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All in the Family
Desire and Duty at Oneida: Tirzah Miller's Intimate Memoir Edited by Robert S. Fogarty Indiana University Press 198 pp $27.95
The landscape of America is littered with the bones of failed utopian communities. In the nineteenth century, reformers believed that the new republic was just the place to build perfect societies, where labor and the fruits of labor would be shared equally among the inhabitants, and poverty and strife would be unknown. The young Transcendentalists who joined Brook Farm in 1841 looked forward to a future in which the countryside would be dotted with Brook Farms and they would be revered as founders of the First Association.
It didn't work out that way. Poor choice of location, bad soil, inefficient farming or manufacturing practices, lack of capital, poor management, and internal strife broke up most communities within a few years of their founding. Brook Farm, which lasted from 1841 to 1847, was one of the longer experiments. Fruitlands, Bronson Alcott's vegan utopia, went under in six months, though not before bringing its inhabitants to the brink of starvation. Of the twenty-six miniature "phalanxes," or model societies, established by American followers of the French utopian theorist Charles Fourier during the 1840s, only two survived beyond 1850--and they were gone by 1855.
In the midst of such general failure, one community stands out for its long life and prosperity: The Oneida Community, led by John Humphrey Noyes, endured from 1848 to 1880. It had its own schools and farms, its own orchestra and newspaper. It ran a highly profitable factory, which turned out steel traps. Thousands of visitors came to see it every year, and at one point applications to join the community were coming in at fifty a month. Prosperity, however, was not the Oneida Community's only attraction. The Oneidan system of "complex marriage" seemed to promise sexual freedoms unmatched in any other society on earth.
Doctrines of sexual freedom were hardly what one would have expected from a religiously orthodox Vermont native like John Humphrey Noyes. Born in 1811, he graduated from Dartmouth and studied divinity at Yale. But at Yale, Noyes came under the influence of perfectionism--the belief that the human race is divided into the elect and the damned, and that the elect can achieve sinless perfection here on earth. A particularly radical group of Yale perfectionists argued that the Second Coming, long awaited by ordinary Christians, had in fact already taken place toward the end of the first century. Noyes, who became convinced of his own sinless perfection, argued that new epochs demand new dispensations. If heaven was a place where one neither married nor was given in marriage, then redeemed communities on earth should banish marriage, too. If Christians were supposed to share their possessions, why not their bodies?
All of this proved too radical for Yale, which expelled Noyes in 1834. But he continued to preach his gospel--friendly to communism, hostile to marriage--and by 1841, he had gathered around him a small community of followers in the village of Putney, Vermont. Believers practiced Bible communism, and complex marriage replaced monogamy. Complex marriage was not quite the same as free love, for there were rules governing the interchange of partners that were intended to make sex a central part of individual regeneration. But this distinction was lost on the authorities in Putney, who in 1847 charged Noyes with lewd and lascivious conduct and forced him to flee the state.
He took up residence with a disciple who had a farm in central New York. His Vermont followers joined him there in 1848, and the Oneida Community formally began. Its sixteen governing principles required Oneidans to pledge themselves, among other things, to "abandonment of the entire fashion of the world especially about marriage" and to "encouragement of love and limitation of propagation." The sexes slept apart, meeting instead for brief "love interviews" in which conversation was to be kept to a minimum and conception prevented by the practice of "male continence"--intercourse with out ejaculation. Oneidans were encouraged to improve themselves by mating with their spiritual superiors in "ascending fellowship," but "mating horizontally" was also allowed. "The marriage supper of the Lamb," Noyes once wrote, "is a feast at which every dish is free to every guest."
In 1868 Noyes became fascinated by Darwin's theory of evolution and Francis Galton's writings about eugenics. They suggested to him the idea of controlled breeding. Couples who wished to have a child would apply to Noyes for approval. Noyes also suggested matches directly, a responsibility he later shared with a committee. Noyes was after more than strength or beauty in Oneidan offspring. He came to believe that in order to create a perfect race it would be necessary to breed sibling with sibling, uncle with niece, father with daughter. As Noyes's younger brother, George Washington Noyes, explained to their sister, love between siblings "approaches nearest to the fashion of God himself whose life ever turns in upon himself." Prohibitions against incest were the last snares of the devil. The quasi-horticultural term Noyes invented for this godlike experiment was "consanguineous stirpiculture" (from Latin stirps, "stem"). In the years between 1868 and 1879, stirpiculture produced fifty-eight offspring at the Oneida Community. The babies were a source of communal pride, brought out for public weighings. As each baby was placed in the scales, Oneida musicians offered a fanfare.
Noyes himself took an active role in the stirpiculture experiment, sometimes "initiating" female Oneidans as young as twelve. One of his favorite sexual partners was a woman named Tirzah Miller, the daughter of Noyes's sister Charlotte. Charlotte and her husband, John Miller, had been part of Noyes's original community in Vermont; they followed him to Oneida in 1848. When John Miller died suddenly in 1854, Noyes became Tirzah's surrogate father. As father and uncle, he evoked her unquestioning love and trust; as leader of the community, he commanded her obedience. He could order her to accept or abandon sexual partners. He could decide when she would have children and by whom. And when the children were born, he could tell her what to name them and when to wean them.
Tirzah, an articulate woman who was editor of the Oneida journal, The Circular, kept a written record of her experiences. Beginning in 1867, a few days before her twenty-fourth birthday, and continuing until 1880, just before the breakup of the Oneida Community, she wrote down at intervals what she thought and felt about her life, her lovers, her children, and the man who remained the god of her universe, John Humphrey Noyes. The memoir was later transcribed by her son, and a typewritten copy of it survived to become part of the Oneida Community Collection in the Arents Rare Book Room of Syracuse University. It has now been edited by Robert S. Fogarty, whose knowledge of American communal movements--and of the Oneida Community in particular--enables him to place Tirzah Miller's memoir in the larger context of American religious culture.
The memoir, though fragmentary, is a fascinating document. Tirzah Miller was articulate, passionate, and analytic. The frankness with which sexuality was treated at Oneida means that her discussions of sex have a candor rare in nineteenth-century writing. "Talked with Ella in the evening," she notes, "and Mr. Noyes had me have an affair with G.K. and A.H.B." Much of her memoir recounts her struggles to submit herself to the will of Noyes, even when his orders cause her anguish. She bears three children to three different men, each of whom she falls in love with. Yet when Noyes requires it, she gives up her lovers and even agrees to stop seeing her second child, as if she were Chaucer's long-suffering Griselda.
Still, there is nothing meek about either Tirzah Miller's spirit or her prose. She is as open in recording her feelings of rebellion as she is scrupulous in recording the struggles with conscience that led her to submit to Noyes's will. The struggles became more painful as the years advanced. The aging Noyes was increasingly jealous of the younger lovers he matched to Tirzah. First, he broke off her affair with a man named Homer Barron and ordered her to try for a baby by one Edward Inslee, to whom she was not attracted. But when Tirzah became pregnant by Inslee and managed to fall in love with him after all, Noyes ordered their separation. Tirzah, six months pregnant, was then told to have sex with her mother's longtime companion, James Herrick. The jilted Homer and Edward were left to their own devices.
If the Oneida experience proves anything, it is that increasing the sexual availability of women does not necessarily increase the felicity of men; Tirzah broke the hearts of a string of disconsolate lovers. After one lovemaking session, Noyes told her that some women were "tenpenny whistles" in bed, but that she was a "grand piano," a sentiment echoed by several of her partners. No wonder they continued to pursue her; no wonder Noyes jealously tried to break up every deep love relationship she formed.
Although she longed for the departed Edward Inslee, Tirzah enjoyed the sexual encounters that were part of life at Oneida. At age thirty-three, she made love to a man fifteen years her junior. She noted: "We had a delightful time. I have not felt so much affected by any one since Edward left." In 1879, when Noyes fled to Canada because he feared the New York authorities were about to prosecute him, he sent one final directive back to Oneida: His followers were now free to marry if they wished. In any case, complex marriage must come to an end in two days. What Fogarty calls "frenzied sexual activity" followed this proclamation. Tirzah Miller joined as eagerly as anyone in this last-minute bacchanal. At one point, she passed the door of the bathhouse where her old lover Homer Barron was getting dressed. "I can hardly tell how it happened, but there seemed to be a subtle fire between us, and before we barely knew it he hurried me into the inside bathroom, where we--" That comic aposiopesis suggests why it is impossible to regard Tirzah Miller as anyone's victim; her sense of humor, like her sense of self, was far too strong.
In 1879 Tirzah Miller married James Herrick, the father of her third child. They remained faithful followers of Noyes, joining him on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, where he ordered them not to live together. Herrick suffered a nervous breakdown in 1880, but husband and wife were at Noyes's bedside when he died in 1886. Back in the United States, the Oneida Community dissolved, to be reorganized as a corporation, its metalworking equipment retooled to make the flatware for which it is still famous. Poor Edward Inslee, who had once played his "beautiful cornet" in the Oneida orchestra, drifted to Southern California, where he ended his days as a resident of a different Eden, playing in the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
Upon her death in 1902, Tirzah Miller Herrick was buried beside Noyes. Fogarty deserves thanks for making Tirzah's absorbing story available to readers everywhere. It's a celebrity she would have enjoyed.
Barbara Packer is professor of English at the University of California at Los Angeles. She is the author of "The Transcendentalists," which appears in volume 2 of The Cambridge History of American Literature.