Present to us in elegant chairs and tables, simple baskets and colorful quilts, the Shakers are the quintessential American utopians. Judged on longevity, they are the most successful. The Beinecke Library's first exhibition of the new millennium, No Place on Earth, takes as its subject the American utopian dream, as expressed by the Shakers as well as some twenty other groups across four centuries. From 1620, when a band of Calvinist Pilgrims launched an experiment in communal living at Plymouth Plantation, to the contemporary quest for concord and fellowship in the virtual world of cyberspace, Americans have sought a better place.
The exhibition, which will be on view at the Beinecke Library from January 28 through the end of March, was organized by Patricia C. Willis, curator of the Yale Collection of American Literature, with the assistance of Yale College seniors Micaela Blei and Michael Kavanagh. Included in the display are books, letters, photographs, printed ephemera, and a CD-Rom presentation.
"There is something very American about the utopian movement," says exhibition organizer Michael Kavanagh. "The New World was the land of the frontier, that clean, clear space beyond which one could remake oneself into a better human being. America itself can be seen as the biggest utopian experiment of all--embodied in the credo of the Land of Opportunity is the promise that it is always possible to reinvent one's relationship to society, work, and nature."
The earliest utopian experiment represented in the exhibition is the New Haven theocratic community founded by John Davenport in 1638. In all, about 25 utopian experiments are documented in the display, including various Pennsylvania German groups; the Shakers (1784); George Rapp's Harmony (1805); Robert Owen's New Harmony (1825); Brook Farm (1841), depicted in Nathaniel Hawthorne's satirical novel of 1852, The Blithedale Romance ; the Kingdom of St. James (1844-56), a schismatic Mormon group led by James Jesse Strang; Kaweah (1885-92), a Marxist community that settled in what is now Sequoia National Park; Peace Mission (1932-73); and Drop City (1965), a hippie community in Trinidad, Colorado, known for its geodesic domes inspired by Buckminster Fuller.
"No Place on Earth" also includes an interactive CD-Rom presentation about Llana del Rio, a Socialist community founded in 1914 near Los Angeles. New York artist Brian Tolle used archival documents from the Beinecke collection to create images, in virtual space, of what the community might have looked like, had it been successful in achieving its goals. The CD was designed by Brian Clyne, who also provided some of the photographs. Brian Tolle's sculptures inspired by his research into the history of Llana del Rio are currently on view at the Shoshona Wayne Gallery in Los Angeles.
Another section of the Beinecke exhibition is devoted to literary and philosophical representations of utopias, beginning with the first edition of More's Utopia (1516). Thomas Paine's Common Sense (1776) finds a place in this sequence of utopian thought as does Thoreau's Walden, or Life in the Woods (1854), B. F. Skinner's Walden Two (1948), Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 (1953), Arthur C. Clark's Childhood's End (1953), and Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).
Exhibition organizer Micaela Blei traces the progress of the American utopian dream: "In a sense, utopian and dystopian literature has evolved along with the national imagination," says Blei. "Our fascination with technology and the exploration of space, a new frontier, has made science fiction writers the modern utopians. Authors like Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke imagine the possibilities for social perfection in the great wilderness of space. More recently, as computer technology and the internet opened up a whole new sphere of discovery, cyberpunk authors like William Gibson and Neal Stephenson have portrayed the newest frontier, cyberspace--an infinite realm with infinite possibilities for the utopian dream."
About our title . . .
The word "utopia" was coined by the English statesman and martyr Sir Thomas More (1478-1535), who served as a diplomat and lord chancellor under Henry VIII. "Utopia" is a compound of the syllable eu, meaning good, and topos, meaning place. But the homonymous prefix ou, with the meaning "no," also resonates in the word: the perfectly "good place" is really "no place."
The exhibition works a contemporary variation on this fundamental irony. As present-day voyagers seek utopias in the virtual communities of cyberspace, the locus of their goal is indeed "no place on earth."
The first edition of More's Utopia, published in 1516, will be on display.
Utopia in the New World
The first American experiment in communal living began when the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth in 1620, but the second took place here in New Haven. After an exploratory trip in the fall of 1637, John Davenport, an English clergyman, claimed the land surrounding the bay of New Haven on which to "build a new utopia." The next spring a band of 500 English Puritans arrived and made peace with the native Quinnipiacks by promising to protect them from the Pequots and the Mohawks. Nine squares were laid out for the new settlement, making New Haven America's first planned city. Here was the birth of the idea that in the American wilderness, with its unexplored frontiers, humans could impose a plan of perfection upon the earth.
Davenport's utopia was a Christian theocracy. In civil affairs, the settlers agreed to be guided solely by the Scriptures. Seven men were appointed to found a church for the colony, and these seven "pillars" decided who should be admitted to membership. Only church members could participate in governing the settlement. English law was excluded, and "the worde of God was adopted as the onely rule to be attended unto in ordering the affayres of government in this plantation."
The experiment in independence came to an end for New Haven in 1664, when the jurisdiction, fearing aggression by the English (and Catholic) forces that had just wrested New Amsterdam (New York) from the Dutch, elected to be absorbed by Connecticut Colony. A 1748 map of New Haven, showing the nine squares, is part of the exhibition No Place on Earth, on view at the library from January 28 through the end of March 2000.