Utopia, Limited

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By 1900, most of the famous citizens of New Harmony had either died or departed, but many of their kin and the descendants of other Owenites still lived in the village—Fretageots, Elliotts, Fords, Coopers, Schnees, Pelhams, Fauntleroys, and others. These people, residing in the old Harmonist houses, carried on the social and intellectual traditions of the past and talked about the “Owenites” and “Rappites” as if they were contemporaries. They made lively use of the library of the Workingmen’s Institute, supported an annual lecture program in a new and handsome auditorium, revived the women’s club, and knew how to entertain a former President of the United States, William Howard Taft, when he came to help them celebrate their centennial in 1914.

By the 1920’s, however, New Harmony, like most small towns in America, began to suffer from the prosperity and magnetism of the cities, and in the 1930’s the Depression dealt a blow that was only partially tempered by the discovery of oil in Posey County, in which New Harmony is situated. Many of the town’s children went off to college in those years and did not return; and the automobile, the metropolitan movie palaces, radio and then television, city banks and city supermarkets destroyed the old community life for those who were left behind. By the 1950*3 the town had become a derelict, too far from any city to become a suburb, too near to have a life of its own. The children who passed in and out of the schoolhouse door that Frederick Rapp had made for Father Rapp’s church in 1822 were still told about their remarkable past, but they no longer felt that they were a part of it.

But now, in the i goo’s, after several decades of decay and despair, New Harmony is once more awake. The revival of its cultural life is modern and different from anything in its past, and yet by that very difference it is in the New Harmony tradition. The wife of Kenneth Dale Owen has come up from Texas with a new dream for New Harmony. She has bought and refurbished some of the old Harmonist houses and buildings, even moving them to different locations when it suits her convenience. Setting up a trust, she has erected a “Roofless Church” of vast proportions, designed by Philip Johnson, and adorned it with a bronze madonna by Jacques Lipchitz. At the edge of the Wabash River bottoms, where tall corn grows, she has created a small park and named it for Paul Tillich; in June of 1963, she imported Dr. Tillich himself to dedicate its “Cave of the New Being.” To ensure a continuity of this new culture when she was not on the scene, she employed for a while a clergyman in residence to act as her agent, and she houses aspiring poets and artists in her various properties to work at their crafts in a kind of creative seclusion. Still more recently, the townspeople themselves have formed an organization to supervise their own cultural life.

Nearly a century and a half ago, a farmer who came into New Harmony to stare at the Owenites and try to figure out what they were up to was quoted as saying, as he scratched his head and spat in bewilderment, “I thinks and thinks about it.” Today’s visitors in the little town on the Wabash—Posey County farmers and American and European tourists alike—have new food for thought as they watch the solemn ceremonies and gay festivities of the “foreigners” gathered by the town’s new benefactress from the worlds of art, music, religion, and philosophy. The conclusions they draw may vary, but there can be no doubt that angels’ wings are once more aflutter in the balmy southern Indiana air. The celestial presence plagues a few of the townspeople, who protest that they would prefer to be left alone with the quieter and less disturbing echoes of past visitations, but New Harmony is once more prospering and, in one sense at least, being saved.