Mon February 2, 2009
The Fair Hope of Heaven: A Hundred Years After Utopia, by Mary Lois Timbes
Timbes is something of an expert on Fairhope, having written a previous Fairhope book, Meet Me at the Butterfly Tree, with Robert E. Bell. She has a pride in the town's unusual history, and she has a lament, a sad feeling, for what has happened to Fairhope recently. So this book serves as a kind of warning to pleasant, quaint places everywhere.
By Don Noble
Mary Lois Timbes feels strongly about Fairhope, Alabama. She was raised there as a child in the 1950s and attended the Organic School, and lived there again as a grown woman , in the eighties and nineties, so this book is in part memoir. Timbes is, however, something of an expert on Fairhope, having written a previous Fairhope book, Meet Me at the Butterfly Tree, with Robert E. Bell. She has a pride in the town's unusual history, and she has a lament, a sad feeling, for what has happened to Fairhope recently. So this book serves as a kind of warning to pleasant, quaint places everywhere.
First, the history.
Fairhope was founded in 1894 as a Utopian, single tax colony following the theories of Henry George. Single taxers are like socialists but with a difference. Only the land is held collectively, with no one owning any, and each person paying a yearly rent on the land, based on its value. How rich one became was one's own business. This was called "cooperative individualism," "Every one for himself under the law of equal freedom." However odd some may find it now, this theory was criticized by capitalists and pure single taxers as too socialistic, and by socialists as too individualistic. Go figure.
Utopias in the 19th century were common enough. There were several of a religious nature, such as New Harmony in Indiana. Students of American literature know Nathaniel Hawthorne's report on Brook Farm in the novel The Blithedale Romance. Some stressed educational theories. Some, like those in Battle Creek, Michigan, stressed the dietary--cereals, that is. Many were vegetarian, or nudist, or espoused anarchy or free love .
There was a little of everything in Fairhope.
Individual chapters in Timbes' book are mini-biographies of Fairhope personalities, because Fairhope was a place in which personality could flourish, to say the least.
She writes, of course, of Henry Stewart, the barefoot man who came to Fairhope to die, built a little domed home of cement blocks, lived another 20 years, and has been immortalized by Sonny Brewer in his novel The Poet of Tolstoy Park.
The chapter on Winifred Duncan begins: "More than once Winifred Duncan was picked up by the Fairhope police in the middle of the night for canoeing in the nude?on these occasions she displayed only contempt for the police, since as she said, she was harming no one."
Verda Horne, a distinguished botanist, taught science at the School of Organic Education and there is, as there ought to be, high praise for the school, which still carries on. Under the leadership of Marietta Johnson, this program bears many similarities to what we know as Montessori--there are no tests, no rigid rote memorization of facts, an emphasis on play, handicrafts, folk dancing, dramatics. In short, this highly successful school, which students loved and attended with delight, would give the present-day advocate of No Child Left Behind, with its endless teaching for the test, a stroke.
Timbes writes of visitors to Fairhope who came to observe and learn, such as the famous atheist lawyer Clarence Darrow, the socialist Upton Sinclair, author of The Jungle, and the progressive educator John Dewey.
She writes of the outdoor, walk-in beach movie theater, of the earliest version of the Alabama Shakespeare festival, and of other theatrical enterprises. She writes of a host of eccentrics too numerous to describe here, including one woman who had her house built up in the trees. There is nostalgia in this history for a Fairhope which now just barely survives. Instead of socialists and nudists, artists and isolatoes, Fairhope is now the retirement destination of retired military and midwestern CEOs who find it charming, move there, buy a picturesque little bungalow, and tear it down so they can build a McMansion on the lot.
Don Noble's book reviews can be heard each Monday on Alabama Public Radio at 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m. Recently retired as English professor at The University of Alabama, Don's specialties are Southern and American literature. Don also hosts Bookmark on Alabama Public Television.