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Austin Tappan Wright: Islandia

While not a great work of literature, this work should retain a special place in US literature as Wright creates an entirely new world which is on this planet and peopled by clearly recognisable humans. Other writers have, of course, tried something similar. Many science fiction writers have created worlds which are clearly intended to mirror life on Earth as it is or, more often, as it isn’t, using a variety of quasi-humans. Gulliver’s Travels is merely the best known of many works that have revealed hitherto unknown parts of our planet. Indeed, there are many Utopian works available. Wright’s work certainly is not unique in that respect. What he has done is to go into much more depth into the creation of his world than other writers and he has created a world where technology is not only not the driving force but very much takes second place to values.

The story is narrated by an American, John Lang. When at Harvard, Lang meets Dorn, a citizen of Islandia (a remote country, peopled by mainly whites). They soon become friends and Lang learns about the country and learns the language. When he graduates from Harvard, he is at a loss for work and his Uncle Joseph, a successful businessman eager to open up trading possibilities for the US in Islandia, pulls some strings to have his nephew appointed US consul to Islandia. At the time when the novel is set (1907-1908), the Western powers are trying to gain a foothold in the country both for trade and to exploit the mineral resources. Islandia has resisted foreign intrusion – only a hundred foreigners are allowed at any one time and can stay for no more than a year. Moreover, Islandia has no treaties with other countries. However, there is a group in Islandia, led by Lord Mora, eager to open up the country. Lang’s official role will be to push for treaty relations with Islandia.

He soon finds when he arrives that the people he likes best are opposed to the Treaty. In particular, Lord Dorn, father of his friend, is leader of the opposition to the treaty. Lang performs his duties in a perfunctory manner but seems far more interested in travelling around the country, learning about its customs and falling in love with the daughters of the various lords he meets. And that is where the novel fails as a novel. The country is essentially feudal but Lang seems to have little or nothing to do with any but the feudal lords and their families. Moreover, all the lords have attractive daughters of marriageable age and Lang is enamoured of each of them. Fortunately, after falling in love with some of them and having sex with one of them, he realises he should marry an American girl which, eventually, he does. Of course, he sides with the good guys, loses his job as consul, the good guys win and he and his American girl become Islandians.

However, the strength of this novel is not in the narrative. Wright clearly has an old-fashioned, pastoral view of what society should be but he is not ashamed to promote it to the hilt and make the very good case that this is a better society. Law and commerce play virtually no part in the society while concepts such as honour, hospitality, love and trust are so ingrained as not to be questioned. Their concepts of love – clearly based on the Greek eros, agapé and philia though not identical to them – are clearly much stronger than those of the West. Conservatism in the true sense of the word – that is, devotion to home and family (but not to war and commerce, so beloved of today’s conservatives) – plays a strong role. Urban society is eschewed in favour of rural society. A somewhat old-fashioned work ethic – but work with a purpose – and duty are also important. Nothing here is original or surprising but Wright makes an excellent case for their way of life as opposed to ours. Wonder what he would have made of the 21st century?

Publishing history

First published 1942 by Farrar & Rinehart