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The Altruist’s Dilemma–Howells’ A Traveler from Altruria

William Dean Howells (1837-1920)Even a fairly well exposed reader in American literature can be forgiving for not only having neglected to read A Traveler from Altruria but for not having heard of the title. On the other hand, if you own a Kindle, you have no excuse for not sampling this 1894 Utopian work by William Dean Howells as a perfectly readable edition is on offer for free.

The late 1890s saw, among a great many other fascinating things, a climax in the sense among mainline Protestantism that virtually any problem facing the world could be cured with a bit of a Yankee ingenuity, hard work, and application of the principles of the Christian gospel. Such was their confidence in the perfectibility of man–properly guided by all the best people, of course–that in 1900 they began a new magazine titled Christian Century. In short, their view was that, having taken down slavery and made great strides against alcohol, poverty, and inequality for women, the twentieth century would be the one in which Christian reform would finally get on top of the entire scene. Of course, the twentieth century did not turn out to be the greatest hour for the Mainline forces and its closing decades saw a hemorrhage of not only members but influence in society.

William Dean Howells, however, may be forgiven for being caught up in the optimism of his age. In this book, the first of three making use of Mr. Homos, a visitor from Altruria, Howells employs an intriguing twist on the Utopian genre. Altruria, we learn, has recently been discovered after apparently lying unvisited as an isolated but clearly quite sizable island for centuries. Christian missionaries in the first centuries of the age had managed to bring the Christian faith–a version looking suspiciously like the emerging liberal Protestantism of Howells’ day–to the Altrurians and then all contact between the island and the remainder of the world had been lost. In the intervening centuries, the Altrurians had built a flourishing society on the foundation of the Gospel. And the benighted West? Not so much.

In Howells’ mind, the idea of hierarchy, of one person working for another or serving another, was apparently anathema. All manner of economic inequality had been eliminated from Altruria. In a series of encounters between Mr. Homos and a bewildered, bemused, and occasionally combative cast of upper-crust Americans, Howells presents his own feelings of American society’s shortcomings. The villains are predictably nineteenth century and focused on the upper middle class and above, the heart of Howells’ readership.

One amusing area in which Mr. Homos wagged a disapproving head would be profoundly more relevant today than 120 years ago.

“But to us,” returned the Altrurian, with a growing frankness which nothing but the sweetness of his manner would have excused, “exercise for exercise would appear stupid. The barren expenditure of force that began and ended in itself, and produced nothing, we should—if you will excuse my saying so—look upon as childish, if not insane or immoral.”

When one considers the well-heeled churches, liberal and conservative alike, providing treadmills and other exercise equipment for their flock, it seems clear this particular tenet of the true faith has been abandoned. Of course, Howells’ himself apparently had no use for “exercise for exercise” sake, allowing him to lambast the practice through the mouth of Mr. Homos.

One wonders what the state of affairs in Altruria is today. Presuming that they have mechanized significantly, employing tractors and computers and even robots in their various industries, the work of the hand that each Altrurian performs might not be enough to maintain physical fitness. And do these people derive no enjoyment from a game of basketball, a brisk run, or a bike ride? That sounds like a rather dismal place to live in my opinion.

Posted in American Literature, Realism.

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