Sunday, 4 July 2010

Morris One-Liners

What are the best one-sentence observations ever made about News from Nowhere? We will all have our own favourites, I imagine, so I here offer three of my own preferred candidates to open a debate.

The best of them all, surely, would be A.L. Morton’s remark in his 1952 study of The English Utopia that News from Nowhere is ‘the first Utopia which is not utopian’. This is a finely riddling observation, more like a Zen koan for meditation rather than a standard critical comment; and if I were going to teach Morris’s utopia on an MA course, this is the essay question I would set for my students. It forces us into a searching examination of our conventional concepts of utopia and the way Morris’s own great work challenges them.

Secondly, I am very fond of Barbara Gribble’s mischievous thought, as part of her 1986 critique of the stasis of Morris’s utopian world, that ‘One wonders how Dick or Walter would react to a sudden epidemic of smallpox or an invasion of malicious aliens’. Someone should certainly rise to this challenge and rewrite News from Nowhere as H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds, with Dick and Walter reaching for their Star Trek-style phaser-rifles to fight off the Borg and the Klingons. That would ginger utopia up nicely!

Finally, Frederick Kirchoff opines in his 1979 book on Morris that ‘Morris’s treatment of Ellen is not merely a new element in the book; it is a repudiation of the earlier chapters of his utopia’. This is a brilliant remark indeed, which confirms my own sense that News from Nowhere offers us not one but two utopias in a single set of covers, and that they may well be radically antagonistic to each other. And it provokes us into necessary thought about Ellen’s fate and future beyond the last page of Morris’s work, which we shall one day have to explore in a sequel to News from Nowhere itself.


David Leopold said...

Not perhaps my favorite, but G.D.H. Cole is worth a mention. Not only did he say that the book should be read 'as dream, not Utopia', but he also insisted that News From Nowhere was 'the only English Utopia since More's that deserves to be remembered as literature'.

Tony Pinkney said...

Thanks for the G.D.H. Cole comment, David. Perhaps it works a little like A.L. Morton's, prompting us to think more deeply about the general category it is evoking: utopia itself in Morton's case, 'literature' - that very slippery term! - in Cole's.