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William Morris's
News From Nowhere
But Aunt Helena never liked discussion of anything (when Sally gave [Clarissa]
William Morris, it had to be wrapped in brown paper).  There they sat, hour after
hour, talking in her bedroom at the top of the house, talking about life, how they
were
to reform the world.  They meant to found a society to abolish private property,
and actually had a letter written, though not sent out.  The ideas were Sally's, of
course -- but very soon she was just as excited -- read Plato in bed before
breakfast;
read Morris; read Shelley by the hour.
                                                                        --- Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway
(1925)
                                                                        (The scene above is set in the early
1890's.)

Note:  News from Nowhere was first released in serial form in The Commonweal in 1890.  For
the first official English book version, published in 1891, Morris made important changes, and
even added an entire chapter.  The 1891 version is what is summarized and critiqued below.

Story Summary
The story is actually from a dream of William Guest, a resident of
Hammersmith, England.  The dream conceit is admitted from the
beginning.  Guest narrates his story first-person after a first-person
introduction by the author, similar to Yankee's opening.  However, as the
story progresses, the character of William Guest is shown as a thinly
discussed version of William Morris himself.

Guest, a nearly sixty-year old socialist, goes to bed in the wintertime, but
awakens on a "beautiful bright morning seemingly of early June" (Morris
7).  The imagery of warm and pleasant weather is repeated throughout
the narrative.  William, who lives on the Thames, quickly realizes the
landscape has changed.  The river is clear and the land is clean.  The
people are handsome and clean, and appear younger than their actual
age.  He comes across Dick Hammond, a boatman, who becomes his
friend and guide in this utopian England.

At first, Guest pretends to be a visitor from out of country, who has not
visited England in many years; he often remarks that he feels like a
"being from another planet" (57).  To help him fill in the blanks of the
past, Dick brings him to his great-grandfather, Old Hammond.  Hammond
quickly surmises that Guest has traveled through time, and tells him of

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the new society.  It is approximately the year 2152.  The Civil War of
England occurred in 1952, which resulted in the destruction of the
capitalist ruling structure.  The war lasted two years, and was extremely
bloody; but after the success of the Combined Workers, and an
approximately fifty years transition period, England has been a socialist
paradise for a hundred and fifty years.

Read Krishan Kumar's footnote that summarizes the events


before and during the Civil War.

Now, people unite in their common interests, and are happy to labor
together.  In fact, hard work has become everyone's main pleasure, and
their only fear is one day running out of work to do.  There is no criminal
or civil law, because there is none of the crime that we are so familiar
with (83).

Guest returns to Hammersmith, and then embarks on a long trip up the


Thames with Dick and Clara, Dick's lover.  Their goal is to join others in
"haymaking," the harvesting of the season's crop.  Along the way, they
encounter Ellen, a beautiful twenty year old who becomes the object of
Guest's affection.  As their journey ends, so does Guest's dream, and he
awakens back in the nineteenth century.

Utopianisms
News From Nowhere is an uncommon nineteenth century utopian novel,
because Morris stresses the lack of technology in his utopia.  Necessary
objects are created by hand, although there are some uses of machinery:
"All work which would be irksome to do by hand is done by immensely
improved machinery; and in all work which it is a pleasure to do by hand
machinery is done without" (100).  There are also some vaguely
described "force-barges" mentioned (168), but other than that, England of
2152 is a pre-industrial paradise.  Also, the system of education is
different than other utopias; there is none at all.  Most children "don't do
much reading, except for a few story-books, till they are about fifteen
years old" (33), so schooling is up to the inclination of each.

There are, of course, utopianistic commonalities.  Although there is no


real "leader" or State government, the various communities unite with a
loose system of direct democracy (77); in this England, "the apparent
majority is the real majority" (90).  All land and homes are
communistically held, and used for the benefit of all.  (Old Hammond lives
in part of the British Museum [52], and the House of Parliament is now
used as a "storage place for manure" [34].)  As Guest discovers when he

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tries to pay for a pipe and some tobacco, there is no money, because
there is no buying; one takes what they need, when they need it (39-40).

For women, there is liberation.  Morris is unusual in his detail of erotic


freedom; Dick and Clara are frequently engaged in "little-concealed
lovemaking" (103) or "busy in happy wordless love-making" (200).  Love is
free in this utopian England.  Marriage is equally easy to enter into and
leave, and women do not suffer in divorce, because there is no property
or estate to settle (58-59).  Old Hammond mentions, however, that women
still become homemakers, because they take "great pleasure" in "manag
[ing] a house skillfully" (63), as well as giving birth (64).

There are no longer any prisons, since the people would not bear to allow
"their neighbors" to be shut inside them (46).  Since the utopia eliminates
the poverty and hunger of the past, crime also does not occur, although
"[h]ot blood will err sometimes" (84).  Morris is unusual in showing just
such a rare dark side in his world, when Dick, Clara and Guest encounter
Walter Allen.  Walter tells the story of two men who loved the same
woman, and one man takes an ax and kills the other (172).  Besides
isolating the killer, Walter is not sure what to do, and his uncertainty
gives Morris's story a realistic dimension other utopias lack.

Literature and art has dulled away with the lack of strife in twenty-
second century England.  Again, Morris is unusual by adding a naysayer
of the utopia in the form of Ellen's grandfather, who grumbles to Guest:

You see, I have read not a few books of the past days, and certainly they
are much more alive than those which are written now . . . There was a
spirit of adventure in them, and signs of a capacity to extract good out of
evil which our literature quite lacks now; and I cannot help thinking that
our moralists and historians exaggerate hugely the unhappiness of the
past days, in which such splendid works of imagination and intellect
were produced.  (155)

Yet most in the utopia feel as Dick does: if the worst thing about the
current world is a lack of good books, it is a fair trade.

Unfortunately, Morris never uses his skills to propose a solution to the


problem of racism.  People of color are non-existent in England 2152.

Criticism
"Morris started out, not with the Marxist question 'Who are the workers?'"
Northrop Frye writes, "but with the more deeply revolutionary question

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'What is work?'"  (44-45)   Morris believes "work is creative act, the


expression of what is creative in the worker.  Any work that fall short of
this is drudgery, and drudgery is exploitation" (Frye 45).  By going around
the wonders of technology, and addressing labor in this way, Morris is
unique.  He also does not flinch from the drawbacks and difficulties of
achieving and maintaining a utopia.  The Revolution of 1952 that makes it
possible was, as mentioned earlier, a bloody affair, and it takes fifty years
to work the kinks out in the new society (Kumar xix).  (Compare to the
eyeblink of time Bellamy brings about his Boston of 2000; in this way and
others, Morris's novel is a critical response to Looking Backward.)  Ellen's
grandfather even grumbles, "I think one may do more with one's life than
sitting on a damp cloud and singing hymns" (Morris 157).  Utopia is not
easy, and will take work to achieve it, and work to maintain it.

Kumar states that News From Nowhere is possibly the best English
utopia (xvi).  Of the four books discussed, it is certainly the most literary,
most readable and most practical utopia presented.
 
 
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