Cities on a Hill: A Journey Through Contemporary American Cultures

by Frances FitzGerald
Simon and Schuster, 414 pp., $19.95

The title of Frances FitzGerald’s new book is taken from John Winthrop’s admonition to the Puritans: “We shall be a City Upon a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us,” an early example of American self-consciousness. FitzGerald’s book is born of the sense we all share of being watched, and, as she points out, of often presenting “bizarre and comic spectacles to the world,”—but good-naturedly, our excesses of social experiment arising, after all, from our democratic notions and an idea of human perfectibility. This is to put a good face on it. Another impression one might receive from this fascinating book is of a spoiled society far gone in self-indulgence, beyond cooperation and simple community, so that crises (AIDS) can bring only uneasy coalition or discord.

In order to understand the ways American society has changed since 1960, affected by economic changes that have brought women and blacks into the work-place, demographic changes, and changes in the cultural behavior of the white middle class, FitzGerald takes “soundings” in four groups that sprang up in the Seventies and Eighties, perhaps in response to these changes. The groups are: the gay community in San Francisco, Jerry Falwell’s fundamentalist congregation in Lynchburg, Virginia; a retirement community in Sun City, Florida; and the followers of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh in Antelope (until recently, Rajneeshpuram), Oregon.

Although the four groups are widely dissimilar, they all have some relation to an American utopian tradition in which people withdraw to form groups either to escape from mainstream society or to provide it an example. One could quarrel with FitzGerald’s notion that these people are trying to “reinvent” themselves so as to reinvent America, or convert or coerce it, into becoming a society of theological probity or sexual freedom or myriad golf courses—a society of certitude and play. Unlike the utopians of the nineteenth century, who were always able to move westward in expectation of an open space in which to found an exemplary community, these groups have had to deal with the rest of us, and, like people fleeing from plague, bore within them certain germs of defeat already contracted from us, whose depredations FitzGerald chronicles with wonderful drama, so that her accounts of the battle of the bathhouses or the downfall of the Rajneeshee become as exciting as they are depressing.

Her method is to visit each of the communities at intervals, talk with people, look around, read, and report. Because she is thoughtful, intelligent, detached, and learned, she is a reliable observer, and her method seems admirably adapted to the complex subject, especially when compared to pretentious works of political science or sociology that ask meaningless questions, deny the presence of the questioner, pretend objectivity, and lead so often to conclusions that are contrary to the world as we know it, or that we could have figured out for ourselves. (FitzGerald finds examples of this in studies of retirement communities, which proved, for example, that they provide “life satisfaction to that self-selected…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.