March 5, 2012

Book of the Month:

James J. Kopp, Eden Within Eden: Oregon’s Utopian Heritage

Review by Anne Blankenship

When I pulled Eden Within Eden (published in 2009 by Oregon State University Press) from the shelf, I discovered two related projects: a narrative placing Oregon’s utopian heritage within the context of American history and a 100+ page resource guide of primary and secondary sources related to the nearly 300 communal and utopian groups Kopp’s study unearthed.  Why Oregon?  The book offers a reasonable argument for its exceptionalism: Acknowledging that colonists, immigrants and citizens have long envisioned America, its frontier and other domestic locations as chosen, sanctified spaces for perfected communities, Kopp writes that most attempts to recreate Eden in America were transitory and often unassociated with a specific location in the nation.  In Oregon, however, the formation of utopian communities that consciously aligned their aims with the landscape has continued unabated since the earliest settlers arrived.  Kopp’s book fills a regional gap left by two books on British Columbian utopian societies and two classic (outdated) studies of communal groups in California and Washington.  The numerous similarities beg for a comparison, but this is not it. 
The volume’s first half provides a thematic and roughly chronological narrative of conceptions of utopia throughout Oregon’s history.  Kopp defines “utopian heritage broadly to include pioneer journals and government posters depicting Oregon as a new Garden of Eden, as well as religious communes, farming cooperatives and intentional living communitiesBrief commentary on historical patterns and types of experimentation links the series of relatively independent organizational histories.  Kopp observes how the search for Eden changed in response to national events—the Civil War, the Great Depression, world wars and the social revolutions of the 1960s.  The book argues that Oregon’s natural landscape and welcoming political and cultural environment drew people at nearly every moment in the country’s history Kopp concludes his narrative by stepping beyond pioneers, cooperatives and communal groups to consider “utopian undertakings” found within city planning and modern literature.
After summarizing the Christian origins of Eden and utopia, the study largely forgets about religion.  The choice to describe Holy Rollers and Rajneeshpuram as cults indicates how this American Studies scholar treats concepts of religion.  A few groups are monolithically religious but religion does not generally play a role in the seemingly secular category of utopian communes.  Religiosity was rarely discussed and no groups were analyzed as or in the context of new religious movements. 
The volume’s greatest contribution, and the reason I want to share this book with parties interested in religion in the American West, rests in its glorious appendix.  Kopp is a librarian and here his work shines.  In addition to a bibliography of general academic works, the appendix catalogues hundreds of communes and cooperativesThe listings provide basic data for each group (location (often street addresses), founding date, website and cross-references to communal living directories) and an extensive list of additional sources, including archives, newspaper and magazine articles, masters and doctoral theses, videos, pamphlets, oral histories, collections of photography and art, legal documents, etc.  The inclusion of secondary material may guide researchers to more productive paths and provide useful contacts.  Entries range from 12 pages to a few lines.  My only frustration was not knowing the size of the communities or their current status. 
Kopp’s inclusive study stops short of including the post-World War II formation of suburbs as a fulfillment of the American Dream.  In perhaps the only noticeable value judgment in the book, he argues that the materialistic, competitive drive of suburbia bars it from his study.  However, rhetoric of 1950s America resembled the hopeful language of many pioneering, utopian communes.  Like Kopp’s other groups, suburbs are widespread in but not particular to Oregon.  These “façades of utopianism” share numerous characteristics with earlier communities: a defined vision of perfected life, faith that determined efforts could build that dream and tensions between “reality and the dream of Eden.”  The absence of this discussion relates to my main disappointment with the book.  Kopp offers abundant examples of groups and individuals that corroborate his proposed thesis, but fails to press his argument beyond the introduction.  This may have been intentional since Kopp designed the book as a resource for scholars to excavate utopia.  I say, go to it.  

Editors’ note: Have you read this book? What do you think about it? Join the conversation and leave your thoughts in the comments! If you have a suggestion for a future book of the month, or if you would like to review a book for the book of the month series, please contact us. Next month, Sarah Imhoff reviews Bryan Edward Stone’s The Chosen Folks: Jews on the Frontiers of Texas (University of Texas Press, 2010).

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