Great Utopian Thinkers in 19th-Century America


By Pamela Bedore, Ph.D., University of Connecticut

According to Lyman Tower Sargent, one of the luminaries of Utopian Studies, there were about three times as many utopias written in the 19th century as were written in all the centuries before. It was also a fascinating time for utopia, since it marked a powerful transition from utopia to dystopia.

Green Sign that reads “Welcome to Utopia. Enjoy your journey”.
The idea of utopia, a perfect community or society, has always been of interest to intellectuals. (Image: AlexLMX/Shutterstock)

The Six Writers of American Renaissance

F.O. Matthiessen, one of the great mid-20th-century scholars of American literature, identified six writers as central to the American Renaissance, a period he associated with the birth of an American literature truly distinct from its predecessors in Europe. These six writers were: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Harriet Beecher Stowe.

A portrait of Walt Whitman.
Walt Whitman represented the earnest side of utopia. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman were transcendentalists through and through, with their deep faith in humanity, and their optimism about the ability of humans to find meaning in their relationships with nature and with each other. We can see them as representing the earnest side of utopia.

Hawthorne, Melville, and Stowet, on the other hand, were skeptics. Hawthorne recognized the darkness in human nature that made a utopian community impossible. The utopian longings of Melville’s characters were always undercut by a dark side. Stowe was also a naysayer as she debunked the romantic plantation myth of the South.

This is a transcript from the video series Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of Literature. Watch it now, Wondrium.

The Utopian Socialists in America

Robert Owen, a Welshman, was an industrialist who eventually moved to the United States to set up the utopian community of New Harmony in Indiana. His commitment to treating all workers within a factory town with dignity and respect was central to other American utopian communities of the 1820s.

The planned communities of the 1840s owed much more of their philosophical underpinnings to Charles Fourier, son of a French businessman. His basic premise was that humans would do well to deliberately plan communities instead of letting cities grow organically and often inefficiently.

Communities in which labor— including household labor—is equitably shared among groups larger than the family unit will lead to lighter workloads and more equality for all, including women.

Like most planned community models, his model also assumes that all community members will be equally willing to contribute their earnest labor to the utopian project. 

One might think that Fourier communities aren’t especially practical, but this is all well within the realm of the rational. But here’s where it gets interesting. Fourier’s plan for his utopian communities are very detailed. So detailed in fact that Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “Fourier skipped no fact but one, namely life.”

Learn more about utopia: the perfect nowhere.

The Basic Fourier Ideas

Well, the details were based on what we might safely call an unorthodox worldview. Fourier believed that humans were fundamentally good—debatable, but not unorthodox. He believed that we are driven by our passions. By passions, he meant something like instincts, and he thought they were totally quantifiable, as in there are 12 base passion groups on three branches of the passional tree. The end result is that he identified 810 basic personality types.

Moreover, he envisioned a world in which each planned community would include 1,620 people, two of each personality type. And human life expectancy would increase to 144 years. And new docile animals like anti-lions would emerge. And climates would become more moderate all over the Earth. And oceans would desalinate, tasting like lemonade. And the plants would copulate. 

Fourier sounds more than just a little eccentric in his utopian imaginings. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he had trouble finding investors to build his communities, which he called phalanxes, a word with military connotations in French, the same as in translation. 

The Appeal of Fourier’s Ideas

Not that Fourier’s version had any military connections whatsoever, although a world of happy, productive Fourier phalanxes complete with anti-lions and free love probably wouldn’t face a lot of conflicts and wars. Or maybe it would. Leaving aside the more outlandish parts of Fourier’s theories, he had three major ideas that really appealed to a lot of early 19th- century American thinkers and social reformers.

He thought about social problems from a sociological perspective rather than a moral one. He also didn’t reject the advances of the Industrial Revolution as he just wanted the benefits of industrialized labor to go to the workers rather than the industrialists. Furthermore, he believed in universal reform that was all about equality across class, race, and gender. There’s a fair bit of debate among historians and literary scholars about the exact relationship between Fourierism and Transcendentalism. 

Learn more about the origins of utopia.

The Influence of Ralph Waldo Emerson

A portrait of Ralph Waldo Anderson.
Ralph Waldo Emerson espoused Transcendentalism. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

Ralph Waldo Emerson became the face of American Transcendentalism in the 1830s-40s with famous essays such as Nature, Self-Reliance, and the deeply poetic prose piece The Over-Soul.

Emerson published essays in the transcendentalist literary magazine The Dial. He was also a sought-after speaker, lecturing regularly on the need for humans to develop self-reliance and a reverence for nature.

Emerson was a good friend of George Ripley, the founder of Brook Farm, which was a planned utopian community based on many notions like a more wholesome life and the combination of intellectual and manual labor (very much in keeping with Emerson’s philosophy). He was moreover a frequent visitor to Brook Farm and a regular contributor to the farm’s magazine The Harbinger.

The Brook Farm project came to an abrupt halt when a partially constructed edifice caught fire in 1847. Nonetheless, Brook farm was a place where much was learned, which helped Hawthorne to write his version of American utopia, The Blithedale Romance.

Common Questions about Great Utopian Thinkers in 19th-Century America

Q: What were the main points of focus in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s lectures?

Ralph Waldo Emerson was a sought-after speaker, lecturing regularly on the need for humans to develop self-reliance and a reverence for nature.

Q: What is the main problem in Charles Fourier’s community models?

Like most planned community models, Charles Fourier’s model also assumes that all community members will be equally willing to contribute their earnest labor to the utopian project.

Q: What was Hawthorne’s perspective about utopian community?

Hawthorne recognized the darkness in human nature that made a utopian community impossible.

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