Friday, October 8, 2021

A Traveler from Altruria by William Dean Howells

A Utopian visits America
William Dean Howells
A Traveler from Altruria, a novel by William Dean Howells, was first serialized in the pages of the literary magazine The Cosmopolitan before being published in book form in 1894. Howells, who was nicknamed “The Dean of American Letters,” was America’s most highly regarded realist novelist in the late 19th century. A Traveler from Altruria is considered a utopian novel, but it inverts the usual narrative formula of that genre. Instead of following a protagonist who travels to a utopian society, here the Utopian comes to visit America, where he expresses amazement and disbelief at our archaic way of life.

The narrator of the story is Mr. Twelvemough, a popular author who writes trashier novels than those of Howells. Twelvemough lives in an unnamed city on the Eastern Seaboard (likely Boston), but at the time of the novel he is vacationing in the country, amid the mountains and farms of New Hampshire. A friend of Twelvemough’s convinces him to act as host to a foreign visitor, Mr. Homos, who hails from the exotic land of Alturia. Altruria is a southern continent, roughly the size of Australia, that has somehow managed to remain undiscovered by the rest of the world until only a few years ago. The name Altruria is derived from “altruism,” which sums up the Altrurian worldview. Their civilization has developed to a state where the inhabitants no longer work for personal gain but for the good of all.

Immediately after their meeting, Homos becomes a source of embarrassment to Twelvemough when he insists on helping porters carry baggage and waitresses serve meals. Twelvemough can’t make his guest understand that a gentleman doesn’t demean himself with manual labor. America tends to think of itself as an egalitarian nation when compared to Britain and other European nations. Compared to Altruria, however, which recognizes no class distinctions whatsoever, America seems positively feudalistic. In Altruria, there are no rich or poor. The economy is socialistic and communal. Everyone does a few hours of manual labor each day. Altruria has no money, for none is needed. Everyone is provided with what they need, and no one takes more than they need. It is therefore very difficult for Homos to understand the way American society revolves around money and competition, resulting in vast income disparity and class inequality.

Howells, a Christian socialist, makes some good points in this book, but the way he makes them leaves something to be desired. The novel is essentially a series of lengthy conversations that frequently grow tedious as they follow an established formula: An American makes a statement related to money or class. Homos becomes visibly disturbed. Twelvemough asks him what’s wrong. Homos expresses disbelief at our barbaric customs. Twelvemough expresses annoyance at his disbelief. And repeat. Howells has to go through all these steps every time he wants to make a point. For variety, he shakes up the participants by putting Homos in a room full of high-society capitalists or struggling farmers. There is an element of humor to Homos’s fish-out-of-water experiences, but sometimes it’s hard to tell who Howells is making fun of, the Americans or the Altrurian. The upper-class Americans make such absurd statements that it’s hard to take them seriously, and Altruria is such an unrealistic utopia it sometimes borders on the ridiculous. There is some stimulating food for thought here, but it would have been more exciting if Howells had taken the reader to Altruria instead of merely acquainting us with that mysterious nation’s stuffy representative.

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