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The Invisible Landscape: Tracing the Spiritualist Utopianism of Nineteenth-Century America

The hidden history of Utopian Socialism and its close relationship with cultures of esoteric spirituality in the nineteenth-century United States. 

Fourierism arrived in America by way of a young writer and socialist by the name of Albert Brisbane. A New Yorker by birth, he had traveled to Europe to study philosophy, and through a circuitous route found himself under the direct tutelage of Fourier. At the end of the 1830s he was back in the States, where he promoted Fourierist thought via several organs: through the New York Tribune (whose founder, Horace Greenley, he had converted to Fourierism), with the creation of a Fourierist Society, authorship several books such as 1840s The Social Destiny of Man, and a periodical called The Phalanx. Fourierist thought was on the move, soon spreading outwards from New York and towards the west, where it set in motion a series of experiments in communal living organized around the principle of the phalansteries. Over thirty such experiments occurred during the movement’s peak in the 1840s, and a series of ‘Industrial Congresses’ were held to coordinate efforts between the nascent associations. This was not, however, the only outlet for the Fourierist wave. As Carl Guarneri charts in his masterful The Utopian Alternative: Fourierism in Nineteenth-Century America, there was a deeper-rooted integration of independent Fourierists, “[n]ondenominational utopian socialist churches”, “cooperative stores and urban communes” and the rising labor movement.3

Utopia’s origins lay precisely in the momentous push of the America Fourierist movement. In 1844, a group of citizens from Cincinnati arrived in this isolated spot of land to construct the Clermont Phalanx (named for the county that Utopia is located within). With the purchasing of 1140 acres of land, the great – and short-lived – experiment began:

Agriculture was to be the principle occupation of the association, although the various trades – blacksmithing, shoemaking, carpentry, brushmaking, and some of the lighter trades – were encouraged, and shops provided for those who were so engaged. Each member was assigned some congenial occupation by the council, and was expected to labor cheerfully to increase the common wealth.4

The mansion-house that Fourier envisioned was built, realized as a large two-story building sporting some thirty rooms. The efforts were, however, unrealized; like so many of the experiments in associationism that took place in that decade, the Clermont Phalanx would crumble within a few years. With mounting debt, a series of interpersonal disputes that erupted into lawsuits, and crops ruined by the Ohio River’s floods, the Phalanx closed up shop in 1846, and the land was split among three different parties. A small portion went to a local farmer, a portion that would eventually become Utopia proper went to another group of socialist, and a third, closer to the banks of the Ohio, to a group of spiritualists.