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Utopian communities intrigue UConn history professor

by Scott Brinckerhoff - November 13, 2006

One hundred and sixty-five years ago and about 50 miles from Storrs, a utopian community flourished.

The site, just up the road from Northampton, Mass., doesn't draw much attention these days, except perhaps from scholars of history, or motorists heading to the Berkshires.

But in the decades preceding the Civil War, utopian communities dotted America's landscape, and historians have long delighted in studying them.

One of the recognized experts on these social experiments is Christopher Clark, a British-born professor in UConn's History Department.

Clark's research tends toward such broad themes as the cultural history of economic life in the United States, social reform movements, and the history of capitalism.

His work intersects with and augments some of what his UConn colleagues are also studying, but in the area of utopian communities, he stands alone.

"My research focuses on the social history of economic life in rural areas," Clark says.

"I'm interested in how people made a living, and the impact of their economic choices on other aspects of life."

His early writing looked at how industry arose in the countryside, and how capitalism operated in a handful of agrarian communities in New England in the 1800s.

Later, he narrowed his scope to the Northampton Community.

Or, as he puts it, "My first book was about six towns, and my second about 500 acres."

Dating back to the 1600s, utopian communities - including the well-known Shakers - have grown up in the United States and faded away, with wild fluctuations in their numbers.

Today, one study estimates there are about 277.

Clark says that beyond being social experiments, these communities are difficult to pigeonhole.

"Some were religious. Some were secular. Some revolved around a charismatic leader; others didn't," he says.

"About the only generalization you can make is that the longer-lasting communities radically rejected traditional social and family relationships."

In the Northampton Community, the desire to abolish slavery united the group, which was loosely linked to the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison.

But even with their unity on what was perhaps the most important issue of the day, members of the group clashed on other matters, such as whether parents or the community should exercise control over children.

Clark says that since the formal structure of society and government had been abandoned in Northampton in favor of a conscience-guided community, such questions were not easily resolved.

Serendipity stepped in twice to bring Clark to Northampton.

Christopher Clark, professor of history, at his office in Wood Hall.
Christopher Clark, professor of history, at his office in Wood Hall.
Photo by Jordan Bender

Records from the community, lost in the 1890s, surfaced again in 1983 and were made available to scholars, including Clark.

Then, in 1998, a Maryland family, cleaning out the attic of a relative in Brooklyn, Conn., came across a trove of material relating to the Northampton Community.

Clark was invited to make use of the 75 letters, each about four pages long and written mostly by women.

The letters, describing life in the community, formed the basis for Clark's 2004 book, Letters from an American Utopia: The Stetson Family and the Northampton Association, 1843-1847.

The letters nicely complement his first book on the group, The Communitarian Moment.

Over the years, Clark's research has been made easier by two factors: moving here from England, and the Internet.

"When I was teaching in England, it wasn't very easy to do social history work on the United States with locally based sources," he says.

"My research for my first book was conducted by kind of ransacking local libraries and antiquarian societies.

"My second book involved something more like detective work. I followed leads, read manuscripts, and went to many courthouses in search of deeds and wills and details about individuals," he continues.

"I recall asking for the docket on one fellow in a probate court and out came a whole trolley-load of stuff."

Sometimes, Clark's research has led him to develop an appreciation of unexpected subjects.

For example, when he discovered that silk manufacture was among the activities of the Northampton Community, he began to look more closely at the process, which turns out to be fraught with opportunities for failure.

In fact, he became so fascinated that he studied silk manufacture not only in Northampton but in other parts of the United States, including Mansfield, where silkworms were raised on farms, and Manchester, Conn., where former silk factory buildings are now condominiums.

Clark contributed an essay on silk's U.S. history to a recent publication, Silk Unraveled! Threads of Human History .

Before joining the UConn faculty in 2005, Clark was a research fellow at the University's Humanities Institute.

He has also been recognized in the U.K. with an award for innovative teaching, for a course on the American Revolution structured around a group writing project.

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