In this lively literary history, Michael Robertson introduces readers to a vital strain of utopianism that seized the imaginations of four American and British writers during an extraordinary period of literary and social experiment. The publication of Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward in 1888 opened the floodgates to an unprecedented wave of utopian writing. William Morris, the Arts and Crafts pioneer, was a committed socialist whose News from Nowhere envisions a workers' Arcadia. Edward Carpenter boldly argued that homosexuals constitute a utopian vanguard. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, a women's rights activist and the author of "The Yellow Wallpaper," wrote numerous utopian fictions, including Herland, a visionary tale of an all-female society. These writers believed in radical gender and class equality, envisioning new forms of familial and romantic relationships, and were committed to living a simple life rooted in a restored natural world. And their legacy remains with us today, from Occupy Wall Street to the Radical Faeries.
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The Worst of Times
For more than two decades during the late nineteenth century, from 1873 to 1896, both the United States and Great Britain experienced what was called, until the 1930s claimed the title, the Great Depression. Historians have debated the accuracy of the label: the American economy underwent a cycle of recurrent booms and busts, while in Britain, despite a macroeconomic decline, working-class living standards actually improved. Nevertheless, as Mark Bevir has pointed out, people of that era perceived themselves to be living through exceptionally hard times, and there is ample evidence of high levels of poverty and unemployment. When the wealthy former industrialist Charles Booth began his famous survey of poverty in London in the 1880s, his aim was to disprove a survey conducted by socialists which claimed that 25 percent of Londoners earned below the minimum amount necessary for satisfying basic needs. Instead, he found out that the figure was too low, and that fully 30 percent of the population of Europe's largest city was living in abject poverty. Booth believed that London was a special case, but B. Seebohm Rowntree, another industrialist-turned-investigator, found that poverty in the provinces was equally severe, with 28 percent of York's inhabitants unable to meet basic needs. Although accurate statistics for U.S. poverty during this period are difficult to obtain — Booth was the first person to define a "line of poverty," and the concept was not employed in the United States until 1904 — the Iowa commissioner of labor statistics commented in his 1891 report that 88 percent of working-class Iowa families earned less than the amount determined to be "the necessary living expenses of laboring men with families."
Statistics about late nineteenth-century poverty levels may be inexact, but there is no shortage of journalistic accounts of human misery. Robert Blatchford, editor of the popular Clarion newspaper published in Manchester, collected a number of his articles about poverty in England's industrial north in his book Dismal England (1899), its very title a challenge to Victorian self-satisfaction. His article about the metalworking shops of Cradley, near Birmingham, offers a grimly poetic litany of outrage: "At Cradley I spoke to a married couple who had worked 120 hours in one week and had earned 18s. [18 shillings, less than one pound sterling] by their united labour; at Cradley I saw heavy-chain strikers who were worn-out old men at thirty-five; at Cradley I found women on strike for a price which would enable them to earn twopence an hour by dint of labour which is to work what the battle of Inkerman was to a Bank Holiday review. At Cradley the men and the women are literally being worked to death for a living that no gentleman would offer his dogs." Jacob Riis, the pioneering investigator of New York City's tenements, quoted from a report of the Association for the Improvement of the Condition of the Poor in his celebrated How the Other Half Lives (1890): "In the depth of winter the attention of the Association was called to a Protestant family living in a garret in a miserable tenement in Cherry Street. The family's condition was most deplorable. The man, his wife, and three small children shivering in one room through the roof of which the pitiless winds of winter whistled. The room was almost barren of furniture; the parents slept on the floor, the elder children in boxes, and the baby was swung in an old shawl attached to the rafters by cords by way of a hammock. The father, a seaman, had been obliged to give up that calling because he was in consumption, and was unable to provide either bread or fire for his little ones."
The economic desperation of the working class during this period is evident also in the unprecedented level of strikes and labor violence. Conditions in the United States were particularly severe. In July 1877, four years into the nation's worst economic crisis up to that point, workers on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad went on strike when the railroad's president announced simultaneously a 10 percent dividend for shareholders and a 10 percent wage cut for workers, on top of cuts already enacted in previous years of the depression. The ensuing strike was ruthlessly repressed by state and federal troops, setting off a nationwide chain of strikes, which involved most of the nation's railroad workers and at least half a million other laborers. The Great Strike, as it came to be known, did little to better workers' pay or conditions, but it highlighted America's class divisions and the willingness of business and government to use force against labor activists. By the summer's end, over one hundred strikers across the U.S. had been killed and many hundreds wounded. The rest of the century was marked by frequent clashes between capital and labor, climaxing in 1886 during what was called the Great Upheaval, when some 1,400 strikes occurred nationwide, again involving close to half a million workers. On a single day, May 1, nearly two hundred thousand people took part in a work stoppage in support of the eight-hour day; forty thousand marched in Chicago alone. Three days later, at a mass labor rally in Chicago's Hay-market Square, someone threw a bomb at a line of policemen, killing eight officers and setting off a paroxysm of violence on the part of the police, who fired into the crowd, killing several people and wounding scores of civilians and fellow officers. The bomb thrower was never identified, but the Chicago authorities nevertheless indicted eight prominent anarchists for murder, even though six of them were not at the Haymarket on May 4. Seven of the men were sentenced to death, five were hanged, and one committed suicide before the governor of Illinois commuted the sentences of the two still living.
Many middle-class observers in both the U.S. and Great Britain became convinced that their societies were on the verge of violent revolt. Some welcomed the cathartic purging that seemed to them certain to arrive. "The great social revolution of the nineteenth century has already begun," crowed H. M. Hyndman, leader of England's most prominent socialist organization, in 1885. American novelist William Dean Howells was less triumphal in his tone but no less certain that enormous changes were in the making. Two years after Haymarket he wrote to his friend Henry James, "After fifty years of optimistic content with 'civilization' and its ability to come out all right in the end, I now abhor it, and feel that it is coming out all wrong in the end unless it bases itself on a real equality."
At the moment that Howells was writing to James, Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward had recently appeared. Its publication in 1888 set off a literary chain reaction, with hundreds of utopian novels being published over the next twenty-five years, including three by Howells himself. This proliferation of utopian fiction had multiple causes, including authors' and publishers' desire to ride the coattails of Bellamy's commercial success, but the economic and social upheavals resulting from nineteenth-century industrial capitalism were at the heart of the era's utopian turn. Only a hundred years earlier, both the United States and Great Britain had been primarily agricultural societies. Now, with what seemed dizzying speed, cities were exploding in population, filled with internal immigrants from the countryside and foreigners from continental Europe. The newly enlarged cities laid bare the increasing inequalities of wealth, with squalid slums in close proximity to the mansions of the newly rich. Long-established rhythms of labor — the seasonal ebb and flow of farmwork, the irregular, self-determined hours of the independent artisan, the long but varied workday of the house-keeper — were replaced by the mechanical, disciplined regularity of the factory. In addition, an increasingly democratic political sphere provided space for protest movements that agitated, sometimes violently, to overturn the system of laissez-faire capitalism that lay beneath the rough, dynamic, unequal realities of the new urban industrial societies.
Industrial capitalism also underlay the multiple challenges to patriarchal family structure. As John Tosh points out, the Victorian middle-class family seems so modern in many ways because it was the first to grapple with the separation of the domestic sphere from the world of work. Modernity challenged normative gender roles for both women and men and led to the nineteenth-century movements for women's equality. The institution of marriage was destabilized, as new middle-class ideals of companionate marriage came into conflict with long-standing beliefs in inherent and absolute sexual differences. And the emergence of sexual science and theorization of the concept of homosexuality offered new opportunities for self-definition and understanding at the same time they created regimes of sexual discipline and oppression.
In response to the turbulence of their era, with its oppressive realities and tantalizing possibilities, Bellamy, Morris, Carpenter, and Gilman — along with hundreds of their now-obscure peers — offered their visions of peaceful and egalitarian future worlds. The sheer number of utopian works produced in the twenty-five years before World War I was unprecedented, and the urgency of these works — the sense that civilization was on the brink of violent disaster, and only a radical reordering of society could save it — is unquestionable. As Frank and Fritzie Manuel point out in their magisterial history of utopian thought in the Western world, most epochs in the West have been turbulent, and every era has produced its share of utopian speculations. Nevertheless, certain periods in particular countries have proven especially favorable for the production and reception of utopian literature. The late nineteenth century in the United States and Great Britain was one such period; early sixteenth-century England was another.
A Brief History of Nowhere
Thomas More, born in 1478, was an adolescent at the time of Christopher Columbus's first voyage in 1492; he was a young man when Amerigo Vespucci explored the Americas at the turn of the century. More came to maturity during Europe's great age of exploration, when Europeans were dazzled by new possibilities, when wild surmise about what might yet be discovered became commonplace. It was a time also of massive economic upheaval, with mercantile capitalism overturning the feudal order. The human costs of the mercantile revolution were particularly evident in England. The great nineteenth-century Marxist scholar Karl Kautsky wrote, "Nowhere else in Europe ... were the unfavourable reactions of the capitalist mode of production upon the working classes so immediately obvious as in England; nowhere did the unhappy workers clamour so urgently for assistance." Rising rents for land, changes in the wool industry, and rural enclosure combined to catastrophic effect for English peasants and workmen. Enclosure, the practice of fencing off common lands cultivated by peasants in order to use them for the more profitable purpose of grazing sheep, was particularly disruptive, throwing families off the land and resulting in homelessness, unemployment, and poverty on a massive scale. In the words of Raphael Hythloday, sheep, those formerly placid creatures, "apparently developed a raging appetite, and turned into man-eaters. Fields, houses, towns, everything goes down their throats."
Hythloday is the principal character in More's Utopia (1516), which purports to be the transcription of a conversation held at Antwerp in 1515 and conducted in Latin — the lingua franca of educated Europeans — among More, who was at the time a well-connected lawyer and public official, dispatched to the Low Countries by Henry VIII as part of an English mission to negotiate treaties; Peter Gilles, the town clerk of Antwerp; and the fictional Hythloday, a Portuguese mariner who had supposedly accompanied Amerigo Vespucci on his voyages to the New World. More goes to considerable trouble to establish the verisimilitude of his account: Utopia opens with a flourish of proper names, recounting the actual itinerary that More followed in the Low Countries and naming Gilles along with other people whom he actually knew. More explains that Gilles introduced him to Hythloday, who then talked at length about his visit to the previously unknown isle of Utopia.
The documentary-like details of Utopia are intermixed with elaborate scholarly jokes: Hythloday's name is a bilingual pun, a Latin surname combining two Greek roots that together signify spouter of nonsense. Utopia's capital city of Amaurot lies on the River Anyder — that is, Dream-town is next to the river Nowater. The elaborate humanist banter that opens Utopia also includes a poem, supposedly by the island's poet laureate. The poem claims that Utopia deserves to be called Eutopia, good place; the pun is built into the name of More's imaginary island, which can be construed as a Latinization of either ou(no)-topos or eu(good)topos. This foundational ambiguity shaped the next five centuries of commentary on More and other utopian writers: is utopia to be taken as purely imaginary or as an ideal? More declines to say, but in the same poem he points to a completely serious predecessor: "Plato's Republic now I claim / To match, or beat at its own game."
The Republic (ca. 375 BCE) is not exactly a utopian work; in essence, it's a philosophical inquiry into the nature of justice. However, in parts of The Republic Plato speculates about an ideal state. Most famously, he advances the ideas of the philosopher-king and of a ruling class of "Guardians." The Guardians, who include both women and men, live together in community without either private property or conventional family structures — concepts that would be central to modern utopian literature. Plato's egalitarianism, however, is limited to an aristocratic elite. The subordinate classes live quite differently from the Guardians, and everyone in the Republic grows up being taught what Plato calls a "noble lie," or "magnificent myth," that all people, far from being created equal, are composed of either gold, silver, or iron and bronze.
Utopia builds on the classical era's preoccupation with the nature of the ideal ruler and the perfect city-state. As Krishan Kumar points out, More's work was also created in dialogue with three other literary traditions: stories of the Golden Age, of the Christian millennium, and of Cokaygne, a creation of medieval folklore.
The earliest Golden Age narrative appears in Hesiod's Works and Days (ca. 700 BCE), which describes the long-gone era when men lived like gods, "their hearts free from sorrow." The Golden Age became a frequent subject of Latin poets. Ovid's Metamorphoses (8 CE) has a famous description, and Pindar, Horace, and Virgil all touched on the subject as well. The biblical Garden of Eden is the ancient Hebrews' version of the Golden Age, while the Christian concept of heaven relocated paradise from the mythic past to the afterlife.
The New Testament book of Revelation added the idea of the millennium, the thousand-year reign of Christ. Most Christians have conceived of the millennium as the sequel to Christ's second coming, but beginning in the Renaissance a "postmillennial" interpretation of Revelation took hold among a significant minority, who believed that Christ would return after the millennium, a thousand-year period of peace and plenty established by human effort. This strain within Christian thought intersected with utopianism, the idea that humans could create an ideal society; Christian postmillennialism and utopianism intermingled productively from the Renaissance on.
If the millennium was a moral paradise dependent, at least for some, on conscious human effort, Cokaygne stood, in folk culture, for an effortless, sensual paradise. The most famous of its literary expressions is "The Land of Cokaygne," an anonymous fourteenthcentury English poem, which is part soft-core pornography — the land's abbeys and convents are filled with lusty monks and nuns — and part glutton's dream:
There are rivers broad and fine Of oil, milk, honey and of wine;
Yet this wonder add to it —
The sensual satisfactions of Cokaygne continue to be an important part of popular utopian imaginings, as in the famous American tramp song "The Big Rock Candy Mountain," which tells of the land where "the sun shines every day / On the birds and the bees and the cigarette trees, / And the lemonade springs where the bluebird sings."
Excerpted from "The Last Utopians"
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Table of Contents
1 Locating Nowhere 17
2 Edward Bellamy’s Orderly Utopia 37
3 William Morris’s Artful Utopia 78
4 Edward Carpenter’s Homogenic Utopia 131
5 Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Motherly Utopia 172
6 After the Last Utopians 223
Bibliographical Note 305
What People are Saying About This
"Instructive and touching."Adam Gopnik, New Yorker"An extremely reliable as well as accessible introduction to the ferment of utopian ideas and practical experiments that . . . made the politics of the late nineteenth century fizz with an almost unprecedented sense of political possibility."Matthew Beaumont, Times Literary Supplement"Robertson leaves readers with nourishing food for thought."Publishers Weekly