In 1908, H. L. Mencken was approached by an editor and author named Robert Rives La Monte, who was keen on persuading the 28-year-old Mencken to join him in an epistolary debate about the benefits of socialism: La Monte would argue for and Mencken could argue against. Despite his misgivings, Mencken agreed, and shortly thereafter, the now-largely-forgotten Men versus the Man (1910) appeared. The first letter from La Monte was suitably provocative: “If you wish to see better manners, more worthy fiction, higher art, and nobler drama, as I know you do, your only course is to become a Socialist comrade, and give us your aid in hastening the advent of the Social Revolution.” Mencken’s response was categorical: “Your ideal picture of the best possible world seems to me a fair picture of the worst possible world”—and so the book proceeded. Looking back on this venture, Mencken concluded that, although Men versus the Man proved a commercial and critical failure, it forced him to sort out what he might have called his Weltanschauung, which was far from utopian.

My basic point of view .  .  . went back to my early teens, and has never changed in any essential during the half century since. Under the influence of my father .  .  . I emerged into sentience with an almost instinctive distrust of all schemes of revolution and reform. They were, to me, only signs and symptoms of a fundamental hallucination, to wit, the hallucination that human nature could be changed by passing statutes and preaching gospels—that natural law could be repealed by taking thought.

In Paradise Now, Chris Jennings revisits five utopian groups—the Shakers, the Owenites, the Fourierists, the Icarians, and the Perfectionists—to show that, if there was one thing that all of these socialist groups had in common, it was a passionate belief not only that natural law could be repealed but that its repeal would benefit mankind.

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