Every swinger, wife-swapper, and key-party enthusiast in the Seventies knew all about Margaret Mead and her liberated South Seas islanders, but I bet that not even a dozen had so much as heard of Fanny Wright or John Humphrey Noyes. That seems to be the way it is with people in the grip of a radical idea like free love. They can’t bear to imagine that their revolutionary notions were believed a hundred years ago by people very much like themselves, much less that their predecessors failed spectacularly every time they tried to put their notions into practice. Hippies on communes are the same way. Every one of them thinks he’s an American kibbutznik, and not one realizes he’s more like a modern-day Bronson Alcott.
The radicals aren’t entirely to blame for their own ignorance (and neither are you if you don’t know who Bronson Alcott is, by the way). Very few histories have been written of the nineteenth-century cranks, fanatics, reformers, and revivalists who were the forerunners of today’s polyamorists and back-to-the-landists. And no wonder: Why waste time debunking crackpot ideologies considered irrefutable by their proponents and self-refuting by everyone else? The only people open to being convinced by a minute chronicle of, say, the downfall of the Oneida Community are the ones who are sensible enough that they don’t need to be persuaded of the folly of “complex marriage” in the first place.
This looming sense of the futility of his mission did not afflict Gilbert Seldes when he set out to write The Stammering Century (published in 1928 and rereleased this month by NYRB Classics), his history of the “sects, cults, manias, movements, fads, and religious excitements” that flourished in nineteenth-century America. It dawned on him before he finished it, though. “My original idea was a timid protest against the arrogance of reformers in general,” he writes in the introduction. “I came gradually to want to prove nothing.”
I think that Seldes did manage to prove something, but I can see why he thought that it was worth finishing the book just for the sake of describing his intrinsically interesting subjects. They are all like fairy tales brought to life, ridiculous and tragic and somehow strangely plausible. There was one member of Alcott’s vegetarian commune Fruitlands who refused to pull weeds from their vegetable patch because “they had as much right to be there as corn or cucumbers.” I don’t know if I can prove anything from the fact that such a man existed, but I’m glad to know about him. Likewise Alcott’s long-suffering wife, who quietly ignored her husband’s sillier agricultural precepts and without whose pragmatism they all doubtless would have starved. She was the only adult woman in a colony full of useless men; the one other female, a Miss Page, had been expelled for having gone to a neighbor’s house and there eaten fish.
Exiled for eating fish! That’s like something out of a children’s fable, as is the death of the daughter of John Alexander Dowie, who thought he was God. He founded first his own church and then his own town, Zion, forty miles outside of Chicago, where he ruled as both dictator and savior. His daughter was burned to death when her nightgown caught fire from a spirit lamp she had lit to heat some curling irons. She suffered twelve hours of agony before dying of her burns, and no doctor was allowed to see her because Zion did not believe in medicine. In his graveside eulogy, Dowie said, “She was a good girl, but she disobeyed me. I forbade the use of alcohol in any form, she violated my command, and she has been punished for it.” He had in fact banned alcohol only in the Prohibition sense of banning drinking, but he either forgot this fact or didn’t mind rewriting history. If Dowie is in Hell now, I hope the Devil has him next to Tantalus.
Despite their faults (and in some cases their felonies), Seldes treats his subjects with a certain tenderness, which is only to be expected considering he grew up on a commune himself. His father, George Sergius Seldes, was a Jewish anarchist from Kiev who joined with a hundred other immigrant families to found an agrarian commune in Alliance, New Jersey, in 1882. Financial circumstances eventually forced him to return to his former trade as a pharmacist, in Philadelphia, where according to his son’s memoirs “he began wasting a great part of his life selling patent medicines to ignorant strangers with whom he tried to talk Philosophy.” George Sr. was hardly a raving crank—he corresponded with Tolstoy and Kropotkin, befriended Big Bill Haywood and Voltairine de Cleyre, and once hosted Gorky as his house guest—but there is still something pathetic about him, which may be why, in Seldes’s portraits, one can hear echoes of filial indulgence. I’ve heard the same tone of voice from highly assimilated sons and daughters talking about their immigrant parents.
Seldes might also have been rendered sympathetic by feelings of nostalgia. Compared with the reformers of his own day, the Prohibitionists and suffragettes and sanctimonious Ladies Bountiful, the eccentrics of the nineteenth century seemed positively harmless. Both types of reformers were motivated by the same social evils—drunkenness, inequality, industrialization, spiritual aimlessness—but somewhere in that genealogy, the radical “who was nearly an anarchist” yielded to the meddler who was, in his soul, an “embittered bureaucrat.” Here Seldes’s libertarian streak begins to show:
In the middle of the nineteenth century, the word “reformer” meant one who wanted to give liberty to others; today it means, briefly, one who wants to take liberty away. The change in meaning is accompanied by a change in method. There is a dislocation of the center of fear. Laws, lobbies, censors, and spies have displaced God as the object of awe and veneration, sometimes even as the object of faith. The great social and religious movements of the middle of the last century were based on the belief that man could be made perfect. The current belief is that machinery, including the machinery of government, can be made perfect . . .
The typical zealot of 1800 was a man fanatically busy about salvation; in the 1840s he was as fanatically busy about improving himself; later he turned to uplifting his fellowmen and later still to interfering with their pleasures . . . Eighty years ago, [a reformer] withdrew from society, founded his own community, and preached Abstention. Today, he passes laws and cries, I forbid.
Seldes thinks he knows what went wrong: “The degradation of radical doctrine is probably due in part to the vast failure of radical movements when they founded communities.” A few dozen families committed to equality of the sexes couldn’t build a gender-neutral commune that would last more than a few years, so later generations of feminists took their movement national. Farms designed to flatter Gaia failed without ever turning a profit, so environmentalists turned to passing laws instead. The temperance movement could not save enough drunkards, so they abolished drink.
Obviously this was an idiotic switch on the reformers’ part. If your idée fixe can’t thrive in the most propitious circumstances, when every human being for a five mile radius is committed heart and soul to the mission, then surely it is your concept that needs refining. There is also a valuable warning in Seldes’s observation that “communist experiments consistently lose the very quality they exalt. The colonies which are meant to exalt beauty, are mean and ugly; the love colonies are peculiarly unhappy as settings for a great passion.” Operating on a nationwide rather than a local scale is hardly going to solve the problem of unintended consequences.
Early reformers liked to compare their causes to abolition, just as modern liberals use “the civil rights movement of our time” as their highest form of praise. The moral of The Stammering Century is that most of the people who make such comparisons are only flattering themselves. For every cause that is denigrated unjustly, there are others that deserve to fail—for, as Seldes says, “two thieves were crucified, and only one Christ.” There was a notorious religious madman in the 1830s called Prophet Matthias, who convinced a modestly wealthy New Yorker to finance his church and then poisoned his sponsor when he threatened to cut him off. In the end, Matthias had only one follower, a black maid named Isabella. That woman later left New York and changed her name to Sojourner Truth, and every schoolchild in America knows the rest of the story. Gullibility and the deepest, noblest conviction coexisted in the same soul, and in all likelihood had their source in the same spiritual longing. If that was true of Sojourner Truth, it is equally true of her successors and the country that produced them all.