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Michael Robertson. The Last Utopians. Four Late Nineteenth-Century Visionaries and their Legacy

Princeton & Oxford: Princeton UP, 2018, 318 p. ISBN-13: 978-0-691-15416-9
Christine Reynier
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Michael Robertson. The Last Utopians. Four Late Nineteenth-Century Visionaries and their Legacy. Princeton & Oxford: Princeton UP, 2018, 318 p. ISBN-13: 978-0-691-15416-9

Entrées d’index

Mots-clés :

utopie, socialisme

Keywords :

utopia, socialism
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Texte intégral

1Michael Robertson’s book is definitely a good read. In The Last Utopians, Robertson focuses on four writers who between 1825 and 1915 developed an interest in utopian schemes and social experimentation in Great Britain and the United States. Edward Bellamy (1850–1898), William Morris (1834–1896), Edward Carpenter (1844–1929) and Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860–1935) were all democratic socialists, believing in an egalitarian alternative to industrial capitalism and in women’s independence; impressed by the rapid and profound alterations industrial development and new technologies were introducing in their social and ecological environment, they responded by devising alternative ways of life in utopian writings, most of the time implementing them in their own lives. This accounts for Robertson’s method which is both biographical and analytical, his concern being to read the lives as well as the texts of these visionaries. At a time when utopian studies are flourishing, the choice Robertson makes is original since he brings together two renowned British figures and two American ones, delineating the specificity of their utopian writings, their distinctive roots in Carlyle’s and Ruskin’s or in Emerson’s and Whitman’s ideas, their gendered perspectives, but also the cross-cultural influences they were submitted to, Charles Fourier’s and Robert Owen’s theories having travelled over the years across the Channel and the Atlantic.

2In the first chapter, ‘Locating Nowhere,’ Robertson traces the genealogy of utopian works from Plato’s Republic to Thomas More’s Utopia and Tommaso Campanella’s The City of the Sun, and finally, to Henri de Saint-Simon’s, Charles Fourier’s and Robert Owen’s works. He locates the ‘utopian turn’ in fiction in the late 1880s when Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1888) and many other works of speculative fiction were published that offered visions of egalitarian worlds contrasting with the economic depression both the United States and Great Britain were suffering from at the time.

3Looking Backward was a bestseller—‘the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of the industrial era’ (38)—which met with huge success in the United States and Europe and inspired a political movement, Nationalism, that played a significant role. However, today, Looking Backward is quite unpalatable, as Robertson shows in chapter 2; it is a somewhat contradictory work that may owe much to Bellamy’s complex personality. Shocked by social inequality, Bellamy first turned to socialism in his youth. Brought up in a Baptist family, he rejected his father’s religion in favour of an Emersonian mystical approach of the natural world, but unlike Emerson, he rejected individualism. He studied law but then earned his living as a journalist for the Daily Union before becoming a writer of fiction. The success of Looking Backward lured the reticent Bellamy out of his secluded existence and he then attempted to realize his vision by championing Nationalism and populist ideas in the 1892 election. Published ten years after his first novel, Looking Backward is a utopian romance set in the year 2000 where economic equality and the absence of social classes are the rule; however, it is organized around an industrial army of conscripted workers that ensures the disappearance of individualism in favour of spiritual unity—Bellamy’s ‘religion of solidarity’. Robertson argues that what read like a utopia in the late 19th century reads today like a dystopia. What appealed mostly to workers and women, such as Gilman, for whom it promised a reassuring and slow transformation towards universal equality, now reads as a frightening regimented state where there is no room for innovation, freedom, difference or dissent. But in spite of its limitations and contradictions, and mainly through its denunciation of inequality, Looking Backward had a lasting influence, on very diverse movements or personalities, from the Fabian movement to John Dewey or Martin Luther King.

4News from Nowhere, published in the socialist magazine Commonweal in 1890, was William Morris’s famous response to Bellamy’s work, which, according to him, was a mere ‘Cockney paradise’ and a eulogy of modern civilization. It exposes Bellamy’s utopian dream of machine production and specialized labour, as Robertson explains in chapter 3. Morris’s utopia together with its criticism of modern civilization, technology, mass production and social inequalities, is well known. What Robertson insists on is that it was the outcome of a long commitment to a form of life and standards at odds with the Victorian ones. He thus evokes at length Morris’s childhood, his infatuation with Medieval times and lore, his avid reading of Ruskin when he was at Oxford, his friendship with Burne-Jones and D. G. Rossetti. He expatiates on the reforming zeal of Morris that led him to build Red House and then create the Firm, his famous design company that dissolved ‘the boundary between the domestic and the natural’ (93) in its wallpaper design and challenged industrial methods. Morris, the artist and poet, became a political writer and activist who defended a return to the worker as a craftsman. An active socialist propagandist, he believed that socialism ‘was the path to a utopian future’ (108). News from Nowhere presents such a utopian world, set in a pastoral future, rid of all the industrial trappings of Victorian times.

5In the next chapter, the author turns to Edward Carpenter. After a vocational crisis that made him resign his ordination as an Anglican clergyman in Cambridge, Carpenter visited Walt Whitman whose poems on same-sex love and democracy had come as a revelation to him. This visit to Whitman was crucial and shaped Carpenter’s work. Indeed, he then wrote ‘Towards Democracy’ (1883), the foundation of his utopian project. This long poem in free verse criticizes Victorian respectability and social inequalities and calls for a bright future when the body will be on a par with the mind—the key, according to Carpenter, to freedom and democracy. He then bought a plot of land in Millthorpe, near Sheffield, and became a market gardener. His home became a meeting-place for people from all walks of life who believed, like him, in simple life and a classless society. Carpenter was indeed interested in socialism, more exactly, the ‘ethical socialism’ that had developed in northern industrial towns and that was bent on awakening people to the ethics of fellowship rather than the class struggle or the struggle against capitalism. A most popular political lecturer, he gave, for example, a lecture on ‘Civilisation’ in 1889, where he advocated a return to a more natural way of life, that was published and much read until 1938. In 1896, he published Love’s Coming of Age, a utopian tract that adopts the genre of the Victorian marriage manual and depicts a future of free sexuality. A few years later came The Intermediate Sex (1908), Carpenter’s reflections on same-sex love, which he connected with democracy but which have since been shown to be steeped in Victorian prejudice about gender. As Robertson shows very well, Carpenter’s utopianism combined theory and praxis, in Millthorpe.

6Chapter 5 unveils the life and work of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, which goes far beyond ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ (1892), the short story she is usually associated with. Gilman was the unofficial poet laureate of Nationalism, the movement created by the supporters of Bellamy’s utopia. However, unlike Bellamy, she thought that women’s independence was a precondition for socialism and the ‘mother instinct’ could lead to utopia. Her own troubled first marriage, the difficulties she faced in combining domestic duties and her work for the ‘betterment of humanity’ are inextricably connected with the utopian feminism she defended. In Women and Economics (1898), she showed how women’s independence rests on their participation in the economic sphere: once they were involved, they would become ‘World-Mothers’. For that purpose, she advocated kitchenless homes so as to liberate women from domestic work, and imagined cookshops, laundries and children’s facilities. In 1903, she published The Home and then turned to fiction, such as Herland (1915), an all-female eugenic paradise that came in the wake of Moving the Mountain (1911), a chilling utopia where the genetically defective are sterilized and the ‘degenerates, insane, idiots, and real perverts’ killed.

7The last chapter gives a panoramic view of visionary writings since the 1920s. Once the First World War had shattered all hope in a better world, anti-utopias were written, such as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984. In the 1960s, utopianism came back with a vengeance and utopian literature developed again until it was superseded by a turn to dystopia in the 1980s and then, after 9/11.

8On the whole, the book is well-documented, skilfully written and pleasant to read. Robertson, a former freelance journalist who ‘has written for the New York Times or the Village Voice as the book cover tells us, has certainly retained his mastery on language. He also knows how to grab his readers’ attention by inserting anecdotes at the beginning of his chapters (E. M. Forster’s decisive visit to Carpenter is a particularly good one). The biographical and analytical method he adopts is certainly justified by the close connections there were between the utopians’ ideas and ways of life but the biographical details he gives are sometimes lengthy and tedious, in Morris’s case especially. They may in fact appeal more to students discovering the utopians’ lives than to the Victorian scholar who will be already familiar with them. The choice of bringing together British and American utopians is original and the analysis sometimes bold. Indeed, unlike most critics, Robertson addresses the thorny problem of Gilman as a supporter both of feminism and eugenics; he also points out that her feminism is combined with racial and ethnic prejudice, anti-Semitism and a desire to control immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. However, the differences between the texts broached, the way in which utopia flirts with anti-utopia and dystopia could have been addressed more clearly at the outset rather than in the last chapter, and backed more strongly by theoretical or philosophical writings. What is most striking though, is Robertson’s commitment to his subject: not content with his academic knowledge of utopia, he has acquired an insider’s knowledge of it, by staying in intentional communities in Britain and the United States and approaching such movements as Occupy Wall Street or supporters of alternative food or educational experiments: he can thus emphasize what they owe to their 19th-century predecessors and the crucial role they play in our society.

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Christine Reynier, « Michael Robertson. The Last Utopians. Four Late Nineteenth-Century Visionaries and their Legacy », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 89 Spring | 2019, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2019, consulté le 19 novembre 2019. URL :

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Christine Reynier

Université Paul Valéry Montpellier 3, EMMA EA741

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