Communes in America

1975-2000

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Timothy Miller
  • Syracuse, NY: 
    Syracuse University Press
    , March
     2019.
     280 pages.
     $29.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780815636489.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Books take a long time to put together, and Communes in America, 1975-2000 is a book that probably was planned and written without knowing that its topic would receive massive attention. Popular interest in communities that practice or have practiced different forms of communal living has remerged in the past few years with TV series, documentaries and fictional treatments, on fundamentalist Mormons (Big Love, 2006-2011 and Sister Wives, 2010), on the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas (Waco, 2017; Waco, 2019), or the Rajneeshpuram community in Oregon (Wild Wild Country, 2018). These popular shows, though more tabloid than scholarly, basically ask the same questions as Timothy Miller explores in his book: What makes people in the US, a country where individualism is a core part in many people’s sense of what it means to be American, turn to communal living? What ideas and values drive their choices? How do they build functioning communities? What makes some communities last while others collapse?

Miller has produced a well-organized and well-written book. The writing is clear and straightforward, and the book gives a broad, big-picture introduction to the topic. The chapters are organized thematically. In each chapter, the author brings the reader into vastly different groups: some are pragmatic retirees trying to create a more affordable way of living. Some are driven by religious zeal. Others are focused on an organic and self-sustaining way of life. One chapter zeroes in on communes that have ended up in the media’s spotlight for various reasons, be it sexual abuse (fundamentalist Mormons) or mass suicides (Jonestown and Heaven’s Gate).

Communes in America, 1975-2000 is the last book in Miller’s trilogy on communal living in the US. The first book covered the years 1900 through 1960 and the second book zeroed in on the long 1960s. Communes in America is written in a way that makes it possible to read it on its own without any missing pieces. For those wanting a broader perspective, the author brings in historical examples to provide context and background. The appendix gives further historical context, as the author lists statistics on communal living. The extensive appendix also provides a discussion of communal living from Jamestown, Virginia, to the present.

The tone is one of critical empathy. Miller seeks to go beyond the scandalous headlines and to present those who choose such a lifestyle not simply as victims of manipulative leaders. In the case of the Branch Davidians, for instance, Miller sets the group in conversation with widely held apocalyptic beliefs in America and humanizes its members. But neither does he shy away from addressing some potential problems with some forms of communal living. He concludes his chapter on communes such as Jonestown and Heaven’s Gate by observing that “communal living aims to bring peace, harmony, and a satisfying life to its participants, and by and large it does an excellent job of that, but intentional communities finally seem unable to escape entirely the depredations of contemporary life.”

At times, however, the book reads perhaps a little too encyclopedic. At only 148 pages ,the  main text is also quite short. But this encyclopedic style might have been chosen because the book seems to have been written with a goal to entice students and other uninitiated to the topic and to the study the phenomenon of communal living.

The book, then, is recommended for classroom use for upper-level undergraduate students. It gives students insights into the phenomenon of communal living and a toolbox for them to use as they might try to research the topic themselves. Because this book covers plenty of examples of communal living, it does not provide a full investigation into any of them. Instead it does what good teaching and writing does, as it makes the reader want to know more.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Hilde Løvdal Stephens is Visiting Associate Professor at the University of Southeastern Norway.

Date of Review: 
March 26, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

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

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