Ask any fiction writer and they will likely tell you…
Erik Reece. Utopia Drive: A Road Trip Through America’s Most Radical Idea. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016. 368 pages. Hardcover. $28.00.
Utopia Drive: A Road Trip Through America’s Most Radical Idea by Erik Reece provides an opportunity to step away from current fractious political discourse and explore unique attempts—past and present—at crafting the ideal society.
During a period of personal comfort that included a new marriage, a job teaching creative writing at the University of Kentucky, and a creekside cabin in the woods, Reece couldn’t ignore his nagging worry about the nation’s growing income inequality, erosion of public trust, and rampant consumption of material goods. Setting out to look for answers rooted in past intellectual traditions and perhaps find inspiration for the future, Reece charted a road trip to several utopian communities in the eastern United States that flourished in the 1800s as well as present-day egalitarian sites.
For anyone who has read Reece’s previous work, his search for answers will come as no surprise. In his first book, Lost Mountain: A Year in the Vanishing Wilderness, Radical Strip Mining and the Devastation of Appalachia, Reece wrote a modern-day call to arms about strip mining by chronicling a year he spent as witness to the systematic destruction of a single mountain. Clearly, Reece is willing to get personal with radical ideas and in doing so, he gives form to the forces of change.
In Utopia Drive, Reece makes his first stop at a Shaker community with a most idyllic sounding name—Pleasant Hill—a mere sixteen miles from the author’s home in Nonesuch, Kentucky. The Shakers laid the cornerstone for the settlement in 1809 during a time when the Kentucky wilderness was a hub for the religious fervor of the country’s Second Great Awakening. Unlike most groups of the era, the Shakers were radically progressive on gender and racial equality. Each community had both a spiritual mother and father. They welcomed as equals freed slaves who joined them. Reece describes fully the simple beauty of the place from its architecture to its current focus on sustainable farming.
He travels on to places founded outside mainstream culture, including the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani; New Harmony, Indiana; Modern Times on Long Island, New York, and Thoreau’s Walden Pond. While those who established utopian communities differed in their goals—whether religious, economic or political—they all dared to imagine markedly different American dreams.
Along the journey Reece reveals a great deal about himself, expanding the book to include aspects of memoir. In downtown Cincinnati he looks for Josiah Warren’s first cooperative general store, an enterprise based on Warren’s economic theory of equitable commerce. While in town, Reece heads to the baseball stadium to catch part of a Reds game. A passage about his relationship with his stepfather is particularly poignant in the context of their mutual love of the Cincinnati Reds, Pete Rose, and the team’s glory days when Reece was a kid. He also connects the former co-op site to the present location of Duke Energy Convention Center, linking the spot to the great wealth of James Duke, his empire built on tobacco and coal, and eventually to Duke University basketball, about which Reece acknowledges feelings that are “complex and perhaps at times irrational.”
Reece pays tribute to the relatively unknown Warren as creator of the cooperative, one of the country’s most progressive notions. A refugee of the utopian efforts at New Harmony, Warren saw that community’s failings and formulated his own ideas of economic and social reformation. He respected the sovereignty of the individual while valuing the benefits of voluntary cooperation in the mutual interest of all parties.
Warren proposed…a single economic mandate he called ‘equitable commerce’….Warren stipulated that price should not be determined by the value of something to a buyer, but rather by the cost of producing it, measured in time, exertion, and materials. A man dying of thirst, after all, will give everything he owns for a glass of water—that is its value to him at the moment—but only a scoundrel would charge or accept such a price. Yet this logic that value should determine price is, to varying degrees, the basis of modern capitalism.
Warren also believed that access to an egalitarian media went hand-in-hand with social change, a concept surely endorsed by modern grassroots organizations who organize via social media. He recognized that mainstream media of his day failed to promote novel ideas like his theories of cooperative individualism. In response, he invented the country’s first continuous-feed rotary press that could provide an inexpensive and accessible flow of information. The ability to freely promote ideas was so important to Warren that he gave his invention to the public without securing a patent.
Further down the road, Reece experiences life at modern-day egalitarian communities in Louisa County, Virginia. He stays for a few days at Twin Oaks, a thriving community founded in 1967, where he picks cucumbers in exchange for room and board. He describes its residents, governance and beauty, as well as its shortcomings. And as the mileage increases along the drive, Reece discovers a lot about himself.
I’m too tight-assed to become a nudist. I’m too much of an introvert, too ill-suited for the relentless socialness of these admirable communities. I want to be left alone to read and write and to wander the woods around my house. I belong too much to my own utopia of solitude that consists of me, my wife, my dogs, and a few dependable neighbors. Here in the utopia of solidarity, I fear I would yearn for that isolation.
Reece’s conversational writing style makes the rich lessons in history and economics feel fresh and current. His ability to bridge historical research to contemporary culture engages the reader and gives context for why it all matters. The book is an accomplishment, a confluence of economic theory, environmental concerns, spirituality, human nature, and the American dream in its many forms, perfectly timed for broadening the national conversation on how to create a more perfect union.