Charles Lane sits pinned by the gaze of a gray–eyed woman, her face shadowed by a plain white bonnet. He clears his throat. He is not a man of the flesh, he tells her, though he uses many more words—words that wander back to England, Greavesian ideology, his staunch belief in abstinence—before returning to the present moment: the little son beside him, back erect against a wooden chair, feet dangling above the polished floor. William Lane. His father’s greatest source of pride. His father’s greatest source of shame.
“It is with the utmost conviction,” says Charles Lane, addressing the whole assembly, “that I hold paternal love to have a deleterious effect on humanity’s pursuit of spiritual ascension.”Complete story available online at Gettysburg Review
Utopia. We all know what it means; we all look for it, hope to find it throughout our lives, design our societies to approximate it. I recently took a couple of moocs where utopias came up – first, in the context of Thomas More’s novel, which first used the word, and second in regard to science fiction depictions of utopias and dystopias. I did some minor research at the time, and discovered it’s even more interesting than that perfect place we all imagine.
The word itself, coined by Thomas More for his 1516 book, is a pun explained in an appendix to the novel: when spelled outopia (from the Greek οὐ, ‘not,’ and τόπος, ‘place’), it means noplace. But when spelled eutopia (using the Greek εὖ as the prefix), it sounds the same but means good place. That’s a lot of mileage to get out of a single word.
The other thing that occurred to me, in connection with the science fiction mooc, is that maybe utopia and dystopia are different sides of the same coin. Charles Lane, our protagonist (or one of them, at any rate), has seen both sides.
Elder Geary shudders. He feels the sweet drowsiness of death encroaching but cannot yet justify succumbing. What would Mother Ann think, witnessing her teachings so desecrated? Elder Geary had once followed the woman on her holy tour through Massachusetts—he’d heard her sing without words, heal without touch—and her principles of common property had galvanized his thumping heart. All Shakers, rich or poor, pooled their possessions so that all might aspire toward godliness. And yet this man, this Charles Lane—for all his voluble admiration of their Shaker customs—saw himself as an exception?
“Hear me!” Elder Geary sits bolt upright.
The attending Brethren step back from his cot in surprise.
“We have an unbeliever among us.” Elder Geary lifts a shaking hand to point at Charles Lane.
The story is told in parallel style, alternating between Charles Lane’s story and his son’s. The son’s story is told in highly impersonalized style: “A boy must be amenable. He must concede. He must not look for his father.” Stripped of any humanity, he becomes only an example of the Shaker rule, his longings emphasized by prohibitions. It’s highly effective, and surprisingly readable.
I wonder if this would be considered historical fiction. There was indeed a Fruitlands community, founded by Charles Lane and Bronson Alcott, father to Louisa May, who was about 10 years old at the time. The detail of the Alcott children receiving special dispensations are not noted in the sources I casually browsed; it seems the community failed because of poor management, leading to an inability to support itself. Sophia Foord is also a historic figure, a teacher who was hired to tutor Louisa May, and who at some point developed a passionate crush on Thoreau, scaring the socks off him by proposing.
Lane’s life is notable enough to be recounted in several places, including a fascinating compilation of his and others’ journal entries by Clara Endicott Sears, a philanthropist who purchased the failed Fruitlands and later converted one of the buildings into a museum. His son William is mentioned in these sources, but there is no clear indication that his father left without him. For that matter, there is no mention of any ostracism following a dramatic deathbed scene with an Elder Geary (who appears to be a fictional character), though there is evidence of his reluctance to throw his money into the community pot, having just lost a bundle on Fruitlands.
“Perhaps,” says Mrs. Alcott, “you could make the love argument.” She glances at her husband, who has remained uncharacteristically quiet. Louisa May feels the grip on her shoulder tighten, the bruising press of her mother’s unwavering affection. “As I see it, you can either leave William and return to England or you can go before the Shakers and declare the preeminence of paternal affection. That blood trumps all other bonds.”
Charles Lane says nothing.
What this story does so effectively is show by not telling. The opening lines about his son being his greatest pride and shame – the evidence of earthly passions, after all – sets up a kind of ambivalence again seen when he resists divesting his financial goods to the Shaker community. He manages to spin the Fruitlands failure as someone else’s fault, a weakness of paternal attachment he denies – and yet, when Mrs. Alcott suggests “the love argument”, he says nothing. What is going on in his head? Is he thinking, I don’t believe in parental love and I’m not going to use it now? Or, I’m ashamed of my paternal love so I’m not going to show it now? Or, What’s love got to do with it, they have something that’s mine?
The title not only refers to a clear element of the story, but also to the story itself, where elements in the beginning – Lane’s haughty disregard for the paternal favoritism he witnessed at Fruitlands – comes back to bite him in the end. The last two lines of the story, however, show he is not the only one bitten:
A boy must have his evening chores complete before dark. He must never make a fire in a stove without supervision. There must be no wood piled near the stove nor the spit box set beneath the stove. The stove must always be shut tight before all leave the room. A boy must return to his sleeping quarters by nine. If a door is locked, a boy must not go on rattling and knocking. It is not meant to be opened.
It’s a quiet kind of heartbreak. The tone keeps sentiment tightly controlled, while still allowing it to seep in gradually. What’s saddest, maybe, is that this isn’t seen as that big a deal, when viewed through the lens of the time and place.
One person’s utopia is another’s dystopia.