In 1845, Henry David Thoreau set off on a lone journey into the woodlands owned by his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson. He wanted to know if living more simply, in closer proximity to nature, would make him a better person, and if being a better, simpler person was the path to creating a better society. Walden is a unique and pioneering work in civil disobedience. But Thoreau’s two years in the woods were part of late-18th- and 19th-century America’s many experiments with alternative ways of life. All over the United States, people were living guinea pigs of their own idealism. Wacky communes espousing everything from free love to chastity sprouted up from Massachusetts to Texas. These eccentric communities shared one fundamental creed: that self-improvement, self-discovery, and self-fulfillment were essential to achieving a better society. At a time when the Western world was being swallowed by industrial smokestacks, and men, women, and children toiled away in nightmarish working conditions, Utopian community leaders went back to the basics, namely, the power of the individual to control his own destiny and do good, often in opposition to the mainstream. It’s no surprise, then, that diet was considered central to radical self-improvement. Vegetarianism was honored as the most radical diet of them all.
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