In Search of Utopia: Fiction
In Search of Utopia: Fiction
The Utopian Tradition. During the 1880s and 1890s utopian literature enjoyed an American renaissance. Imaginary worlds (some of them appealing, some horrific) cropped up in novels such as Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1888), Ignatius Donnelly’s Caesar’s Column (1890), Henry Olerich’s A Cityless and Country-less World (1893), King Gillette’s The Human Drift (1894), and William Dean Howells’s A Traveler from Altruria (1894). In appropriating the utopian form American
authors tapped a well-established tradition. The word utopia —a Greek term meaning either “no place” or “ideal place”—first entered the literary lexicon in 1516, when the British author Sir Thomas More (1477 or 1478-1535) published a political fantasy titled Utopia. Later British works in the utopian vein include Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis (1627) and Samuel Butler’s Erewhon (1872).
Beyond Escapism. Overwhelmed by rapid change—fast-growing cities, financial “panics,” unprecedented industriai growth—Americans of the late nine-teenth century were eager to imagine alternate worlds. Yet most literary utopias offered something more substantive than escapism. In these works attentive readers could find politicai advice and cultural commentary. Many authors employed utopian fiction to promote socialist, populist, or feminist viewpoints. The role of technology was another popular theme—not surprising, given the gradual eclipse of an agrarian way of life in America. Some utopian works, set in the near future, suggested that technology could liberate humankind from needless toil. Other works, however, held technology in low esteem—celebrating instead simple societies unspoiled by factories and machines.
Stranger in a Strange Land. By far the most influential of late-nineteenth-century utopian works was Bellamy’s Looking Backward, the story of a young man who falls asleep in Boston in 1887 and wakes up in the same city in the year 2000. As he explores his new surroundings, Bellamy’s protagonist marvels at the miracles wrought by time, technology, and an all-powerful “state.” In Bellamy’s future wonderland the state regulates employment, community service, and the production and distribution of consumer goods. Crime, disease, and social injustice have been ali but eradicated, and leisure time and cultural opportunities abound. “With a tear for the dark past, turn we then to the dazzling future, and, veiling our eyes, press forward,” urges one citizen of the “new” world. “The long and weary winter of the race is ended. Its summer has begun. Humanity has burst the chrysalis. The heavens are before it.” Bellamy’s optimism proved infectious: with several million copies printed, Looking Backward became one of the best-selling novels of the nineteenth century. In the early 1890s thousands of readers formed “Bellamy clubs” and joined the short-lived Nationalist Party in an attempt to translate Bellamy’s vision into national policy. The popularity of Looking Backward highlights the efficacy of narrative as politicai accessory. Bellamy’s engaging story (complete with an across-the-centuries romance) made the notion of socialism palatable to the average American—something a dry politicai tract never could have accomplished. The novel inspired a host of “nationalist” clubs with thousands of members seeking a brighter future. Other influential utopian works of the period, such as Howells’s A Traveler from Altruria, resembled Looking Backward in presenting a sugar-coated version of socialism.
A Dystopian Vision. Not ali imaginary worlds were friendly. Dystopian literature—the word dystopia literally means “bad place”—inverts the utopian formula, conjuring up nightmare visions of politicai oppression and technology run amok. Many science-fiction novels of the twentieth century—among them Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) and George Orwell’s 1984 (1949)—fall into the dystopian tradition pioneered by writers such as Ignatius Donnelly, a Minnesotan active in late-nineteenth-century politics. In his novel Caesar’s Column set in 1988, Donnelly described a future in which the rich wallow in pleasure while the poor toil like slaves. Inevitably the poor turn on their oppressors and launch a bloodbath. Donnelly took part in the politicai movement known as Populism. Like other western and southern agrarians, he feared exploitation at the hands of American business and industrial interests. And, like Edward Bellamy before him, Donnelly knew how to combine literature and politics. Caesar’s Column stood as both warning and promise: if pressed too hard, Donnelly warned, the American rural underclass might rise up in revolt.
John L. Thomas, Alternative America (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983).