Document Type



Fall 1993


Marriage, Oneida Community, John Humphrey Noyes, Women's Studies




Family, Life Course, and Society


EFFORTS TO DERIVE contemporary lessons from the past are always fraught with difficulty. Seldom has this been more true than in the case of John Humphrey Noyes and the community he founded in mid-nineteenth-century New York State. The Oneida Community and its system of "complex marriage", which both Noyes and his critics somewhat misleadingly described as "free love", have been the focus of extraordinarily wide and divergent interpretations over the past century and a half. These have ranged from extreme treatments arguing that Noyes and Oneida were part of the vanguard of sexual liberation and women's rights to comparisons of Noyes with Hitler, arguing that he and his community were highly repressive and destructive of human potential. Elsewhere I have argued that most treatments of Noyes and his communal experiences at Oneida can best be compared to a Rorschach test or to a mirror reflecting the hopes, fears, or preoccupations of the writers.2 The Oneida experience was so complex and multifaceted that it seemingly can generate as many interpretations as the famous elephant that the blind men of Hindustan attempted so imperfectly to describe.


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