Thursday, July 16, 2015

News from Nowhere by William Morris

A kinder, gentler utopia
News from Nowhere, a utopian novel by English author, artist, and socialist activist William Morris, was published in 1890. The narrator is an active member of the Socialist League, a British revolutionary group. As the book opens, he returns from a League meeting, having engaged in heated debate with his comrades over the ideal society of the future, and turns in for the night. When he awakens the next morning, he has been inexplicably transported to the early 21st century. To his pleasant surprise, he finds that England has been transformed into the socialist society of his dreams.

If this plot sounds identical to Edward Bellamy’s 1888 novel Looking Backward, it’s no coincidence. Morris was displeased with Bellamy’s industrial vision of socialism and wrote this work in response. Though the premise of the story is essentially a rip-off of Bellamy’s plot, set in London instead of Boston, overall Morris’s novel is not only a departure from but also an improvement over Bellamy’s rather dull political-economic treatise. Regardless of whether you agree with Morris’s vision of utopia, he presents his ideas in a far more entertaining package than his American counterpart.

The narrator never reveals his real name, but asks his newfound friends of the future to call him William Guest. A fellow named Dick takes Guest under his wing and invites him on a little journey. Of course, Guest is full of questions about this brave new world and interrogates Dick along the way. Unlike Bellamy, Morris manages to keep the conversation lively, interesting, and fun, despite the preachy subject matter. Guest tries to play it cool and not reveal he’s a relic from the past, but when he brings up topics like money, prisons, schools, and politics, almost no one knows what he’s talking about, because they don’t have any of these things in their society. Morris’s socialist vision is a post-mechanical society that resembles an idyllic view of medieval times, only devoid of any class system. All labor is done by hand. Citizens work when they choose, and they often choose to do so, simply for the joy of being artisans. Handcrafts play an integral part in this society, which is not surprising given Morris’s prominent role in the Arts and Crafts Movement.

Dick introduces Guest to his grandfather, Old Hammond, who remembers the revolution that led to the overthrow of the old order and the establishment of the new. This lengthy history gets a little long-winded, but includes a few stirring scenes that are a refreshing change from the overall bucolic tone of the book. In its final third, unfortunately, the novel takes a downward slide. Dick and Guest travel up the Thames to a hay-making festival, and Morris treats us to repetitive descriptions of the landscapes and houses they see along the way. Only a denizen of London would appreciate this detailed depiction of how each individual suburb of the city has reverted to its pastoral roots.

Though it fizzles toward the end, News form Nowhere is still an enjoyable read for those who enjoy idealistic literature of the 19th century. Relax, enjoy the smell of the grass and the songs of the birds, and open your mind to a better life. Though I doubt Morris’s utopia will ever come to fruition, I for one certainly wouldn’t mind living there.
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