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Whatever Happened to Proto-Marxism in Indiana?

Three things New Harmony was founded on: utopia, utopia, utopia. Now it's filled with folks on golf carts.
Κείμενο Jason Wire

Welcome to New Harmony, Indiana, population 866. This tiny little town at the southwestern border of Indiana and Illinois is famous for three things: a 19th century ultra-religious utopian community; an enlightenment utopian community that followed a few years later; and some strangely new-agey architecture built in the 60s and 70s when utopias came back into fashion. They also serve some of the best brain sandwiches on this side of the Wabash River.

It all started about 200 years ago when an elfish German named George Rapp started saying stuff about life and God that pumped a lot of folks up but didn't jive well with most of the Lutherans he was hanging out with at the time. Pretty soon, Rapp and his followers broke off from mainstream Lutheranism and went rogue, putting everything they owned into one big community pile (this was decades before Marx’s Communist Manifesto), and began calling themselves the Harmonists.

In 1803, after getting shat on one too many times by the clergical government, they said, "Peace, we're going to America where we can do things our way."

George and the Harmonists arrived at a quaint parcel of land in Pennsylvania near a place called Murdering Town, where George Washington was shot at by Native Americans in 1753. They named the place Harmony, and basked in their pre-Marxist commie paradise, living a joyful life without sex or marriage or commerce while awaiting the Second Coming, which they thought was coming any day now. They were probably the most German-minded folks in history, with a town motto of "Work, work, work! Save, save, save!"

Eventually, however, their vineyards went dry, and being short on booze they sold the town to some sobriety-inclined Mennonites and headed West in search of a more fruitful place to set up shop and wait out Jesus's return. (Harmony, PA was later the setting for the 2009 classic My Bloody Valentine 3D.)

Thus, New Harmony, Indiana was born, and it remains one of the strangest places I've ever been in my life. And like most of the locals around here, it wasn't until I left southern Indiana that I understood that having leftover monuments and hedge mazes from failed socialist experiments in your backyard doesn't happen everywhere. Back when I was in grade school, we'd take field trips to New Harmony for historical re-enactments about life way back when and feast on kettle corn divied out by overenthusiastic theater majors. But since this was Catholic school, they left out the parts about how the Harmonists’ vows of celibacy put a kibosh on marriages and kept childbirths at bay for nearly a decade. While all that purity looked really great to the god they were waiting on, there weren't enough babies replacing dead folks. And you know what happens in these kinds of communities--they're based on unity and then they fall apart because people, in the end, don't get along.

No trip to New Harmony would be complete without testing one's spiritual navigation skills at the Harmonist Labyrinth. It's basically a half-assed hedge maze, the kind you'd imagine encountering in Wonderland except the bushes that make up the walls are only about four feet tall. At the center of the labyrinth stands a small log shack, filled with creepy William Blake-ish proverbs on the ceiling. For the pious minds who once wandered these parts, this labyrinth symbolized the difficult and confusing road to perfection; to me it seemed like a great place to burn a J.

My childhood field trips also left out the part about Robert Owen, an anti-capitalist welfaremonger who saw the Harmonists' failing utopian vision and decided to inject his own socialist agenda into the scene. Now here's a guy I could relate to: His philosophy’s two main features were that 1) nobody is responsible for their own actions because your personality is developed solely by your environment, and 2) “All religions are based on the same ridiculous imagination that make man a weak, imbecile animal” (quoting Wikipedia). Some historians say that George Rapp was instructed to leave by a divine message from God; others point to Owen giving him a big ol' pile of cash for the town. Whatever the reason, Owen bought the town and New Harmony 2.0 was born.

It was with Owen that things started to get interesting. He wanted a walled city where the denizens of New Harmony would be free to frolic and roam, and drew up a massive plan to lay it all out according to his vision of the ideal city, which he called the “Community of Equality.” Unfortunately for the Equalitarians, not everyone wanted to work, and disagreements between the haves and the have-nots eventually caused the experiment to fail.

You can see all of this history of proto-Marxism on display at the Atheneum, New Harmony's gigantic white mess of a visitor center, which was designed by visionary architect and all-around space cadet Richard Meier. Inspired by the town's old-school utopian roots, he decided to build a massive angular steel contraption that forces visitors to wander a three-dimensional labyrinth. Visitors have to traverse ramps and staircases dead-ending at historical artifact displays and balconies overlooking the town before finally finding their way to a huge, sloping ramp leading into the historical village.

Probably the oddest thing of all in New Harmony, though, is the Roofless Church. From a distance, it appears that a giant acorn has fallen from space and remains lodged in the earth, and some confused humans have surrounded it with a brick wall. But apparently it's just your average non-denominational spiritual center plunked amidst a bunch of other outcast ideas.

The New Harmony of today contains no signs of utopian aspirations; it's mostly a tourist town and regional hub for antique dealerships. But something still feels different. The only school in town calls itself “The Home of the Rappites, ”monuments to the idealistic and religious zeal of long ago still linger around corners, and just about everyone around here drives a golf cart.

I stopped into the local watering hole, The Yellow Tavern, where a group of old hens sat around a long, wooden table watching Fox News, gleefully spilling peanut crumbs on the floor like a herd of self-aware one year-olds. “You know,” said one of them, “sometimes I think about what would happen if Robert Owen’s plan really had worked out. How would we know about all of the things going on in the world?”

Another barfly chimed in, “Hopefully Robert Owen would have had the sense to allow for Fox News.”