Twilight of the Idylls
Three new books on utopia in America
The Story of American Utopianism
by Chris Jennings
$28 List Price
THE MOST DURABLE IMAGE of the utopian promise of the United States comes from one of the country's most sobering books. It is toward the close of The Great Gatsby, when Nick Carraway imagines a Dutch sailor seeing the "fresh, green breast" of Long Island—an explorer faced perhaps "for the last time with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder." This sublime retrospect draws its power from its coming at the book's end, after Fitzgerald has exposed the tawdriness and tragedy of even the most poetical American hopes. There is something strange—allegorical maybe—in the fact that this book, famously a flop on first publication, is taught year after year, introducing students at the cusp of adulthood to a notion of the country as having come out wrong in the end, their teachers reacquainting themselves annually with a sense of lyrical, frustrated national purpose.
Utopia and failure are, of course, intertwined. In our post-utopian age, no expedition into the wilds is expected to last. We are familiar with the fate of the grand experiments meant to bring salvation to society, from the Shakers to Walden to the Paris Commune to Zuccotti Park. James C. Scott's extraordinary The Art of Not Being Governed (2009) reminded us of fugitives from state formation in Southeast Asia, who for two thousand years have fled to the hills in the area we now call "Zomia," practicing rough forms of equality and fluidly transforming their ethnicities outside of the watchfulness of the state. Now this experiment, too, Scott tells us, is coming to a close, with the end of agrarian societies
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