Oneida Utopia

A Community Searching for Human Happiness and Prosperity

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Anthony Wonderley
  • Ithaca, NY: 
    Cornell University Press
    , December
     2017.
     288 pages.
     $35.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781501702709.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Another book about Oneida? Dozens of them have been published from the mid 19th-century beginning of the community up to the present. Is there anything left to contribute to the story of this amazing community best known for its three-hundred-person group marriage at a time in American history when Oneida’s perceived sexual perversions were scandalous at best?

The answer is yes, there is room for another examination of Oneida, which, incidentally, also made its mark in the manufacture of animal traps and, later, silverware. Anthony Wonderley is just the person to retell this story through a different lens. Wonderley was the Curator of Collections and Interpretation at the massive Oneida communal residence, known as the Mansion House, many years after the community had transformed itself into a neighborhood and a business in the early 1880s. His distinctive focus is on the community’s people. Just who were these people who not only engaged in what the community called complex marriage, but also lived harmoniously and industriously, becoming prosperous and happy?

Wonderley does tell the story of the community more or less as his predecessors have done, although with intimate knowledge of the community’s greatest material legacy (other than silverware), the Mansion House. He starts with the Burned-Over District, as upstate New York was known in the early to mid 19th century, the time of revival, Shakers, Mormons, and perfectionism, the spiritual conviction that by identifying sin and refraining from committing it, believers could become morally perfect. He traces John Humphrey Noyes’s gathering of a perfectionist community in Putney, Vermont, its move to Oneida, New York, its successful businesses, and then its radical social innovations, ranging from letting women cut their hair and wear comfortable clothing to “male continence” (stopping the act of sexual intercourse before ejaculation).

Wonderley gives us a fine picture of daily life in Oneida. He makes it clear that early in Oneida’s history, its founder, Noyes, who has sometimes been depicted as a lascivious authoritarian leader, lived elsewhere, and the community developed its own social mechanisms—mutual criticism (a pointed discussion of an individual’s strengths and weaknesses in the presence of said individual), a daily meeting in a large auditorium, and appreciation of music, reading, and other arts.

The usual story of Oneida ends sadly, in a time of a national crusade against “sexual immorality” (the campaign against Mormon polygamy, preeminently), with Professor John Mears at nearby Hamilton College, as well as Anthony Comstock, the leading vigilante against vice of the Victorian era, campaigning against the rampant immorality they saw in the community and contributing to its breakup. But Wonderley ends his telling more happily. Oneida, he explains, brought equity into the workplace, with nearly equal pay for men and women. It developed an early model of welfare capitalism, offering benefits to all, not only the managers. Wonderley’s conclusion rings true: “Oneida is most meaningful as a morality play, the story of people living their ideals in unbroken succession for a century” (220).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Timothy Miller is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Kansas.

Date of Review: 
June 16, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Anthony Wonderley is the former Curator of Collections and Interpretation at the Oneida Community Mansion House. He is the author of Oneida Iroquois Folklore, Myth, and History and At the Font of the Marvelous and editor of The Days of My Youth and John Humphrey Noyes on Sexual Relations in the Oneida Community.

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