January 11, 2009
Do you like stories set in the late 1800’s, stories of brave souls who uprooted their families to move across the country to tame the wilds and create a community? Do you admire nonconformists, oddballs, intellectuals and eccentrics? Do you have trouble believing that the world was once full of people who thought a new idea was so good that it would change mankind for the better?
My book The Fair Hope of Heaven/A Hundred Years After Utopia might appeal to you if you answered even a mild yes to any of the above.
The small city of Fairhope, Alabama, now a thriving tourist destination and home to boutiques, antique shops and expensive haberdasheries, was founded in 1894 as a utopian colony to prove Henry George’s theory of single tax.
In its 115 years of existence, Fairhope was a magnet for people with ideas. It had begun as a way to demonstrate the efficacy of the single tax theory with an overlay of what Fairhope’s founders called “cooperative individualism.” Its political philosophy attracted people like the visionary educator Marietta Johnson, who started a school based on the radical theory that learning itself is natural to children, and by nature they should love to do it. Socialist writer Upton Sinclair spent a year there after his own dream colony in New Jersey burned to the ground. There was a nudist camp nearby in Fairhope’s early days; many residents practice subsistence farming, and a few engaged in free love.
In my own youth in Fairhope, in mid-20th-century, there was an odd looking old lady who wrote books about spiders and was arrested more than once for canoeing in the nude in the middle of the night. There was a woodcarver who had gone off to Alaska for a time in the 1930’s and returned claiming to have ice-skated with Mae West and sold hooch to Bing Crosby. There were cranks and quacks and amusing people, and Fairhope took them all to its heart without batting an eye.
The unusual school Mrs. Johnson started became home to artists, musicians, and poets. Its students, who were indoctrinated into its unconventional system, grew up to be teachers, doctors, lawyers, dancers, actors, and writers.
Today much of its bohemian dust has been shaken off, and Fairhope exists as a floral dream of a retirement village with sunset views and pleasant, relatively stress-free citizens. It retains shadows of its single tax past, but everything has been modified to fit the times. From time to time it is named by national publications on their lists of best places in America to retire.
The Fair Hope of Heaven explores this dichotomy and places the little community in the context of the two visions of utopia—yesterday’s and today’s—with a smattering of history, a handful of sketches of more than one generation of characters who made Fairhope unique in ways unanticipated by its idealistic founders at its inception.
The book will be on sale in Fairhope when I get there next week. I’ll be signing at the local bookstore, The Page & Palette, on Saturday, January 24, from 2-4 P.M. I’ll read from the book at the local museums during the week, and donate a copy to the library.
Those of you who live too far away to get to the signing or the bookstore can find The Fair Hope of Heaven online at amazon.com. and on my website. I wrote it under my nom de plume, Mary Lois Timbes, which is also my maiden name. I’ll publish excerpts here in the coming weeks, and hope the little snippets will interest some of my regular blog readers enough that they’ll buy and enjoy the book.