This is part of a #FridayFlashback series of rereleased essays. One of the longer of these pieces, this one reviews a work about the life and visions of four nineteenth century utopians; published Dec 21 2018, my review of Michael Robertson’s wonderful The Last Utopians allows me to explore many ideas that are of interest to me.
Composing outdoors in the hut he had built himself, using the skills he had developed during a stint in a Brighton’s joiner’s shop; thinning carrots and radishes in the garden or picking ramps by the steam; taking early strawberries into the market at Sheffield; having a pint at the local pub, amidst hard drinking, taciturn, Derbyshire farmers; playing Schubert’s Lieder on the piano of an evening, while George Merrill sang; chatting with working-class friends who frequented the cafe that he and the other Socialist Society regulars had opened in the Sheffield slums — all were part of Carpenter’s utopianism.
Taking the lives and works of four authors who came to prominence between 1825 and 1915, Michael Robertson’s The Last Utopians: Four Late 19th Century Visionaries and their Legacy introduces us to Edward Bellamy, William Morris, Edward Carpenter and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, situating the four of them in their proper context. That is, the emergence of industrial capitalism. The utopian
intellectuals both impressed and dismayed by the era’s changes: the disruption of traditional modes of agriculture and artisan labor; the rapid spread of new technologies and the accompanying damage to the natural environment; the immense growth of urban centers; the vast, and vastly unequal, increases in wealth; the alterations to traditional family structures and conceptions of women’s and men’s roles in the world.
In this way, part biography and part literary and political history, the book provides a subtle and sympathetic reading of these authors and an overview of the latest (and possibly last) popular and mass flourishing of this great genre. It is a masterful success and it deserves a broad readership.
Interestingly, Robertson contextualises the utopian tradition not merely by citing More, as he should, but as perceptively by seeing how More was likewise responding to a period of expanding knowledge and changing political horizons—particularly in terms of global exploration and economic tumult. ‘Rising rents for land, changes in the wool industry, and rural enclosure combined to catastrophic effect for English peasants and workmen.’
Further forward in time, Robertson looks also at the earlier nineteenth century thinkers Marx and Engel’s dubbed ‘utopian socialists’ (Henri de Saint-Simon, Robert Owen and Charles Fourier) and their communal visions, contrasting them with the principle subjects of the book by observing that after industrialisation there needed to be a more urban, grandiose social vision than that provided by utopian socialists. ‘Plans for model communities were superseded', he writes, 'by concepts of transformation at the national level.’ It is here that we arrive aptly at Bellamy, the first and the most influential of the four visionaries.
Bellamy’sLooking Backwards has been described, in terms of its popularity, as ‘theUncle Tom’s Cabin of the industrial era’ and provided the key ideas for Nationalism, a political movement (notably dissimilar to the way the word nationalism is used today) in the US and UK that argued for a state-run economy and other progressive policies. Nationalism’s influence was extensive, even helping to shape the 1892 presidential election in the States. As he does for all the key utopian texts, Robertson offers a neat summary of the plot, but more than that, he dissects, with charity, the ideas that informed the utopia:
Bellamy’s contribution was to apply Lamarckian theory to the economic system. In his view, the nineteenth-century trend towards monopolies, trusts, and other forms of business combinations was not something to be attacked but applauded, a necessary step to the nationalisation of the entire economic system.
Ultimately, Robertson stresses the ways in which his subjects were shaped by their lives, both in their admirable radicalisms but also in their occasional failures to see beyond a certain point. So Bellamy, an introvert wedded to middle class life, could powerfully challenge the economic edifice of his society but nonetheless, much as he ‘was unable to imagine an alternative to the Victorian nuclear family, he was incapable of envisioning a school that did anything beyond perfecting the most inflexible features of nineteenth century pedagogy.’ Robertson brings these authors to life by painting sympathetic yet flawed and historically precise pictures. This book is aptly concerned with context.
Arguably the most radical of Robertson’s subjects, William Morris, is similarly humanised. Influenced by John Ruskin’s articulation of the much older concept of workers’ alienation from production by capitalist society (perhaps more than by Marx’s better-known articulation), Morris became an ardent adherent of Marxism. Morris is said to have inverted the Whig histories of progress and modernist triumphalism of his times:
In his view, the nineteenth century was notable not for its supposed achievements but for the ugliness of its cities and the destruction of the countryside, for the misery of the mass industrial workers juxtaposed to the vulgar luxury of the rich.'In the Middle Ages, by contrast, the worker was a craftsman — which is to say, an artist — who was free to produce items of beauty.
Morris shared none of Marx’s ambivalence about capitalism’s historical role—for him, history had gone in the wrong direction. It was in this dual vision (of the liberated craftsman and the misery of capitalist society) that Morris formed the bedrock for the utopia News from Nowhere, in which Marxist revolution is married to a seemingly bucolic paradise as well as Morris’s strongly held anti-authoritarian instincts.
In particular, Robertson does an excellent job expanding on Morris’s much neglected views on education, and indeed it is in such an attention to the texture of utopias Robertson so frequently demonstrates a true appreciation for the genre’s power to inspire and inform. Framing Morris’s pedagogical philosophy in the context of the theoretically diverse child-centered tradition of Maria Montessori, John Dewey, A. S. Neill and Rudolf Steiner, Robertson notes how, ‘In his utopia, schools as such have been abolished, and the people of utopia are unfamiliar with the word education. As for learning, that’s a different matter. Dick boasts to Guest that the children 'learn to swim and ride and cook, and most of them can do useful tasks such as thatching and carpentering and mowing. Under probing, he adds that children learn to read from having so many books lying about.’ For Morris, the goal of education is not economic, but explicitly the liberation of learners to better exercise their freedom in a flourishing society.
When I first picked up The Last Utopians, the inclusion of Edward Carpenter was confusing. Having studied utopia extensively I had not come across his name much. Robertson, however, makes a powerful and persuasive case for seeing Carpenter as a strong practitioner of this literary tradition, and this chapter proves one of the most interesting.
Robertson compares Carpenter’s ideal society to Morris’s (his friend) on many counts, however, ‘whereas Morris described an ideal future achieved through working-class revolution, Carpenter believed that the path to utopia would be blazed by Uranians.' By this, Carpenter was pointing to a particular group of the oppressed, whose shared identity and experiences was then only coalescing:
During the years before the word “homosexual” became fixed in the English language, Carpenter wrote about the “homogenic” sentiment and settled on the term “Uranian,” or “Urning,” to describe the man-loving men or women-loving women who he believed were the advance guard in the march to utopia.
Carpenter’s insight, for Robertson, lay in how he ‘repeatedly connects the presumably private realm of personal relationships to broad public issues of capitalism, imperialism, and gender inequality.' That is, 'Victorian civilization is the product of ungrown men who believe the emotions and passions—not to mention the body and sexuality—to be shameful, and whose mania for owning things leads them to treat others in purely instrumental terms.’ Much as many of Morris’s ideas anticipate contemporary debates, Carpenter’s utopianism, arguably more liberatory than Morris’s, still resonates in contemporary contestations over the boundaries between personal and political life.
As anyone who studies utopia should, I knew much of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s work prior to reading Robertson’s book. What surprised me , however, was her remarkable life and how it enhances any reading of her most famous utopia, Herland. Gilman shared with feminists of her time the goal of women’s economic and social emancipation, but more than arguing for equality, also insisted ‘once women were liberated from compulsory domesticity they would be free to bring their unique perspective as mothers into the social sphere. Edward Carpenter spoke for the larger socialism; Gilman advocated what she called the “larger motherhood.” She believed that women’s “mother instinct” could save the world and usher in utopia.’ However dated some of her views might seem, Gilman did much by arguing beyond a feminism that merely wants women equal under capitalism, instead linking women’s emancipation to a radical change in society.
This chapter is also the most moving of the book; Gilman struggled with her society more than even Carpenter, and her lesbian relationships were in particular tinged with tragedy. Gilman’s lifelong desire to work and meaningfully contribute to society, her romantic choices and her political ideals, all had to contend with prejudice, and yet she retained an optimistic vision of future society, even if it was one with many limitations.
Given the profound importance of faith to the utopian tradition—going all the way back to More—it is apt that Robertson sees his four authors within the religious framework of the nineteenth century, in particular transcendentalism and an immanentist conception of God: ‘At heart they were religious more than political thinkers. Bellamy, Carpenter, and Gilman espoused a post-Christian liberal spirituality that was common among late nineteenth-century cultural progressives, while Morris, who claimed to be an atheist, referred frequently to the “religion of socialism.”’ Morris's relationship to faith perhaps deserves more unpacking; he largely consistently upholds the Marxist view that organised religion is a social symptom of the misery of class society. Much can be noted about the fact that while Bellamy was inspired in his religious views by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Carpenter was inspired in turn by Walt Whitman and Whitman himself by Emerson.
In the same spirit, Gilman was shaped by Emerson’s writings and Morris took a great deal from poets associated with the strongly religious Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Percy Bysshe Shelley once wrote that, ‘poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.’ It would seem that poets are definitely the unacknowledged theologians of nineteenth century utopias, and this process of influence is fascinating to see uncovered. Over and over a poetic and spiritual view of the world shapes these authors’ conceptions of a better society.
In his last chapter, Robertson turns attention from Bellamy, Morris, Carpenter and Gilman, to their legacies. He looks to the 1970s revival of utopian writing and notes a significant change in the genre. Citing chiefly Ursula K Le Guin’s The Dispossessed and Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time, but also Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia, Joanna Russ’s The Female Man and Sally Miller Gearhart’s The Wanderground, Robertson notes that, ‘Looking Backward, News from Nowhere, and Herland were all based on the model of More’s Utopia, which was based on the philosophical dialogue as established by Plato[…] In contrast, utopian fiction of the 1970s is more science fiction than Platonic dialogue.’ After the ’70s, Robertson fairly characterises utopia’s situation as bleak, with few to no influential examples. However, he salvages utopia as an imaginary practice in small (albeit numerous) communities, ‘sought out at the cultural margins’.
I would argue that the decline of utopian fiction’s importance, however, need not lead us to be too pessimistic about a possible future for this form of writing, however much it must necessarily be altered by cultural and literary developments. Just as Robertson’s communities are not so impactful of those of the past, utopian literature today need not be so popular as its historical equivalents to be plentiful, to be seen in a state of hibernation. We can see examples still in Alan Jaccobs’ 2010 Eutopia, Lauren Groff’s 2012 Arcadia, Robert Llewellyn’s 2013 News from Gardenia, Nisi Shawl’s 2016 Everfair, Phil Kelly’s 2017 Farsight, Cory Doctorow’s 2017 Walkaway. That there are still examples of both forms of utopia—literary and communal—however diminished in cultural significance, shows only that utopia (as literary as well as political praxis) is perhaps only dormant.
It is a testament to the success of Robertson’s The Last Utopians that it is hard to come away from it without a sense that the concerns of utopia, the concerns even of authors from such a different period as the one of Bellamy, Morris, Carpenter and Gilman, should and often do remain our concerns. Hopefully, in so powerfully depicting the life and works of these 19th century visionaries, some readers might be tempted to follow Jaccobs, Groff, Llewellyn, Shawl, Kelly and Doctorow in making sure that the utopia has a future in these richly imagined, ideal worlds of literary fiction.
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