Etta Madden writes of individuals in communities–past and present. The theme runs through her work as a teacher and group leader, as well as in her writing. This photo in the courtyard of the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, or Hieronymite Monastery, in Belém, Portugal, for example, reflects three topics she often considers: communal life, American literature, and Americans learning through travel.
Communal Life and American Literature
This monastery interests Etta Madden in part because Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick, wrote about it. More important, though, is that Melville was interested in communal and religious life. Like his contemporaries, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Harriet Beecher Stowe, Melville was aware of the diverse views of religious communities. They wrote of New England experimental religious and secular communes, social activism of Quakers, and pitfalls and benefits of Roman Catholic cloisters. Their views, which run the spectrum from positive to negative, are central to concepts Etta Madden expresses in her work.
In Bodies of Life: Shaker Literature and Literacies, Etta explains how some see communal life as blissfully escapist and isolated. Others consider it controlled and corrupted by indulgent leaders. And still others deem it unnecessarily ascetic. Such variations and tensions they reflect are central to studies of “utopia,” or the “perfect place.” As the introduction to her volume Eating in Eden: Food and American Utopias defines the term, “utopia” is not only a “perfect place” but also always “no place.” In spite of its non-existence and impossibility, people keep dreaming of better places in which they might co-exist with others.
Learning through Conversations and Travel
As an author, teacher and group leader, Etta Madden’s discussions draw from historical examples but underscore contemporary needs. People long to be part of communities even though they see their flaws. She brings forward ideas from the past–still pressing today–through lectures, group workshops, and educational trips. Her posts on this site and links to books, articles, and reviews provide a glimpse of these activities. Contact Etta if you would like to learn more about how these ideas would enhance your understanding of communities, past and present.