Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
is available for $16.00 from FootHills Publishing, P.O. Box 68, Kanona NY 14856 or see www.foothillspublishing.com.

Tourist Snapshots is available for $8.95 from Randy Fingland, CC Marimbo, P.O. Box 933, Berkeley CA 94701 or see www.ccmarimbo.com.

Dada Poetry: An Introduction was published by Nirala Publications. It may be ordered on Amazon.com for $25 plus shipping. American buyers may order a copy from me for $23 including shipping.

The other books are also available from the author William Seaton. Write seaton@frontiernet.net.


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Thursday, December 1, 2011

Iowa Communards

My Uncle Bill, a factory worker who lived his entire life on a small farm near Cedar Rapids, Iowa, knew that, if he entered the bar of one of Amana’s popular eateries not far from his home, he would probably find an acquaintance or two, perhaps someone who, like himself, rarely shed his bib overalls. Their quiet beer-sipping was hardly a footnote to the tourists – though little-known outside the region, the Amana Colonies are Iowa’s top tourist attraction. (To some, of course, the very idea of a tourist attraction in Iowa is oxymoronic.) Apart from today’s family-style dining and an appliance name now belonging to Whirlpool, from 1855 until 1932, the Amana Colonies were the site of one of the most successful of nineteenth century America’s many experiments in communal living.

The Germans who settled these lush fields were members of a small sect. Their beliefs had deep roots even within the Roman Catholic Church which had always included mystical and pentecostal tendencies as well as spawning heretics of more radical views. The followers of Montanus are a significant early example and Meister Eckhart’s Friends of God a medieval one. The hierarchy did its best to control these extra-bureaucratic movements, however, and they found more space in the left wing of the Reformation.

Among Protestants, Anabaptists from the 16th century had sometimes chosen to remain aloof from the inevitably corrupt institutions of church and state. They refused oaths and military service, and sought direct openings from God. By the late 17th century there arose groups of Pietists who stressed individual morality and Inspirationists who believed there were prophets among them. Philipp Jakob Spener preached universal priesthood, and in 1716 E. L. Gruber organized the group that was to come ultimately to the United States. In the broader sense one may include in the varied complex of this general trend of belief Evangelical Lutherans, Brethren, and Mennonites. The Society of Friends (Quakers), Methodism, and Baal Shem Tov’s Hasidic Judaism are similar in certain significant ways as well.

What these groups had in common was a suspicion of institutional hierarchy and an emphasis on individual behavior and the possibility of direct contact between the individual and the divine in the modern age. In the religious sphere, these movements reflect the Renaissance appreciation of individuality; we moderns, too, tend to be sympathetic to the privileging of each person’s experience over the dogmatic transmission of tradition that had obtained since the Stone Age. Whereas the shaman’s skills, the priest’s learning, and the aristocrat’s authority had long insisted on their prerogatives, with the coming of earliest capitalism came mysticism’s transvaluation of values, which sees the holy glow in each soul and in acts of everyday life.

The group that founded Amana (after first establishing the Ebenezer commune in New York) was descended from Gruber. Calling itself the Community of True Inspiration (Die Gemeinde der wahren Inspiration), they were enthusiastic Pietists who sought to live a fully Christian life and convinced Inspirationists who believed they heard prophets among them, though they had no ministers, regarding all true Christians as equal.

Upon settlement in America, they determined to take seriously the words of Acts that described the early Christians’ communal life. [1] The means of production, land and workshops, were held in common, though people lived in individual homes. Meals were served in silence to sex-segregated diners in groups of thirty to sixty. After the age of two children attended school. Their enterprise was successful enough that they flourished for nearly a hundred years in consistent prosperity. According to an observer in 1876, “They live in such perpetual peace that no lawyer is found in their midst; in such habits of morality that no sheriff walks their streets; in such plenty that no beggars are seen save such as come from the outside world.” The description concludes polemically: “If Communism can be applied with such beneficent results in the case of seven villages, why not over an entire county? Why not over a State? Why not over a Nation?” [2]


These partisan words were written at a time during the nineteenth century when America had a great many of these utopian experiments. Some were secular: Brook Farm, the Fourierists and Owenites, all the factions Marx would deride as “utopian.” Many were religious such as Oneida or the Shakers. They had in common a rejection of the economic system and the social values of capitalism. Instead, they sought to substitute a loving community in which each was supportive of all and all of each. In their separate groups the pious and the irreligious alike attempted to create a society in which work would be a pleasure and alienation would vanish. Many of these experiments arose in the Western part of the United States where land was still cheap or free.

Apart from available land, all such societies benefited from the significant economies of communes, the efficiencies of central planning, and social cohesion of a committed population, at least at first. The shortest-lived, in both periods of communalism (the mid-nineteenth century and the latter part of the twentieth) were the intellectuals and the anarchists such as Fruitlands, Brook Farm, and the latter-day Drop City. The socialists lasted, in most cases, little longer. Those groups which had a rigid organization or a charismatic leader -- recent examples include Baba Ram Dass at Lama, Gaskin at the Farm, or the Krishnas in New Vrindaban -- lasted longer, as did the Amanas, America’s longest-lived commune to date.

Doubtless the society was broken primarily by the end of its isolation. Governor Harding’s chauvinist 1918 Language Proclamation banned the use of languages other than English in such public places as stores, streets, schools, and churches. [3] Once people could travel more easily and hear of doings outside Amana, they became restless. Mass culture arrived, and the group, once passionately attached to their way of life, became uncertain. The radio was perhaps the greatest single factor in the so-called Great Change – once the youth got wind of popular culture, the traditional ways became unacceptable. In fact, faith had been eroding and people had begun falling away long before the end in spite of graduated sanctions with total banishment as the most severe. It is sufficient evidence that the influence of the church authorities and the traditions of the settlement had been on the wane for a long time that in the 18th century there were eighteen prophets, called “Werkzeuge” or “instruments;” in the 19th century there were but three, and none had appeared since the death in 1883 of Barbara Heinemann Landmann.

The contemporary visitor enjoying a hearty meal served family style, tasting perhaps a bit of rhubarb wine (for legal reasons, labeled "substandard")at the Colony Inn Restaurant or the Ox Yoke Inn might reflect on how people here had sought to pursue perfection, to realize the ideals of the gospel in their daily lives. They were, for several generations, convinced that, if they wanted a loving community, they would have to do as the Wobblies said, “to build the new society within the shell of the old.”



1. Acts II 44-45: “and all that believed were together and had all things common. They sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need.” Acts IV 32-35 “And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things in common . . .Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold, and laid them down at the apostles’ feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need.”

2. American Communities, William Alfred Hinds. New York: Corinth Books, 1961. 55. Hinds’ book is an excellent account of a variety of nineteenth century utopian communities. The author himself grew up in John Humphrey Noyes’ Oneida where all members were united in marriage together. Much the same ground is covered in another early book: Charles Nordhoff’s The Communistic Societies of the United States (1875).
More modern general studies include Mark Holloway’s Heavens on Earth. Utopian Communities in America, 1680-1880 and Delores Hayden’s Seven American Utopias. The Architecture of Communitarian Socialism, 1790-1975.
References focusing on individual states include Robert V. Hine’s California's Utopian Colonies and Catherine M. Rokicky’s Creating A Perfect World: Religious and Secular Utopias in Nineteenth-Century Ohio.
William H. and Jane H. Pease are the authors of Black Utopia: Negro Communal Experiments in America.
Probably the best guide to contemporary or recent communes is the authorless Communities Directory: A Guide to Communal Living published by the Fellowship for Intentional Community.
Though less scholarly than some of these and broader than others, I find Kenneth Rexroth’s Communalism: From Its Origins to the Twentieth Century engaging and engaged, a good read apart from the information it contains.

3. The rule was overturned after World War I, but the use of German and other languages had already been profoundly affected.

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