labor movement. Except for an autographed and dedicated copy of Emma Goldman's "Living My Life," there are very few echoes of the Fanny Wright tradition here. But there are exciting artifacts from Debs's early career: the first sign he painted on his first job, pictures of him with railroad work crews, and his desk from the prison, a heavy old table donated by the warden. On the way out, I picked up a copy of the Debs Foundation Newsletter. Its headline read "A Faded Image, But Untarnished Reputation." True enough. Eugene Debs was just the socialist John Humphrey Noyes had in mind, minus the communal living and free love. No disrespect intended.

From Terre Haute it's colder and flatter all the way back to central Illinois, where the laurel and the redbud had another six weeks to go.

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