cover image Angel in the Forest: A Faity Tale of Two Utopias

Angel in the Forest: A Faity Tale of Two Utopias

Marguerite Young. Dalkey Archive Press, $13.95 (331pp) ISBN 978-1-56478-054-6

With the extravagance of a poet rather than the pedantry of a historian, Young's long out of print study conjures up the spirit of two failed 19th-century attempts to establish utopias in New Harmony, Ind. The first was the celibate, spiritual society of Father Rapp (1814-1825), the other the rational, socialist order of Robert Owen (1825-1827). Father Rapp presided over a strict, regimented community (dictated by the visitation of an angel), guiding his people to prosperity through the sale of everything from hogs and shoes to gunpowder and whiskey, but creating a repressive regime that required slavish obedience--sexual abstinence was enforced, even when it meant emasculating his own son when that son fathered a child. Owen, by contrast, preached a doctrine of rationality, equality, happiness and social sympathy, that people are not innately sinful but molded by institutions. To put his ideals into practice, he transformed the Scottish mill town of New Lanark according to humanitarian principles, and then purchased New Harmony from Rapp to create a model of socialist perfection--a vain but splendid dream. Young relates all this in a lavish style that evokes the magic and pathos of the experiments. She is a superb storyteller whose allusions, images and digressions are even more telling than the story told. (Aug.)