Communes, Cooperatives, and Collectives: Glimpses Into America's Counter-Institutions, 1969-1979
at the Aubrey R. Watzek Library, Lewis & Clark College

Two of the best novels that I read last year--T.C. Boyle's Drop City and Jonathan Raymond's The Half-Life--dealt with the experience of communal living. Both books were set in the twilight of the commune heyday, and a recurrent theme that the characters expressed was a short-term wistfulness--nostalgia for an era that had passed only five minutes before they had arrived.

I asked Lewis & Clark Library Director Jim Kopp, a scholar on utopian idealism and the communal movement, if nostalgia was an inherent component of communal living. "Absolutely," he responded. "Utopian communities are essentially an attempt at recreating Eden, or heaven on Earth, and there's bound to be a strong element of nostalgia in that."

A fraction of Kopp's collection of commune-based literature and ephemera are currently on display in Communes, Cooperatives, and Collectives at the Lewis & Clark Library. Communication of ethos and intent has long been vital to the commune movement, and many communities published their own newsletters, a smattering of which are on view here. They are fascinating historical ephemera. The newsletter of Woman Spirit, an Oregon lesbian community, features quasi-mythological and archetypal imagery, the issues dated by the lunar cycle rather than the calendar date. Modern Utopian: The News Digest of Social Change runs a teaser for an article inside titled "Ministers Favor Wife-Swapping." There are even early pamphlets from Jonestown promoting their ideals of racial equality, published, of course, before everybody drank the famous Kool-Aid.

When asked why the commune scene fizzled out after such a strong boom in the flower-power years, Kopp listed several plausible contributing factors, including the Rajneesh salmonella bio-terror incident in The Dalles and the shift from socially conscious rock and roll to disco, but that ultimately a true communal experience is very hard on human nature. I mentioned to Kopp that the communes seemed to teach us more about our limitations and failures as humans than about the possibilities of a living Utopia. He agreed, but added that, "It is important to human nature that we continue to have utopian ideals, because they give us a goal to strive towards."