Reviews — From the June 2016 issue

Game Theories

The past and future of dating

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For a serious attempt to revolutionize both labor and the relations between the sexes, we can go back further, to a moment at least as turbulent as the years when dating began. In the first half of the nineteenth century in the United States, millennial Christian sects flourished among a constellation of other cultish movements. Ellen Wayland-Smith, in her new book, Oneida, notes that this “reform” culture of “phrenologists and feminists, abolitionists and vegetarians, temperance activists and mesmeric healers” made for a potent mishmash, which was skewered by Henry James in The Bostonians. One of his targets was the “simply hideous” John Humphrey Noyes, an ancestor of Wayland-Smith’s and the founder of one of the stranger experimental communities in American history.

The Oneida commune, which had its roots in Vermont but became fully established in upstate New York, began as Noyes’s attempt to solve a set of problems not unlike the one Weigel addresses today: mating rituals as wretched and unfair as the economic circumstances and working practices they reflected. “The law of marriage ‘worketh wrath,’ ” Noyes wrote, by keeping men in competition and women in bondage and encouraging a corrosive “egotism for two.” Private property and factory labor had similar effects. Noyes aimed to establish an expanded family that would act as a pilot scheme, eventually converting those around it to a system based on spiritual love and fellowship, in which individuals would be absorbed into a larger purpose, without selfishness or exploitation.

An advertisement for Oneida Ltd. cutlery, 1952 © The Advertising Archives

An advertisement for Oneida Ltd. cutlery, 1952 © The Advertising Archives

Unlike the proto-socialist model followed by places like Brook Farm (immortalized in Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance), Noyes’s was centered on religion, and the adventurous sexual practices he advocated were carefully integrated into his theology. He considered both marriage and slavery morally dubious, being “institutions invested in the ownership of persons,” and hired labor — then commonly figured as “wage slavery” — fell into the same questionable realm.

Noyes began by winning over some of those around him to his strain of revivalism. (His mother, who Monty Python–ishly continued to remind him that he had “faults the same as other people,” was one of the tougher nuts to crack.) In 1838, he married Harriet Holton, a conveniently wealthy convert — promising not to “monopolize and enslave her heart or my own” — and in the early 1840s he set up a small community. Noyes espoused a notion of “spiritual wives” that was not uncommon among contemporary Christian sects, and he and Holton were soon exchanging confessions of mutual longing with another couple in the group. In the spring of 1846, they agreed to save the consummation of their extramarital desires until the anticipated reign of saints on earth, but they only lasted a month or two before deciding that God was waiting for them to make the first move.

The group that would become the Oneida community gradually adopted “complex marriage,” and over the next few years, several hundred people began to live according to Noyes’s system. Intellectual and physical work was shared and rotated, men and women had equal decision-making power, and property was communal. Wayland-Smith expertly lays out the philosophy behind their initial “working school” model of enterprise, which prioritized the well-being of all those who contributed their labor to it. They favored a kind of “communo-capitalism,” run “under the stimulus of love.” In their optimistic schema for a more just world, instead of a Marxist plan in which the state would take over the means of production, private tycoons would continue to run industry undisturbed, “but would simply cease to exploit labor.” The community instituted a practice of “mutual criticism,” group feedback to each person on his or her character and conduct, to be accepted in dignified silence. (Wayland-Smith notes in passing that two members appear to have been eaten by cannibals in the East Indies after encouraging the locals to give mutual criticism a try.) There was special emphasis on giving up selfish attachments: “sticky love,” or sexual possessiveness, was particularly frowned on, and likewise “philoprogenitiveness,” the attachment to one’s own children over other people’s. Both proved difficult to eradicate. “If a man comes into this Association with a wife that he has to watch and reserve from others,” Noyes told the group, “he has brought a cask of powder into a blacksmith’s shop.”

For around ten years, Noyes ran a eugenics program. (He’d long been in favor of sex between siblings, though the record is silent on whether he put that part of his theory into practice with his own sisters.) His hope was that the virtues inculcated by years of determined self-improvement and group reflection would be “fixed in the blood” and passed down via a system of inbreeding that he called “stirpiculture.” Noyes’s eventual aim was to produce immortal stock. Half of the fifty-eight children born at Oneida in the decade from 1869 were his blood relations; he fathered ten of those himself.

Notwithstanding its dystopian elements, Noyes’s approach had benefits for women, at least compared with what they endured in the outside world. Aside from their ability to pursue work that interested them, they were also mostly freed from a grueling succession of pregnancies and miscarriages, because Noyes believed in the equal or even superior economic and spiritual value of non-procreative sex. He winningly likened it to the importance of a melon’s pulp relative to its seeds: the former has primacy, “for we feel that the chief end and value of the fruit is realized when it is eaten and converted to human enjoyment, even though its seeds are thrown away, and its propagative destiny is left unregarded.” (The analogy, it must be said, rather falls apart once you look at it from the perspective of the melon.) The men of the community accordingly adhered to a Sting-like policy of non-ejaculation: Wayland-Smith reports that Noyes, always partial to “awkward sexual metaphors,” liked to compare “the indiscriminate emptying of one’s seed into a woman to the discharge of a blunderbuss gun into a friend’s face.”

What set Oneida apart from most other such experiments was its longevity — thirty years under Noyes’s full system, then a long afterlife via the joint-stock Oneida company, which made traps, silk thread, and, most successfully, silverware. After an initial period of sharing the work equally among themselves, the Oneidans decided that they had to produce more to compete on the open market, and they began to take on wage laborers, whose status and role were markedly different.

According to Wayland-Smith, one can find a clear picture in community members’ writings from the 1860s and 1870s of “an ideology stretched to the breaking point.” The core members simply couldn’t agree on whether their factory workers should have the same advantages as the rest of them, and the company became increasingly hard to distinguish from any other firm. Indeed, in the twentieth century, Oneida was to become a byword for middle-class American values, flogging flatware to status-conscious couples via the cozily domestic imagery of its advertising. The experiment started to unravel in the late 1870s, when Noyes himself left in the face of increasing challenges to his authority. The practice of complex marriage ended by mutual agreement on August 28, 1879, and most made the switch quietly, though Wayland-Smith writes that Noyes’s niece, the indefatigable Tirzah Miller, “had sex with James Herrick in the morning, Erastus Hamilton in the afternoon, and with Homer Barron in the evening in a frenzied last hurrah.” Once the community had fully dissolved into a business, the families who’d been central to the project remained so, and apparently continued to intermarry at a curious rate, but they mostly distanced themselves from the sexual avant-gardism of the early Oneidans. After one too many inquiries about their archives from curious gynecologists and sexology researchers (including Alfred Kinsey), they destroyed thousands of pages of letters, diaries, case histories, and medical records in a ritual burning.

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is an associate editor at Bookforum.

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