Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Fanny Wright and Hippietown

Fanny Wright
There are few characters in history as interesting as Fanny (Frances) Wright. She was born in 1795 in Scotland, but is known for her writing and speaking on a number of topics including advances for women, utopian societies, workers' rights, slavery, free love, and the United States. Newtopia Magazine published an interesting piece about her here in 2013 that is worth a read.

I first ran into her story years ago when I was doing some reading on utopian communities, particularly the famous New Harmony settlement which I visited about that time. Utopian communities were all the rage in the 19th century among those who sought escape from the strange combination of puritanism and destructive forms of capitalism (particularly slavery) that characterized much of the 19th century. Wright started her own form of utopian society based on transitioning freed slaves into northern culture. Nashoba, as she called it, failed, and she retreated to New Harmony and eventually settled somewhat permanently in Paris.

I recently ran into her story again in the midst of my reading of the Muller biography of William Cullen Bryant. I was surprised to learn that Bryant (and his paper The Saturday Evening Post) loathed her and found her lectures and very presence in the intellectual life of America abhorrent. Bryant, like other writers of the era, did not approve of female intellectuals--particularly irreligious radicals like Wright. 

What is so fascinating about Bryant's outlook on Wright is that they had similar connections, although Wright's were far more international and political during this era. Her social position as a Scottish wealthy aristocrat also put her in contact with people like the noted author Mary Shelley. Wright was good friends with the French hero of the American Revolution, Lafayette, as well as Jefferson, Jackson, and even Martin van Buren.

Bryant, who favored similar political interests as Wright, was also a champion of Jackson and worker's rights. Since they had many political overlaps, his distaste for Wright was clearly tainted by 19th century sexism and perhaps by a bit of his remnant New England puritanical character. Her views were too radical for Bryant's American vision of boot strap capitalism.

When writers discuss Wright, they always refer to her ill-fated attempt at a utopian community at Nahoba even though it only lasted a few years of Wright's 57 year turn on our planet. Many in the environmental world attempt these utopian communities. Back in the 1990's I fancied thoughts on the development of Hippietown within a part of Tampa called Seminole Heights. I owned a house in the community and hosted pot luck workshops on things like composting. Many of us were encouraging sustainability minded people to move into the neighborhood to try to infuse ideas of sustainability within a distinct geographic area. It was a much more informal notion of a utopian community than say today's Oregon compound of the Bundy's or 19th century New Harmony. Most of these communities, like Hippietown, fail to last. Yet they do provide fascinating examples of how like minded people strive to create connections and change societies.

Wright continues to fascinate for many reasons. Yet it is often her work in visioning a new way of living that draws many to her today.

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