June 20, 2018

Utopian Melodies On a Sunny Day in Princeton

In Michael Robertson’s coda to The Last Utopians: Four Late 19th Century Visionaries and Their Legacy (Princeton Univ, Press 2018), he stresses the necessity of “utopian dreaming” at a time when “nakedly racist and nativist rhetoric” is “permeating political discourse” and “powerful political optimism is in short supply.”

Walking around Princeton after reading The Last Utopians, I saw intimations of utopia everywhere and I was wide awake. It’s like music, a subtle, infectious refrain; wherever you go you hear the utopian melody. Take a perfect day in June on Nassau Street (utopia defined online is “a state in which everything is perfect”): you’ve been browsing in one of the best bookstores in the country, you’re carrying a yellow Princeton Record Exchange bag brimming with great music, and you’ve just passed Dohm Alley with its visionary evocations of Blake, Keats, Shelley, Byron, Wordsworth, and Coleridge. Turn the corner and you come to the rustic parklet in front of Small World, a cozy nook with tree-stump tables.

You can hear the utopian refrain all over town, in the sunny ambiance of Hinds Plaza after listening to Robertson’s standing-room-only talk at the library; in the utopia of the University Art Museum, in the gardens at Prospect, around the lake, in Marquand Park, or the Institute Woods, or blending with word music on the Poet’s Walk, or on the way to a Hollywood Summer Nights classic at the Garden after eating a sandwich from Olive’s on a bench in front of a world-class university library. And as often as the dissonance of breaking news drowns out the music, it comes back loud and clear on a sunny windy Hinds Plaza afternoon in the passionate words of citizens at the Families Belong Together rally lamenting the atrocities at the border and speaking out against the police-state policies of the Trump administration.

Living the Subject

According to Robertson, a professor at the College of New Jersey and a Princeton resident, “everyday utopias are as close as a nearby farmers’ market” or the “rundown block in the heart of Trenton” where he spent a morning working in a community garden named after the mural showing “a giant representation of Gandhi.”

One of the most engaging features of The Last Utopians is the author’s determination to personally explore and report on the projects of the “contemporary partial utopians” who understand that “utopianism is essential to society, that without it, we’re reduced to a resigned acceptance of a morally intolerable status quo.”

After chapters on the visionaries of the title — Edward Bellamy, William Morris, Edward Carpenter, Charlotte Perkins Gilman — and observations on landmark dystopian works like Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, George Orwell’s 1984, and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Robertson describes first-hand experiences in 21st-century “intentional communities” like Twin Oaks in Virginia and Findhorn and Erraid in Scotland. What brought him to the island of Erraid in the Scottish Hebrides was knowing that the community had been “extraordinarily successful in addressing the problem that absorbed William Morris: the alienating nature of modern labor.” Participating in accord with Erraid’s slogan,”Work is love in action,” Robertson spent his week of work in the garden.

Other stops on the author’s itinerary include a cohousing project in Washington, D.C., a gay men’s retreat named for Edward Carpenter, and a visit to the Occupy Wall Street encampment in Zuccotti Park on a rainy day in late October 2011. Even this temporary community had “utopian dimensions,” providing, along with other Occupy movements, “millions of observers on television and other media an opportunity to encounter a working anarchist society.”

Utopia and the Sixties

You didn’t have to be at Woodstock to experience, in Robertson’s words, the “widespread utopianism of the Sixties.” I was among the atypical first-year graduate students lured to Rutgers after reading Richard Poirier’s Partisan Review essay “Learning from the Beatles.” Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the 1967 Beatles album that inspired the essay, was itself a utopian touchstone, and the famous cover, with its fantastical community of artists, writers, composers, sadhus and gurus, cowboys and movie stars, resembles a more elaborate expression of the concept behind Princeton’s Dohm Alley. Of the figures in the montage surrounding the Beatles, Oscar Wilde, H.G. Wells, Bernard Shaw, and Aldous Huxley all make appearances in The Last Utopians.

On the Raft

Robertson calls William Morris’s utopian novel News from Nowhere (1890) “a journey-book” or “more specifically, a river-book” recalling “the greatest of all river-books,” Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. According to Robertson, Huck and Jim’s raft trip down the Mississippi is “the occasion for some of the most lyrical writing in Mark Twain’s body of work, utopian moments on the raft when Huck and Jim shed their clothes, along with every other marker of civilization, lounging in a state of perfect innocence and equality …. In Morris’s dream of the future, water and shore are equally pure and innocent.”

On the Pequod

Reading about Huck and Jim on the raft reminded me of the community of men aboard the Pequod in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, which contains one of the most rhapsodic utopian passages in American literature. If there’s a utopia of creation, Melville found it in the chapter titled “A Squeeze of the Hand,” where Ishmael is sitting “cross-legged on the deck” with his shipmates as they bathe their hands in sperm whale spermaceti, “those soft, gentle globules of infiltrated tissues” that “discharged all their opulence, like fully ripe grapes their wine.” Feeling “divinely free from all ill-will, or petulance, or malice, of any sort whatsoever,” Melville, as Ishmael, writes:

“Squeeze! squeeze! squeeze! all the morning long; I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me; and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborers’ hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules. Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget; that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes sentimentally; as much as to say, — Oh! my dear fellow beings, why should we longer cherish any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill-humor or envy! Come; let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness.”

Sexing Up the Narrative

The sensuous spontaneity of that rhapsody to union suggests one of the primary forces driving the utopian narrative in Morris’s News from Nowhere when one character speaks of “intense and overweening love of the very skin and surface of the earth on which man dwells, such as a lover has in the fair flesh of the woman he loves.” Unlike Edward Bellamy, whose utopia was based on “the assumption that work was a distasteful necessity,” Morris imagines one “in which everyone likes working as much as he does.” Morris advocates “a healthy sensuality, the extinction of any shame associated with sexuality and the body.” Another character in News from Nowhere claims that “they would as soon think of devising extrinsic rewards for the work of copulation as for other forms of labor.” As Robertson puts it, “In the future according to Morris, road-mending would be as pleasurable as sex.”

Although Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s chapter is titled a “Motherly Utopia,” the author of Herland comes across as the most sensually vivid of the last utopians, enjoying passionate physical relationships with both sexes. In a letter to her first husband, she says her task is “to prove that a woman can love and work too.” Seen through his eyes, Gilman has “a classic figure,” is “moral, intellectual and beautiful,” and combines a “warm, soft, sensuous nature” with “moral purity and intellectual brilliance.”

The pioneering same-sex poet Edward Carpenter, who published pamphlets on Homogenic Love, Love’s Coming-of-Age, and The Intermediate Sex, would surely have responded to the homoerotic undertones in Melville’s “Squeeze of the Hand” chapter. In fact, it was Carpenter who inspired the project that became The Last Utopians. He had been among the subjects in Robertson’s previous book, Worshipping Walt, a group biography of Walt Whitman’s disciples. What interested Robertson about Carpenter along with his devotion to Whitman was his “utopianism,” the “bold and eccentric and wonderful idea that homosexual men and women constitute the advance guard of the utopian future.”

On to William Morris

Discussing his next project in an email exchange, Robertson says “I had read News from Nowhere 25 years earlier and admired it. But I knew relatively little about Morris, and researching him, I fell in love with his breadth (all that art, all that poetry, all that politics) and his passion for life.” Robertson wants to write a biography “that can draw in the casual reader — who is likely to know Morris’s designs and little else — and introduce those readers to Morris’s breadth as artist and writer and socialist.” Says Robertson, “News from Nowhere is the culmination of the utopianism that was at the center of Morris’s career from the beginning. His design work, his poetry, his prose, and his political activism all constituted a protest against industrial capitalism and all pointed toward the utopian possibilities of a different world.”

Robertson echoes Morris in the last words of The Last Utopians, noting that what was true during their era “is true today: visions of a transformed world, along with efforts to live out some portion of it in the here and now, are crucial to a better future.”

Meanwhile the dystopian beat goes on, there will be more atrocities, and more Hinds Plaza rallies. The working title of Robertson’s next book is William Morris: The Journey Toward Utopia.