UW News

October 1, 2014

Northwest ‘anarchist utopia’ explored in ‘Trying Home’

UW News

Justin Wadland oversees media and visual resources for the UW Tacoma Library. He is the author of “Trying Home: The Rise and Fall of an Anarchist Utopia on Puget Sound,” published by Oregon State University Press. He answered a few questions about his book.

Q: What’s the concept behind this book, and how did it come about?

A: My book tells the story of the anarchist community that once existed in Home, Washington, around the turn of the 20th century. It recreates what it was like to live through the experiment from the perspective of the unique characters who were drawn to Home.

One of those stories is what initially drew me to Home. Over a decade ago, when I was a graduate student at the UW Information School, I worked on a newspaper cataloging project in Suzzallo Library and came across a newspaper published in Home. It’s called “The Agitator” and its editor, Jay Fox, was arrested for publishing an article titled “The Nude and the Prudes.” His case was ultimately appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. I couldn’t resist this story. Most of the writing of the book, however, happened while I was getting my MFA in creative writing at Pacific Lutheran University.


Upcoming appearances

  • 7 p.m. Oct. 10, at the University Bookstore, Seattle.
  • 7:30 p.m., Oct. 16, Washington State History Museum, Tacoma.
  • 7 p.m., Oct. 30, University Place Library, University Place.
  • Learn more online.

Q: You weave your own narrative of researching Home into the larger historical story. Why did you decide to approach the material in such a personal way?

A: As I was researching the book, I found that there were certain parts of the story that couldn’t be told unless I stepped in as an interpreter. For instance, there are many conflicting tales about a potential raid of Home following the assassination of President McKinley in 1901 by a self-proclaimed anarchist. The facts of these tales seemed to change and become more dramatic as time passed, and I wanted a way to uncover the meaning behind them.

Another reason is that I couldn’t ignore the coincidence of starting a home for my growing family in Tacoma and writing a book about a place called Home.

Q: You write, “This story demonstrates that the human organizations we take for granted, from the family unit to the nation-state, are not facts but entities enacted by our own participation in them.” Was the Home colony ultimately a failure? And if so, why?

A: Some would argue that all utopias are bound for failure. The term itself, coined by Sir Thomas More, means “no place,” and those who attempt to establish utopia in reality often seem to forget this. And yet I feel that utopias should not be judged purely by the fact of whether or not they survive. Another way to measure success is to look at the boldness of the ideal and how happy the participants were while carrying it out. By this measure, I would say that Home was a success for at least the first 10 years. It was difficult for them, however, to sustain their enthusiasm, and because the participants were anarchists and largely individualists, they were averse to imposing the kind of structure one might need to see through difficult times.

Q: You write toward the end of the book, “The founders and the participants in Home dared to consider a different way of relating to each other, and in doing so created a little bubble of the future on the backwaters of Puget Sound.” In what ways did the Home colony come to resemble 21st century life?

A: There are many examples, but I think their conception of free speech is one of the most compelling. The participants in the experiment at Home were incredibly open-minded. They were willing to let anyone speak their mind about ideas, even those considered strange or abhorrent by their contemporaries.

For instance they accepted a man who today would be called a cross-dresser. This fellow, known as Professor Thompson, stood before them in Liberty Hall and lectured on the “sanitary virtues” of women’s clothing for all sexes, and they heard him out. As a result of such radical open-mindedness, the people of Home allied themselves with those who were arguing for a modern conception of free speech.

Q: Finally, what do you hope readers take away from this book? And since you have invested yourself personally in the work, it seems fair to ask, what was the process like for you personally?

A: Even though by some measures they failed, the people of Home left us a great gift in the rich record of their experiment. In their activism and writings, they provide exceptional models of how to stand up for and articulate ideals in the face of great odds. As they descended into infighting, they also revealed how difficult it can be to maintain an ideal community. Fractious internal disagreement can be a serious block among those who would promote change.

I am one of those people who moved here from somewhere else, and researching and writing about Home has made me feel much more connected to the region and more aware of the radical history of the Pacific Northwest.