A Traveler from Altruria (1894)


A Traveler from Altruria, by William Dean Howells; 1894; New York, Harper.

Originally published in instalments in Cosmopolitan, this piece of utopian fiction by William Dean Howells delivers a vision of a “one-class” socialist utopia while at once offering a biting critique of unfettered capitalism. The story centres around a visit to America of Mr Homos, a citizen of a mysterious island called Altruria, which is home to a one-class socialist Christian society, with no monetary system and no concept of the rich and poor. In the course of Mr Homos’ visit he is appalled by what he sees occurring in late-19th-century America, a society which he likens to his country’s own before “Evolution”. He is clearly confused by the class system, continuously embarrassing his hosts — carrying his own luggage, bowing to waitresses, and other such acts — and finds certain activities simply bizarre, for example exercise for its own sake:

To us, 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.

In Altruria, all people are guaranteed a share of the national product on the condition they work at least three hours a day. In 1894, the year in which Howells’ story was published, the fiction attempted to become reality when a Unitarian minister Edward Biron Payne — inspired by the Christian socialist principles espoused by Howells’ book — founded “Altruria”, a community in Sonoma County, California, which he set up with thirty of his followers. A hotel was started, and orchards provided fruit sold to a shop in Berkeley owned by Job Harriman (who himself set up the commune of Llano del Rio in 1913). Unfortunately, “Altruria” ran into unsurmountable financial troubles and it was abandoned in 1896. Howells would go on though, eventually creating an Altrurian trilogy, with the publication of Letters of an Altrurian Traveller (1904) and Through the Eye of the Needle (1907).

Housed at: Internet Archive | From: University of Toronto Libraries
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