On my recent trip to Tuscany, I traveled with my roommate Mark and a collection of characters associated with his baseball team. We also spent some time with an acquaintance of mine from New York, Mordecai Johnson, who is a visiting adjunct professor at the University of Bologna. He asked if he could contribute some historical perspective to my blog, and I readily agreed. Because of the length of Mordecai’s essay, I have separated it into three installments.
The desire for utopia has engendered many attempts at the ideal community. Plato’s Republic and Sir Thomas More’s Utopia are justly the most famous literary antecedents. In Massachusetts of the 17th century, the Puritans believed they were establishing a “city upon a hill” that might serve as a beacon to the world. Many sought a counter-example to the increasingly teeming cities of the Industrial Revolution during the 19th century. Within this last category, the story of Arnold Leibnitz provides an especially telling example. While peculiar, the story is by no means unique; the Leibnitz party and a trove of other foolhardy experiments share a common result: failure.
Leibnitz was in many ways the archetypal aspiring utopian leader: charismatic, prematurely grey, neglectful of quotidian minutiae. With a small group of like-minded souls, Leibnitz set off from Boston in mid-March of 1857 on what was then an arduous overland journey to Provincetown, Cape Cod. Inspired by Leibnitz’s creative firebrandery, they hoped to form a utopian community apart from “the roiling mess of present society (Rosenfeld, 1975).” By early April, however, having established nothing more than poor relations with the local inhabitants, the group was run out of town. Though first-person accounts vary wildly in their depiction of the Leibnitz party’s exodus, there is a general consensus that the group was lax in paying bar tabs and maintaining personal hygiene.
Finding themselves with “but a skiff and a sack of potatoes to their collective name” (Lister, 1964), the group gathered on a dune to regroup. Eventually, after much deliberation and not a little ill will, the latter primarily directed towards the accordionist in the group, Leibnitz decided to lead the party out to a small, uninhabited island he saw just off-shore. Gesturing vociferously, he proclaimed, “There, amidst the unspoilt bosom of Nature, we shall settle and make famous our experiment (Kalantagian, 1981).”
Clamoring into the skiff, one and all with potatoes and accordion and two sheep – the reasoning being that most in the party enjoyed their tea with milk and that come fall they could “make what harvest we could from the wool of our flock” (O’Leary, 1980) - the group splashed out towards the island. They made landfall on Accordion Island, so named for completely unrelated circumstances, after over four hours of drifting caused by the group’s having neglected to bring any means of propulsion or steering and to “Poseidon’s cruel sense of humour [sic]” (Ferthen, 1917). Splashing ashore, Leibnitz fell immediately to his knees in prayer to God, Shiva, and the animist spirits of the island, it being an ecumenical endeavor...