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The Spectre of Utopia

Utopian and Science Fictions at the "Fin de Siècle"


Matthew Beaumont

In the late nineteenth century, a spectre haunted Europe and the United States: the spectre of utopia. This book re-examines the rise of utopian thought at the fin de siècle, situating it in the social and political contradictions of the time and exploring the ways in which it articulated a deepening sense that the capitalist system might not be insuperable after all. The study pays particular attention to Edward Bellamy’s seminal utopian fiction, Looking Backward (1888), embedding it in a number of unfamiliar contexts, and reading its richest passages against the grain, but it also offers detailed discussions of William Morris, H.G. Wells and Oscar Wilde. Both historical and theoretical in its approach, this book constitutes a substantial contribution to our understanding of the utopian imaginary, and an original analysis of the counter-culture in which it thrived at the fin de siècle.


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Chapter 1Looking Back at Looking Backward: Panorama, Paranoia 27


Chapter 1 Looking Back at Looking Backward: Panorama, Paranoia If you want me to show you the vicinity, You must first climb to the roof. — Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, ‘The Book of Proverbs’, West-Eastern Divan I In a review of Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward 2000–1887 (1888), William Morris commented suspiciously in 1889 that ‘the book is one to be read and considered seriously, but it should not be taken as the Socialist bible of reconstruction; a danger which perhaps it will not altogether escape’.1 Bellamy’s utopian romance, only the second novel published in the United States to sell a million copies, after Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), became a bestseller shortly after appearing in its second edition of 1889. It persuaded thousands of readers to become social- ists, most famously the labour leader Eugene Debs.2 It did so because of its eloquent indictment of capitalist society, undoubtedly; but also because, in spite of Morris’s admonition, these readers interpreted it precisely as 1 William Morris, ‘“Looking Backward”’, in Political Writings: Contributions to Justice and Commonweal 1883–1890, ed. Nicholas Salmon (Bristol: Thoemmes Press, 1994), 425. 2 See Eugene V. Debs, Debs: His Life, Writings and Speeches, ed. Bruce Rogers (Girard, KS: The Appeal to Reason, 1908), 111. 28 Chapter 1 the socialist bible of reconstruction, a kind of guidebook to post-capitalist society. The book quickly acquired cult status. Almost everybody who was interested in the so-called social question debated it, ‘down to the boot- blacks as they...

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