For Erik Reece, life, at last, was good: he was newly married, gainfully employed, living in a creekside cabin in his beloved Kentucky woods. It sounded, as he describes it, “like a country song with a happy ending.” And yet he was still haunted by a sense that the world–or, more specifically, his country–could be better. He couldn’t ignore his conviction that, in fact, the good ol’ USA was in the midst of great social, environmental, and political crises–that for the first time in our history, we were being swept into a future that had no future. Where did we–here, in the land of Jeffersonian optimism and better tomorrows–go wrong? (Goodreads Description)
Utopia Drive is a thoughtful, well-researched exploration of Utopian dreams and roots in the United States of America, juxtaposed with the current overarching structure of our society. This book is equal parts history, personal narrative and self-discovery, philosophy and critique on the current state of events in our country (current as of August 2016, that is).
The premise of the book is a one-man road-trip to visit the historic sites of former examples of “Utopia’s” that the author, Erik Reece, has had a fascination with since childhood. In the introduction, Reece provides a handy metric to be used throughout the book to help us understand how these efforts and movements in American history fit in context with each other and the Utopian concept. Throughout his journey–and for the reader, the journey of this book—his method of categorization is revisited to better understand the foundation, development, and eventual demise of each of these Utopian dreams:
“There are, at least to my thinking, four different versions of utopia, and as I venture forth, these will act as the four points of my mental compass… Along the north-south continuum lie what the great social critic Lewis Mumford has termed ‘utopias of escape’ and ‘utopias of reconstruction.’ … Along the east-west axis lie what I call the utopias of solitude and the utopias of solidarity… While each of these utopias sits at a separate end of its continuum, none is necessarily exclusive.”
-Erik Reese, Utopia Drive, Page 8-
Escape, reconstruction, solitude, solidarity. Through this framework we take a closer, more intimate look at the daily lives and original philosophies of the Shakers, the Harmonists, Thomas Merton, Henry David Thoreau, the Perfectionists and more. The Western PA nod to George Rapp and his early version of Christianity-based commune outside of Pittsburgh—the original Harmonists—in Chapter 4: A Beautiful Failure, leaves me longing to recreate this journey, on a local level. One of Reece’s explanations for his fascination with the history of pursuing Utopian dreams, whether billed as such or not, is that it is a unique American phenomenon that occurred many times throughout the white settling of this country, and our city is surrounded with that history as well.
I recommend this book to any readers that share the fascination with these “unlikely dreamers” that Reece has and sparked in me, or simply as an ode to one of the many curiosities that the history of this philosophically dynamic land encompasses.