Michael Robertson on The Last Utopians

RobertsonFor readers reared on the dystopian visions of Nineteen Eighty-Four and The Handmaid’s Tale, the idea of a perfect society may sound more sinister than enticing. In The Last Utopians, a lively literary history of a time before “Orwellian” entered the cultural lexicon, Michael Robertson reintroduces us to a vital strain of utopianism that seized the imaginations of late nineteenth-century American and British writers and readers. The book delves into the lives and works of four key figures—Edward Bellamy, William Morris, Edward Carpenter, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman—who lived during an extraordinary period of literary and social experimentation. The publication of Bellamy’s Looking Backward in 1888 opened the floodgates of an unprecedented wave of utopian writing. Morris, the Arts and Crafts pioneer, was a committed socialist whose News from Nowhere envisions a future Arcadia. Carpenter boldly argued that homosexuals constitute a utopian vanguard. Gilman, a women’s rights activist and author of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” wrote Herland, a visionary tale of an all-female society. Read on to learn more about utopian dreaming and action, in both their time and ours.

When did you get the idea to write this book? 

At a lunch on Nassau Street in Princeton with Hanne Winarsky, my former editor at Princeton University Press. I had just completed Worshipping Walt, my group biography of Walt Whitman’s disciples, and Hanne and I were batting around ideas for my next book project. Writing Worshipping Walt, I’d become fascinated by Edward Carpenter, a British writer attracted to Whitman by his proclamations of love between men. Hanne asked what particularly interested me about Carpenter. I replied, “His utopianism. His bold and eccentric and wonderful idea that homosexual men and women constitute the advance guard of the utopian future.” By the end of the lunch, I had the chapters of The Last Utopians mapped out.

Sounds a bit like a cartoon lightbulb-going-on moment.

It does, doesn’t it? When I told that story to a friend, he said he knew lots of writers who had had the same experience, but it always happened late at night, in a bar, and involved ideas scribbled on cocktail napkins that made no sense the next day.

Your title and subtitle seem to be at odds. Your title claims that Carpenter, Edward Bellamy, William Morris, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman were the last utopians, but the subtitle refers to their legacy. What’s up with that?

I hope there’s a creative tension at work. These four writers were indeed part of the last generation of artists and intellectuals who took utopia seriously—who believed in the importance of laying out their visions of a transformed, better society, and who believed that we could reach utopia through a benign evolutionary process. After World War I—and after World War II, the Holocaust, Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot—that sort of grand utopian vision became increasingly untenable. But I didn’t want to end the book on the battlefields of the Great War. The philosopher Ernst Bloch argued the “the hope principle” is as basic to human nature as the pleasure principle, and I think the utopian impulse is alive and well today. It just takes different forms. My last chapter is all about contemporary utopianism.

What’s behind your choices of the contemporary utopian communities and movements that you describe in your last chapter?

I wanted to explore sites and movements that share the values of Bellamy, Morris, Carpenter, and Gilman. In brief, those are a commitment to democratic economic equality, an interest in alternatives to the patriarchal nuclear family and compulsory heterosexuality, a progressive spirituality that locates the divine in the human and natural worlds, and the search for a simple lifestyle in harmony with nature. In a couple of cases, I found contemporary movements directly inspired by one of the last utopians. I attended a retreat in Scotland of the Edward Carpenter Community, a gay men’s group, and I spend a weekend in Vermont with the Radical Faeries, gender noncomformists who embrace Carpenter’s radical utopian vision. But most of the contemporary utopians I encountered had no knowledge of Carpenter, et al.

Who are those other contemporary utopians?

I found some of them in what used to be called “utopian communes” but now are known as “intentional communities.” I visited two of the largest, oldest, and best-known communities, Twin Oaks in Virginia and Findhorn in Scotland, and I spent a week at Erraid, which is located on a tiny island in the Scottish Hebrides. I was also able to visit a short-lived but influential community: Occupy Wall Street. Every utopian thinker is interested in education, and that’s especially true of Rudolf Steiner, the eccentric Austrian philosopher and founder of Waldorf schools. I spent a wonderful day visiting classes at the local Waldorf school. Finally, the contemporary food movement, with its vision of small, sustainable, community-supported agriculture has a powerful utopian vision, and I visited a lot of farms and gardens.

The research must have been enjoyable.

It was. I spent a lot of time with big-hearted optimists in a variety of interesting places. I picked radishes in the rain with a chatty woman from East London, talked about utopia with Michael Moore at Occupy Wall Street, chatted with ten-year-old boys knitting at a Waldorf school, played frisbee with the Radical Faeries, and built planters out of dumped tires in an empty lot in Trenton.

You say in the book that we’re in a golden age for dystopian fiction. Isn’t this a peculiar moment to publish a book about utopia? Why should we care? 

It’s easy to understand why dystopian fiction is so popular right now, given the resurgence of right-wing fundamentalism, misogyny, nativism, and racism; the reality of climate change; our increased awareness of police brutality and invasions of privacy; the crudeness and mendacity of our political culture. But without a utopian vision of a better world, we’re reduced to merely reacting to the latest outrage or resigning ourselves to a morally intolerable status quo. I hope that The Last Utopians will inspire readers with its account of these nineteenth-century visionaries and their contemporary heirs. My goal is to help readers envision how they might live out some portion of a transformed future in the here and now.

Michael Robertson is professor of English at The College of New Jersey and the author of two award-winning books, Worshipping Walt: The Whitman Disciples (Princeton) and Stephen Crane, Journalism, and the Making of Modern American Literature. A former freelance journalist, he has written for the New York Times, the Village VoiceColumbia Journalism Review, and many other publications.