Desire and Duty at Oneida: Tirzah Miller's Intimate Memoir

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Tirzah Miller's "Oneida Memoir" was written by the most prominent woman of the younger generation at the Oneida Community between 1867 and 1879. It is the first memoir that deals explicitly and openly with the sexual conflicts at Oneida. It chronicles the social and sexual life (including her relations with her uncle and lover, the colony founder John H. Noyes) and her relations with the three men with whom she had children as part of the eugenics experiment, called stirpiculture. Tirzah Miller was also a sensitive observer of the internal life at this celebrated communal family and she details the shifting political forces within the community just prior to its break up in 1880. Her memoir is full of intimate conversations with John H. Noyes about issues and personalities, about her love affairs, about her doubts about communism and her love of music, and her anguish over the loss of two partners. Throughout the memoir she is torn by her desire for romance and her duty to the community. The memoir begins when she is 20 and ends when she is 36 and several key issues emerge that are central to understanding this daring experiment in communal living and social engineering: questions about free love and incest which they call "consanguinity"; questions about the conflict between her commitment to her mentor, Noyes, who is grooming her to become their Margaret Fuller, and another "special lover"; questions about her religious life and her understanding of Perfectionism; questions about the forces that led to the restructuring of the society and the abandonment of "complex marriage". Tirzah Miller was a "magnetic force" at Oneida as she drew men toward her and her memoir is the most remarkable piece of confessional literature to emerge from the newly opened archives. She was at the vital centre of the colony and her story is represenative of the younger generation who enthusiastically embraced the scientific programme introduced by Noyes in 1869 to produce a new breed of Perfectionists. She was the only woman to have three children in the experiment, including one by her uncle George Washington Noyes who died suddenly during her pregnancy.

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