Nudism Comes to Connecticut. By Susan Chade and Jon Buller. Seattle: Fantagraphics, 175pp, $30.
Nudism (many prefer “naturism”) is more familiar than most Americans can now imagine. The omnipresent rural skinny-dipping probably did not draw much upon a rich and varied European (or other) nudist traditions among the respectable classes as well as others. Communitarian groups in the US developed a nudist ideology of sorts, as far back as the 1890s, but memories of Walt Whitman and even Benjamin Franklin “air bathing” had likely been forgotten by the time the Greenwich Village fashionable set disrobed in Cape Cod summers of the 1910s.
Nudism Comes to Connecticut, written and drawn by a veteran children’s book team, offers a convincing historical experience of free thinking Yankees during the 1930s. They make creative use of a real text, Frances and Mason Merrill’s Nudism Come to America (1932), a volume itself no doubt reflecting the free-spirited, short-skirted 1920s Flapper Era.
Somewhere around Lyme, Connecticut, not far from Manhattan by train, a Hungarian immigrant hatches a plan for rural land use. A few years earlier, an American diplomat unhappy at his job in Budapest shared with a friend some of the current German magazines extolling nudism’s many healthful benefits. Back home in the US in 1915, the American and his wife, a native Estonian, take over a defunct hotel in a pleasant landscape, near an underused lake.
Here, somewhat embroidered fiction really does more or less coincide with fact. The idea of “cooperative colonies,” guests and residents doing most of the maintenance and in turn owning shares in the property, was very much alive in the European middle classes of the pre-fascism days, and even philanthropically extended, for periods of the summer, to groups of urban slum dwellers. Before Stalin’s rise to power, a nudist culture of Russian “Proletcult” also seemed to take hold: it was considered especially good for workers to get naked in the countryside, when possible. By the later 1920s, these experiences even gained a pedigree of American scholarly interest.
No surprise, then, that out in the Connecticut woods, not far from a lake, a “cabin colony” sprung up, built on loans and the wishful thinking that it might pay for itself. Takers seem to enjoy themselves thoroughly, even with husbands and wives understandably nervous about their own mates in the buff. As in real life nudism, nude versions of barely competitive games like volleyball seem to be the mandatory accompaniment to swimming. The comic portrayals of nudes here are tasteful and charming, if not quite realistic to sagging flesh.
The community thrives for a while, never quite overcoming the resentment and hostility of some neighbors, and then runs into the economic collapse of the economy in the Depression. The quasi-utopian adventure ends. As the author/artist team concludes, “most of this actually happened.” (p.173).
It is a footnote, perhaps not so far from this realistic comic, that by the 1960s, bohemian-minded American readers of Bertold Brecht, Georg Luckacs and Wilhelm Reich would draw the conclusion that nudism had to be, was indeed inevitably, political. The bohemian-radical tradition had already been revived after the Second World War in other parts of the world including both Germanies. Although this detail has been largely forgotten, the East Germans, the most proportionally nudist population in the world, actually resisted Russian edicts and took pleasure where they could under a repressive regime. Just as amazing, the bureaucratic class joined them.
Spending their summers on the Cape, American veterans of antiracist and antiwar activism staged dramatic nude-ins at the National Seashore during the middle 1970s. This political action would lead to decades of lobbying politicians for more “free beaches,” an idea that has come, gone and perhaps come again in parts of the US. Today’s nudists should enjoy the innocence of Nudism Comes to Connecticut, so deftly defying the hostility of religious conservatives and lawmakers right up to the present. “Naturism” seems to have escaped comic art otherwise, save for a few brief, wry commentaries in underground comix. Perhaps the subject has only been waiting for its comic art re-creation.