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A Socialist Utopia in the New South: The Ruskin Colonies in Tennessee and Georgia, 1894-1901.

W. Fitzhugh Brundage. Urbana: U of Illinois P. xi + 263 pp. $16.95 (paper).

This exquisitely written book is not only the first full scholarly volume on the Ruskin Colonies in Tennessee and Georgia, but also one of the most engaging and enlightening interpretations of utopian socialist communalism in the United States. Meticulously researched and scrupulously argued, this study situates Ruskin within the turbulent decade of the 1890's when emergent socialism gathered many adherents. That such socialism was rife with millennial murmurings has been noted by many scholars. To Brundage's credit, he manages to synthesize this scholarship and to contest it in order to demonstrate the significance of utopian communal experiments such as Ruskin. In particular, contra Howard Quint and Daniel Bell, Brundage amply demonstrates that the utopian longings among Gilded Age socialists were not peripheral concerns, but "spoke to cultural anxieties about the meaning of work, the measure of self-fulfillment, and the extent of communal obligations in an industrialized society" (3). Moreover, by allowing the Ruskin colonists to articulate their grievances and visions in rendering a narrative of their socialist communal experiment, Brundage takes seriously the accomplishments and limitations of those who attempted to build a better world.

In developing portraits of the men and women who built Ruskin, Brundage highlights the role of the organizers and spokespeople for Ruskin. Mainly connected with the journal, Coming Nation, that inspired Ruskin and became both its voice and that of the populist-tinged socialism of the 1890's, Chapters 2 and 3 follow the careers of Julius Wayland, Alfred S. Edwards, and Herbert Casson as editors, colony leaders, and socialist gadflies at the turn-of-the-century. Like other members of Ruskin, their "journey to the colony was just one stop in their ongoing search for opportunities and a congenial environment" (45). While noting the high turnover rate at Ruskin, Brundage also highlights the pull that Ruskin had on the imagination and desires of displaced auto-didacts, like Wayland and Edwards, intellectuals, like Casson, and artisans, all of whom "believed that by taking part in the colony they were intensifying their radicalism" (67--author's emphasis).

Brundage's special contribution to the scholarship on Ruskin and utopian socialist communalism is evident in his chapter on the women of Ruskin. Noting how these women "drew upon the material feminism" (11) of the period (represented in the work of Charlotte Perkins Gilman and analyzed so compellingly in Delores Hayden's interpretation), A Socialist Utopia in the New South tries to determine the ways in which Ruskin challenged the dominant order or conformed to it. When the Ruskinites adopted equal compensation for male and female labor, they were clearly taking on the invidious distinctions caused by a gendered wage system. On the other hand, to the extent that Ruskin reinforced a cult of domesticity, albeit collectivizing those household tasks that caused untold drudgery in women's privatized existence, women's separate spheres and inequality were maintained. Nonetheless, Brundage makes clear that the advances and restrictions on women's life at Ruskin foregrounded the difficult struggle to bring a feminist sensibility to socialism.

Recounting the internal divisions that led to Ruskin's dissolution in Tennessee in 1899, its relocation in Georgia during that same year, and its eventual demise in 1901, A Socialist Utopia in the New South provides wonderful insights into how Ruskin attempted forms of social and cultural revitalization in its communal experiments that spoke to the contradictory radical urges of the age. While trying to create new forms of educational experiences and public culture, Ruskin too often succumbed to dominant ideologies of the time, especially in the kind of racist stereotypes that led Ruskinites to exclude African-Americans from membership while still putting on blackface comedies as part of the weekly entertainment (125). In his final assessment of the Ruskinites, Brundage contends that their "version of communitarian socialism did offer an alternative to the competitive capitalism of the age, but its radical challenge was ultimately subverted by its incompatibility with truly radical thinking and measures" (167).

That A Socialist Utopia in the New South manages to account for the contradictions of Ruskin and to locate it at the same time within the currents of radicalism in the United States attests to the inclusive and inspiring scholarship of Brundage. Although I would have preferred to see more discussion about the racial climate of the time and its impact on Ruskin, especially from a scholar whose previous award-winning book was on Lynching in the New South, Brundage has written a book that from its first to last chapter and throughout the fine "Bibliographic Essay" at the end demonstrates that studying utopian communal experiments is not at all marginal to understanding the enormous promise and failure of socialism, and, indeed, the American experience.
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Author:Shor, Fran
Publication:Utopian Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1997
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