150+ essays on literary topics
America is too young to have had a golden age. Classical civilisation had its pastoral idyll. Hindus have their Ramraj, a time of peace and prosperity that lasted for ten thousand years. Every European country looks back to a time, half historical, half legendary, when a good king ruled and the people were happy. But four hundred years of American history is too short a time for a golden age to have come and gone. The American Dream is a dream of the future, not the past. A golden age, such as every civilisation in the old world had and the new world lacks, is a way of looking forward by looking back. America only looks forward.
The title the American writer, Edward Bellamy, gave to his best-selling Utopian novel, Looking Backward: 2000-1887, is in this respect misleading. The book was published in 1887 and looks backward only because the narrator falls asleep in that year and wakes up 113 years later in 2000. The book is set in an imagined future that bears no relation to the past, which at the time of writing was the present. The narrator is a wealthy young Bostonian. What he wakes up to is a Boston vastly different from and a vast improvement on the one he fell asleep in. Capitalism throughout America has been abandoned and communism has taken its place. The production and distribution of goods has been nationalised. America has done away with money and disbanded its armed forces. Instead, it has what the narrator calls an ‘industrial army’ into which every American citizen is conscripted at the age of twenty-one, working at whatever trade or profession they choose and show themselves adapted for, until they reach the age of forty-five, when they are discharged and enjoy a long and happy retirement.
The first book to sell a million copies in the USA was Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the second Looking Backward. Written at a time of considerable social and industrial unrest, in America as in Europe, the book caught the mood of the times. The same was true of Thomas More’s Utopia which, in 1516, was both a powerful attack on the policy of enclosure and a description of an imaginary island in the new world where social relations were fair and equal. Bellamy, like More, devotes a good part of his book to the present. His narrator wakes one morning to find himself back in the Boston he fell asleep in. Wandering through the city, he is horrified by sights that he had previously taken for granted. He lies down in despair and wakes again from what turns out to have been a dream. Bellamy manages these time-shifts to great effect throughout the book.
In the best traditions of Plato’s Republic and More’s Utopia, Bellamy anticipates objections to his vision of an ideal state by explaining how it works in practice. His imagined future is sometimes uncannily prescient. His description of the megastores where people go, not to buy, but to choose the goods they want, which are then delivered to their homes, is Amazon without the internet. Nationalise Amazon? Why not? They don’t pay their taxes anyway, so we wouldn’t lose by it. Other accurate predictions include public broadcasting with a choice of channels and self-publishing. He remains however as open now as he was then to the charge of naivety in describing the ease with which America, sometime after he fell asleep, replaced a society predicated on the worst aspects of human nature (competition, self-interest) with one based on the best (co-operation, common interest). The change took place, he explains, not by revolution, but by evolution.
‘Early in the last century,’ the narrator’s host tells him, ‘the evolution was completed by the final consolidation of the entire capital of the nation. The industry and commerce of the country, ceasing to be conducted by a set of irresponsible corporations and syndicates of private persons at their caprice and for their profit, were intrusted to a single syndicate representing the people, to be conducted in the common interest for the common profit.’
Utopians are easy targets for mockery. It happens to Gonzalo in The Tempest when he is trying to cheer up the King of Naples after the shipwreck by telling him what he would do if he were king of the island, while the young lords make fun of him behind his back.
Gonzalo No occupation; all men idle, all;
And women too, – but innocent and pure;
No sovereignty, –
Sebastian Yet he would be king on’t.
Antonio The latter end of his commonwealth forgets the beginning.
Gonzalo All things in common nature should produce
Without sweat or endeavour: treason, felony,
Sword, pike, knife, gun, or need of any engine,
Would I not have, but nature should bring forth,
Of its own kind, all foison, all abundance,
To feed my innocent people.
Sebastian No marrying ’mong his subjects?
Antonio None, man; all idle; whores and knaves.
Gonzalo I would with such perfection govern, sir,
T’excel the golden age.
Modern directors sometimes connive at their mockery, making Gonzalo an easier target by portraying him as an old fool, ignoring Shakespeare’s own description of him in the Dramatis personae as ‘an honest old counsellor’.
Modern readers are more comfortable with dystopias than utopias. Modern writers too. Perhaps the last honest-to-goodness utopia was William Morris’s News From Nowhere, which was published just two years after Bellamy’s Looking Backward. Morris sets his novel in the future too, starting with a revolution that takes place in 1952, then taking us another hundred years into the future when his narrator, like Bellamy’s, wakes from a long sleep. The post-revolutionary England that he finds himself in, unlike Bellamy’s America, is a golden age of the traditional kind. William Morris turns the clock back instead of forward to a utopia which looks a bit like medieval England but which is really, as his title reminds us by its use of the literal meaning of Thomas More’s Greek neologism, nowhere.
In spite of its initial popularity, Bellamy’s novel does not seem to have had a lasting impact. But then what novel, utopian or otherwise, ever does? What a difference it would have made if Marx and Engels had written a novel instead of a manifesto.
The next post will be my Reader’s Diary for 2 July 2014.
The week after that I will be writing about Empathy.