I remember being introduced to the idea of a utopia back in junior high school and becoming fascinated with the idea of creating a society of perfection. It was the same social studies class that introduced me to the idea of a sharing community where all were equal and work and the rewards were shared. Then our clever teacher told us this was called Socialism and Communism. Of course, we were taught that those were bad things, but they sounded pretty good to us.
But the idea that Sir Thomas More had back in 1516 in his book, Utopia, stayed with me. I particularly liked More setting his utopia on an island because I have always had a thing for islands.
Utopia has been used to describe “intentional communities” that attempt to create an ideal society, I wrote here earlier about Henry Ford’s failed attempt at a utopian community in the Amazon which he called Fordlandia.
New Jersey would not be the first place that comes to mind when you bring up utopian communities, but one example is an experiment by the writer Upton Sinclair. Sinclair said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” He was no fan of commercial society.
Upton was born in 1878. When he was 15 years old, he started supporting himself by writing “dime” novels. He continued to write pulp fiction to get himself through Columbia University and he wrote a novelette a week all through college.
When he got an assignment from a socialist weekly to investigate working conditions in the meatpacking industry of Chicago, he was shocked at what he saw. He used his research to write The Jungle. The manuscript was rejected a number of times, so Sinclair published it himself in 1906. He had already published five novels, but The Jungle was his first real success. It motivated people to demand reforms in the meatpacking industry. It was said that President Roosevelt received a hundred letters a day demanding reforms.
The success of The Jungle allowed Sinclair to start a utopian experiment in New Jersey.
As unlikely as that may sound, there have been other utopian experiments in the state, as documented in Utopia, New Jersey: Travels in the Nearest Eden. The cooperative colony in Englewood, NJ was founded by Upton Sinclair in 1906.
A fire would end the experiment after only six months, but the dream remained with Sinclair for the rest of his life.
It was called Helicon Home Colony. It was hardly perfect. There were sex scandals that were written about in the press right from the beginning. They had a policy that specifically excluded non-whites. But Sinclair really believed his experiment was the future of American living.
Matt Novak wrote a good piece on Helicon that goes deeper into this story.
Sinclair considered his Helicon Home Colony (AKA Helicon Hall) as living based on reason and science. His ideas came from his reading of other 19th century socialist utopians.
My reading about the experiment makes me think that Sinclair wanted to get away from an unhappy family life. He was not getting along with his first wife, Meta. He didn’t like being a father. He had just spent three years secluded with them on an isolated farm in order to finish The Jungle.
He wanted freedom to write and a private community would allow him to write while others kept his wife occupied and the community raised his son.
He did have some progressive feminist beliefs and wanted the community to have things like cooking, cleaning and child-rearing done by those who could do it best without regard to gender. Creative pursuits could be followed by anyone who desired them.
Sinclair wrote some articles, including one in the New York Times, to set out his principles and solicit people who might want to join the experiment.
The plan was more ambitious than what he had the time to actuallycreate. He wanted to have as many electrical conveniences as possible and their own power plant, plus their own food-producing farm.
Although Sinclair was a self-avowed socialist, he didn’t call the community a socialist experiment and he didn’t want political beliefs to be part of the experiment.
As I said up front, it was hardly utopian in who was welcome to join. Race, religion and profession were to be considerations. Writers, musicians, academics, artists and creative types were invited to live there. There was a board of directors and members owned shares in Helicon. Sinclair controlled about 70% of the board’s vote and could have overruled anyone.
One of the rumors that immediately started being said about the community was that the 46 adults (along with 15 children) were just a sex cult of free love.
Sinclair didn’t want to employ traditional domestic servants and preferred using local students as interns. Interestingly, one of those interns was Sinclair Lewis who was then a budding author himself and who is often confused with Upton Sinclair. Sinclair Lewis would go on to write Babbitt, Main Street, Arrowsmith and other books and became the first writer from the United States to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. The interns did not work out and they ended up hiring servants which sounds less than utopian.
Whether or not Upton Sinclair’s idea of utopia would have succeeded will never be known. A fire, on March 16, 1907, burned Helicon to the ground. A carpenter died in the fire so there was an inquest. The hearings were a local sensation and exposed the “free-love nest” story back into the newspapers, but no charges against Sinclair or anyone else were made. Members of the community got back their investments from the insurance money, but Sinclair was broke.
Sinclair considered starting over again in California, and Fairhope, Alabama and in Arden, Delaware, but nothing ever came of those plans.
Upton Sinclair was prolific throughout his life and went on to write almost 100 books. In his 1919 book, The Brass Check, he wrote:
“I look back on Helicon Hall to-day, and this is the way I feel about it. I have lived in the future; I have known those wider freedoms and opportunities that the future will grant to all men and women. Now, by harsh fate I have been seized and dragged back into a lower order of existence and commanded to spend the balance of my days therein.”
He may have idealized Helicon more because he never got to see it fail and so he always believed that it could have worked.
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