William Morris’s radical politics are traditionally tied to his activist phase of 1883-1890. But was ‘militancy’ the exclusive measure of his revolutionary praxis? To Build a Shadowy Isle of Bliss: William Morris’s Radicalism and the Embodiment of Dreams, co-edited by Michelle Weinroth and Paul Leduc Browne, (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2015) argues that the power of Morris’s radicalism can be discerned within, not in spite of, his aesthetic creations, and that his most compelling political ideas bloomed wherever his dexterous hand had been at work – in artefacts as in fiction. With this central premise, the book complicates received notions of the radical, the aesthetic, and the political, encouraging the reader to appreciate the unorthodox character of Morris’s philosophy of social change.
In an effort to disseminate these ideas within the academy, Michelle Weinroth and Paul Leduc Browne organized a roundtable on the book for the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences – a pan-Canadian event, which typically gathers about 10,000 conferees. The roundtable took place on 4 June 2015, at the University of Ottawa, under the auspices of the Society for Socialist Studies. The speakers included the co-editors and four critics: Matthew Beaumont of University College London, Jason Camlot of Concordia University (Montreal), Nicholas Frankel of Virginia Commonwealth University (Virginia, USA), and Douglas Moggach of the University of Ottawa. Each of these critics received the book enthusiastically and offered an intellectually engaging response to the volume’s treatment of Morris’s radicalism.
In an opening address, Michelle Weinroth explicated the politics behind the book’s cover illustration, arguing that Morris’s radicalism is at its most ‘radical’ where it is most often devalued: in the ornamental and in the oneiric. Nicholas Frankel followed with a critical synthesis of the book’s three core concepts – Morris’s radicalism, the idea of ‘embodiment’, and dreams. Drawing on Morris’s legacy, Jason Camlot reflected on education in the context of ‘The New Division of (Academic) Labour’. Matthew Beaumont then elaborated on Morris’s politics in the light of nineteenth-, twentieth- and twenty-first-century debates about the idea of communism. Finally, Douglas Moggach expounded on Morris’s utopianism as a specific version of an ethical programme of post-Kantian perfectionism. In his closing remarks, Paul Leduc Browne emphasized the importance of reading Morris in and for himself. Such an approach, he suggested, illuminates most sharply the modernity and genuinely original character of Morris’s radical thought.