When you start in the east and drive west, Indiana is where lyrics from musicals begin to spontaneously bubble up in your brain. Most of them are set west of here, in Kansas or Iowa or Oklahoma, but it is in Indiana that you first find yourself driving through a field, gleaming cylindrical silos with pointed Tin Man hats in the distance, thinking to yourself, “Why, the corn is as high as an elephant’s eye!”
You also find yourself thinking about how a place like this, with its pin-straight roads that intersect at neat angles in towns with names like Correct, could produce a smiling dull-eyed automaton like Mike Pence. (He would probably fare badly as a character in a musical; the town’s children would defy his rulings and sneak out at night to dance.) But I try not to think about him too much as I zip through Indiana and a newly gifted hour of Central Time. I’m driving towards the home of a different type of zealot, the type who would envision and force into being a tiny Midwestern utopia with a name so saccharine you probably wouldn’t even write it into a musical: New Harmony.
Once, many years ago, I tried to drive the Ohio River Scenic Byway from eastern Ohio to the southern tip of Illinois. I misjudged the time it would take me to do this, and gave up somewhere south of Indianapolis. But New Harmony is the one destination from that abandoned itinerary that has lingered in my mind ever since. This tiny town on the Wabash River (current population: around 800) was the home of not one but two failed attempts at communal living. Zoom in, it seemed to whisper, then zoom in some more: even the smallest of specks on the map might prove there are infinite other ways to live.
The first group were German Lutheran Separatists called the Harmonists or Harmony Society, led by Johann Georg Rapp. In 1814 they bought 7,000 acres of Indiana Territory and journeyed west to the nascent town they called Harmony, after the place they’d just left, Harmony, PA. They were pietists, and Millenialists, but mostly they were laborers; as the settlement expanded in population and acreage, its men, women, and children manufactured a cornucopia of goods that read like the directory of a department store: cotton, flannel, wool, yarn, rope, flour, beef, pork, butter, beer, peach brandy, whiskey, wine, tin ware, wagons, carts, plows, leather goods – to name only some. When they moved away in 1824, to another new town in Pennsylvania which they called Economy, they put Harmony, IN up for sale.
The buyer was a Welsh immigrant named Robert Owen, who had gotten rich running cotton mills in Scotland. Owen intended to transform the tidy little town into an experiment in social reform, an enlightened center of academic and moral excellence where every aspect of life would be governed by an elaborate set of rules. He tacked a “New” on the front of Harmony and promptly left to recruit members and raise funds, leaving his 22-year-old son to manage the hundreds of idealists and “crackpots” who showed up. It didn’t work; it turns out most people didn’t want to live in a closely regimented Socialist commune any more than they’d wanted to live in a celibate Esoteric Christian one.
When you start to read about New Harmony, you quickly end up sandwiched between two perspectives, not entirely in conflict but with decidedly different spins. In one, two groups of unprepared ideologues ran into unforeseen difficulties and quickly abandoned their plans. In the other, two beautiful and improbable little communities flourished briefly beside the Wabash, leaving permanent contributions to American society as well as a peaceful sanctuary that still retains some glimmer of those early promises of renewal.
In a physical sense, at least, this last part is true. When I reach New Harmony on a still, hot afternoon, it’s as if I have passed through a gauzy curtain into a self-contained and perhaps illusory village: part River City, part Brigadoon, a hidden zone within the midday glow of Central Time.
Near the edge of this bubble is the Harmonist Labyrinth, a circular hedgerow maze surrounding a round stone hut. This is a copy of an earlier labyrinth, created by the Harmonists to symbolize “the difficulties of attaining true harmony and the choices one faces in life trying to reach that goal.” You can get to the little fairytale structure without winding through the greenery, by way of a series of low gates, but I forget which gate I have opened and nearly get lost anyway.
Thankfully, no one is around to see me extricate myself from the shrubbery and find my way to the center of New Harmony. Here I find a delightfully silly confection of a downtown, with storefronts that could have been made of fondant, molded into fanciful shapes, and dipped in pastel-colored sugar. These are surrounded by much simpler 19th century homes, reminiscent of early New England in their childlike austerity, and other buildings that seem to come from another time and place entirely, like the brick and stone Rapp-Owen Granary, bulky yet surprisingly graceful, now a popular wedding venue.
These days, New Harmony is one of those modern absurdities known as a golf cart community, which only adds to its unreal atmosphere. As I explore the silent streets, there is little motion, not even a breeze. There is only the occasional sprinkler, automatically ensuring the perfection of a garden, and the occasional retired lady motoring by at 10 mph in her pastel cart. Sometimes I see a small group of tourists, trudging on foot through the heat. They pause in front of historic sites like the stately brick Community House #2, where single adults lived during the Harmonist years, and the Romanesque Workingmen’s Institute, a library dedicated to “dissemination of useful knowledge to those who work with their hands” that was established by Robert Owen’s partner in experimental town-building, William Maclure.
There are other, newer architectural additions, like Philip Johnson’s oddly-named Roofless Church (which has a roof, a drapey sort of permanent netting with a skylight at the top, but no real walls, and no seating or anything else you’d expect from a church) and the Athenaeum, a sweeping deconstructed white rectangle designed by Richard Meier that serves as a visitor center. I stay in a sprawling hotel that feels like a cross between a Christian summer camp, a slick conference center, and a minimalist meditation retreat. On my wall is a framed document about the life of the room’s namesake. I take a photograph of a paragraph that reads: “An accidental soldier, my father’s best war stories were told without words. He never grew nostalgic for war or heroes, whispered one night in his Republican suburb while the nuclear clock ticked down that someday the people of the world would have to take to the streets to tell their governments, ‘We will not live in your terror anymore.’”
All of these elements should feel like an odd hodge-podge, as if someone had tilted Indiana to the side and all its incongruent pieces had slid to the southwest corner and gotten stuck at a bend in the river. But somehow, it all works, even if it makes no sense. The nuclear clock ticks down, so why shouldn’t we spend our days driving pastel carts through a pretty folly of a town built on visions and failures?
In the morning, New Harmony is just as still as it had been the afternoon before. The sun takes longer to rise in Indiana, it seems, and the humidity takes longer to evaporate from my windshield. When I was young, and awoke to this sort of damp misty morning, my parents would say, “It will burn off,” and it always did. But we never lived in a utopia. Here, maybe, the mist will stay. I drive away on those ruler-straight roads with their perfect right angles. There is, in fact, a bright golden haze on the meadow. The sun, I assume, will eventually fully rise.