THIS IS A BOOK through which a sadness blows, a haunting aura of what we might but can't achieve as communal beings; of the tension between the creative social sculptor and the awkward human clay; of the ball-and-chain of custom that any cooperative adventure drags uphill. It tells an affecting story, though somewhat buried in the details of the doctoral dissertation that gave it birth. The editors at Oxford should have made Hermann strip it down to the bare wood and clear-lacquer it before going public.

All the same, the saga beguiles. It starts when a Mississippi cotton planter named Joseph Davis is swept up, in the 1820s, in the rhetoric of the English socialist Robert Owen, who insisted that cooperation and encouragement to virtue were far superior techniques to harsh rule and competitive struggle in the molding of model humans. Owen had tried his system on the "operative" in his New Lanark textile mill, and turned them from the drudges who disgraced early capitalism into productive and happy people. Joseph Davis decided to try the notion in the even unlikelier setting of his slave-run plantation at Davis Bend, near Vicksburg.

He provided his chattels with doctors and preachers (though not with schoolteachers), encouraged them to learn skills and earn money in off hours, and taught them to settle squabbles and punish wrongdoers on their own, through jury trials (with himself as impartial judge.) The result was a model plantation both in deportment and in production. Of course Davis, like Owen, was a paternalist who genially winked away his own strong leadership as the galvanic element in his utopia. What was more, he remained a slaveowner, whose benign blueprint could be shredded in an instant by his death, not to say his whim. All the same, through the shadow of the shackles, there in the deep South shimmered the ideal of black men and women showing self-improvement through harmony and mutual respect.

The lesson was lost on the patriarch's younger brother, Jefferson Davis, whose plantations were adjacent and often managed by Joseph when Jefferson was busy in the Senate and the federal government preaching the total incompetence of blacks to function in freedom.

Among the finest products of Joseph Davis' scheme was an extraordinary black man named Benjamin Montgomery. Bought by Davis as a slave at age 17, Montgomery more or less taught himself literacy, mathematics and mechanics, and struck a bargain with his new owner under which he remained a slave, but was also a successful storeowner, inventor, architect, surveyor, engineer and in fact steward of the estate. Marvellous as was the principle of cooperation, a gifted individual was quintessential to making it work.

Montgomery became Davis's intellectual heir, a virtual son. When the Civil War and Yankee occupiers drove Joseph Davis from his patriarchal acres, it was Ben who emerged as the leader of the black families who stayed on them. By exhortation, example and sweat he led them into a common tenancy of the Davis Bend area under the supervision of the Freedman's Bureau. By now he had the help of two grown sons of equal ability, Isaiah and Thornton. The road they all walked was booby-trapped with white prejudices. Successful blacks begot insecure and envious whites. Even the high-minded Yankee "agent," Samuel Thomas, found fault with the Montgomery's management of "his flock." But in the end, a curious alliance of ex-slave and ex-master prevailed. Joseph Davis came to Ben's aid, and later sold the plantations to him -- in 1867, actually -- on very easy terms, then died.

For over 10 hardworking years the Montgomerys lived prosperously, graciously and discreetly in the very mansions once owned by the blood kin of of the ex-president of the Confederate States of America. The community produced prize-winning cotton, full corncribs and stock pens, and self-respect, but not enough profit to weather the thunderheads and the gales that appeared around 1877. Hard times, tight money and bad crops broke the back of Ben's cooperative cotton gins and stores. Reconstruction ended. Jefferson Davis, who all along had exhibited distaste for Joseph's experiments, sued to annul the sale. Ben did not live to see Davis win his case in the all-white courts, but Isaiah and Thornton did. They were ousted from their delta Eden in 1881.

Thornton decided that the New South was no place for an ambitious black; he took off for Fargo, N.D., and eventually became the "largest colored farmer in the Northwest." But Isaiah wanted to give the community concept one more generation of breath. He took a group of his former tenants to Mound Bayou, Mississippi, a wild tract on a railroad line which let each settler buy 40 acres on generous conditions. For the first year the colony of newly-made landowners struggled like pilgrims, living by hunting, fishing, odd jobs and sheer guts. But by 1907 Mound Bayou was a town of some 4,000 blacks, set amid solid farms, and possessing churches, stores, mills, cotton gins, a newspaper, a school and a bank. And, as one young man who went from the town to Harvard Law School later put it, "everything . . . was Negro from the symbols of law and authority and the man who ran the bank down to the fellow who drove the road scraper. That gave us kids a sense of security . . . and pride."

A transient sense, unfortunately. The South suffered from general impoverishment from 1880 to the 1940s, and Mound Bayou could not escape the general slide into a slough of malnutrition, apathy, stagnation. The skid, Mound Bayou's mayor in 1940 insisted, proved "nothing about the Negro" but "plenty about humanity."

Isaiah Montgomery achieved a melancholy notoriety as the only black elected to the racist-dominated Mississippi constitutional convention of 1890. There he went along with the scheme to disfranchise the state's blacks, hoping to buy some breathing-space for Mound Bayou. He thought that if he agreed to cede total political power to the entrenched white rulers of the South, they might leave him alone to train blacks in the useful arts and expose the lie of their "inferiority." Somehow, the whites would see the truth and change. This credo made Montgomery an ally of Booker T. Washington, whose Tuskegee Institute was an academic Mound Bayou. Both men got help from Northern philanthropy; both were later clobbered by black (and white) historians for their "appeasement." In Thomas' case it was hereditary.

His father had avoided all but minimal political participation in Reconstruction, and preferred to rely on the scarce Joseph Davises of the South. It was a reliance that trusted too much to good will and the supposed perpetuity of an economy of farmers, artisans and merchants into which property-minded blacks could easily fit. Historically, the Montgomerys made a bad bet, but in fairness there were not too many options in the post-1877 South, the worst of climes for racial justice.

Isaiah Montgomery died in 1924, his family history largely forgotten. The failure of the dream he inherited and cherished in the heart of darkness does not diminish him or it. In fact it only does prove "plenty about humanity."