Without Sin: The Life and Death of the Oneida Community
by Spencer Klaw, Alien Lane, Penguin Press, 337 pages
Founded in 1848, the Oneida Community thrived for thirty years in upstate New York, a record that makes it America’s most successful experiment in communal living. Under the charismatic leadership of John Humphrey Noyes, some three hundred members supported themselves manufacturing traveling bags, animal traps, and lazy Susans. Work was shared, children were reared communally, and adults practiced a form of free love Noyes called “complex marriage.”
“The inevitable frustration of elaborate schemes for making people happy and good,” the author writes, “is, of course, the stuff of comedy. But if the Oneidans were not quite so happy or so good as outsiders were given to believe, they were happy and good enough so that it is impossible … to contemplate the collapse of Noyes’s daring scheme for human betterment without a stabbing sense of loss.” Spencer Klaw spent years study ing .the written records left by the community, and he illuminates a time and place in our history that resonates in the news stories that emerge from time to time from places like Guyana and Waco.