SEVENTY-FIVE YEARS AGO, a massive novel landed on bookstore shelves. Austin Tappan Wright’s Islandia (1942) gave life to a complex and intriguing imaginary nation. Although never a best seller, the novel has attracted several generations of readers, including Ursula K. Le Guin, who has commented that it is “not a great book perhaps, but a singularly durable one, and a durably singular one. There is nothing else in all literature like Islandia.” Islandia is immersive not only because of its 1,000-page heft but also because of its variety: its central story line highlights landscape and environment, puts forward challenging ideas about gender roles, and resonates with the neoliberal dilemmas of the 21st century.
Islandia — the place and the book — was a half century in the making. Wright began to populate his fictional kingdom during his teens, kept it in mind as he earned an A.B. from Harvard in 1905 and a law degree in 1908, and quietly wrote 600,000 words of the manuscript while teaching at the University of California and the University of Pennsylvania. He backed up his story with an unpublished 350-page “History of Islandia” that summarizes geography, economy, social institutions, and a millennium of history. After Wright’s death in 1931, his daughter Sylvia Wright and editor Mark Saxton (brother of UCLA history professor Alex Saxton) took another decade to pare the material down to a publishable text. When the novel was published in 1942, scholar Basil Davenport released a supplemental An Introduction to Islandia that included a highly condensed version of Wright’s treatises on the nation’s geography, language, and culture. (Harvard’s Houghton Library has made scans of the original novel manuscript and the supplementary history available online for the curious or obsessive.)
Islandia is an independent constitutional kingdom of fewer than three million people that occupies the southern end of the Greenland-sized Karain subcontinent, lying somewhere — the location is deliberately vague — in the southern oceans, although the supplementary backstory strongly suggests the Indian Ocean. North of the towering mountains that separate Islandia from the rest of Karain live the dark-skinned Bants, depicted in racist tropes drawn from the ambient ethnocentrism of the early 20th century. The nation itself is largely closed to outsiders.
Wright set his story in the era of Great Powers imperialism that preceded World War I. The narrative follows the standard trajectory of a literary utopia, introducing a strange and perhaps superior society through the eyes of a visitor. Recent Harvard graduate John Lang is appointed American consul to the self-isolated nation in 1906 (his uncle has connections in Washington). He travels around a country that is a bit larger than the South Island of New Zealand, learns the language and customs, talks to people, observes politics, and tries to discover what makes the Islandians tick. He finds a place of simple sophistication with only one moderate-sized city, an arts-and-crafts sensibility, and a land ethic that would please Wendell Berry. Alia, the first and foremost of four Islandian terms that overlap the English “love,” means attachment to land, to place, and to the family rooted in that particular location for generations. “I feel our farm as a whole, as it is, as it was, as it will be — ours — our land; and I feel ourselves and its past and future as one thing — not me, but us, but one things by itself,” an Islandian tells Lang. It is blut und boden without Nazis.
Lang arrives in Islandia unseasoned, unqualified, and uncertain about himself. Wright wrote in the first person, so we see through Lang’s eyes, share his doubts, and appreciate his frequent befuddlement. We experience his worldly education as consul observing Islandian politics and trying to promote American business. In the later chapters, he returns to New York, waffles between American and Islandian futures, and finally decides for the latter. We also trace his halting personal and moral education in relation to three strong-willed, independent-minded women, two Islandians and one American, each of whom dominates a third of the book. Lang has to tease out the overlaps and differences among additional forms of Islandian love: amia, or simple friendship; apia, or sexual desire; and ania, or the desire to marry for companionship and family continuity.
Wright’s utopia is very explicitly situated in time if not in space, embedded in the geopolitics of European and American imperialism. Interwoven with John Lang’s travels and moral choices are efforts by European nations and the United States to persuade Islandians to open their closed economy to resource development and trade — incorporation through informal empire. Some factions wish to remain an agrarian society and culture, while others seek to embrace an active role in the world capitalist economy. The conflict climaxes with parliamentary debates and a vote for continued isolation.
Once before, Islandia had fended off demands to open its harbors and borders. Much like early 19th-century Hawaii, it had been swarmed by European and American merchants, missionaries, and whalers. Things came to a climax in 1841 when British, French, and American warships appeared off the capital city with instructions to open Islandia to settlement and trade. Two Islandian factions debated the threat/opportunity, the isolationists won, and the Islandian navy showed up to fend off the outsiders. It is as if Japan in 1853 had told Matthew Perry, “Thanks, but no thanks.”
Islandians are invariably polite and hospitable, even when arguing fundamental political choices, contending with pushy missionaries, or receiving diplomats backed by warships. They are also conveniently white. The novel is an example of the “lost white race” fantasies that flourished before World War I as adjuncts to European imperialism. Victorian and Edwardian writers, such as H. Rider Haggard, liked to imagine that the globe concealed hidden places inhabited by the lost tribes of Israel, or Vikings, or Phoenicians, or at the very least ruled by a white queen with a startling resemblance to Ursula Andress. As a late entry, Islandia does not imagine an unexplored nook or cranny of Africa or Amazonia. Instead, Wright creates an alternative history in which Islandia is never literally lost but rather tucked well out of the mainstream of Eurasian history.
Since the embarrassing standoff of 1841–’42, European powers have been respectful of white Islandians. The nation is civilized as well as white, so the racial and moral uplift argument for intervention doesn’t play. Nevertheless, pressure is ramping up to secure Islandian coal, iron, and timber. By 1906, the United States has consolidated a Pacific empire under an expansionist president. European imperialists have pretty well wrapped up their scramble for Africa and southern Asia and they’re following the African playbook with trading colonies and interior protectorates in northern Karain. Now they want to talk and persuade their way into Islandia itself by dangling the attractions of Western technology — they’re early 20th-century liberals, not crude 19th-century imperialists.
In creating Islandia’s diplomatic dilemma, Wright placed his imaginary country in a very real world of diplomatic rivalries. As in our own world of 1906–’08, Britain and France are trying to advance their own interests while fending off the aggressive colonial ambitions of Wilhelmine Germany. Without being explicit, the author was projecting Islandian history in the context of events such as the Venezuelan Crisis of 1895 (when Britain came close to invading Venezuela to force debt payments), Secretary of State John Hay’s advocacy of an “Open Door” policy for trade with China in 1899, and the European-American military intervention in China in 1900.
True to cliché, the Germans are the pushiest. Their protectorate in Karain abuts the northern mountain border, and German agents have been testing the isolated boundary and arming Bant tribespeople to raid the isolated northern valleys. “Islandia possesses precious metals — metals the Germans need,” the French consul tells Lang. “And Germany wishes markets and a field for settlers and for investment. Africa and Asia are almost closed to them, but here …” The pressure induces Lord Mora, leader of the modernization faction, to conclude a treaty in October 1905 that defines a northern boundary patrolled and secured by Germany. It also opens the country to commercial visitors until June 1908 and invites European nations and the United States to appoint consuls — hence John Lang’s unexpected job. At the end of a 32-month trial, the Islandian Council will decide whether to retain its self-imposed isolation or open itself to the world economy.
John Lang’s tasks as consul are to find and report investment opportunities, assist the rather crass American businessmen who show up, and persuade Islandians of the benefits of the world market. He dashes off a history of the United States, in Islandian, to present Americans as a virtuous, democratic people. He also arranges an “exhibition ship” packed with American products to call at various coastal and river ports. The floating commercial fair displays books, photographs, brochures, meat slicers, coffee grinders, farm machinery, typewriters, and similar products with explanatory cards in Islandian. Sewing machines are a highlight that speak to the importance of textiles in Islandian culture. The choice is telling, because the Singer Manufacturing Company was one of the first great American multinational corporations, with factories in Scotland, Austria, and Canada, sales throughout the globe, and a signature skyscraper in New York that was briefly the tallest in the world in 1908–’09.
When June 1908 arrives, Islandia faces a classic liberal/neoliberal bargain: Should it welcome foreign investment in infrastructure, but as a junior partner? Should it gain access to new technologies and manufactured goods by taking on the specialized role of resource exporter, but at the cost of disrupting a stable autarkic economy of artisanal manufacturing and self-sufficient agriculture? Germany wants to exert something close to a protectorate, while France and Britain are more interested in informal economic empire, where investment and the threat of military intervention align a peripheral economy with an industrial power, as with Britain’s arrangement in parts of Latin America and China. Informal empire, in effect, was a way to extract profit from a place without the overhead costs of actually governing it, although gunboat diplomacy sometimes helped to secure local compliance. It has been a nice model for the contemporary globalizers who utilize international institutions such as the International Monetary Fund to pressure vulnerable nations to govern themselves to the advantage of global capital.
Lord Mora, the leader of the modernizers, opens the multi-day debate by arguing the attractions of economic abundance. Islandia lacks trains, automobiles, foods from many climates, conveniences in the home, music and literature of many nations, nearly instant communication by telephones and telegraph. Islandia lacks variety of ideas and opportunities. In contrast, Western civilization “is still growing and changing, and for those who accept it, life is vivid, active, and various.” The argument is Economics 101: Islandians can trade the resources they have for manufactured goods they may want, and everyone will benefit.
At the same time, the spread of Western political and economic power is inexorable. “Conscious of its own strength,” says Mora, “it knows no barriers to its extension, and, conscious of its rightness, it sees no other civilization but as its inferior. Shall Islandia stand alone against a force so strong and so full of promise for mankind?” Western capitalism is a powerful force that takes the resources needed to feed industrial expansion, and Islandia should accept the inevitable: “Western civilization […] needs, wants, demands (in my opinion rightly demands), and eventually must and will have full use of Islandian resources.” Hovering behind Mora’s calculated use of the word “demands” is a fear of preemptive action. If the treaty were to be terminated, “proposals to internationalize Ferrin [a mineral-rich offshore island] were almost sure to be presented whenever the diplomats could agree upon their terms.” Lang’s successor as consul quickly grasps the point: “‘Or the big stick,’ said Lambertson, whom Roosevelt had appointed. Roosevelt and the Panama Canal and the United States of Columbia. […] The Island of Ferrin was a world necessity like the canal.”
Mora’s final argument is to praise the attractions of a true world civilization: “I have said that the true unit of society is no longer national, but international. The ideal of Western civilization is the interrelation and close cohesion of men all over the world” — something like a “world consciousness” in which Islandia can participate. There are direct echoes here of Norman Angell’s 1909 book The Grand Illusion, which argued that war was becoming futile as a tool of national policy because all advanced nations were so tightly intertwined that they formed a single global economy. A century later, Thomas Friedman’s claim that “the world is flat” rehashed similar ideas.
The rebuttal by the conservative spokesman Lord Dorn previews two of the strongest arguments against the contemporary neoliberal order. In the global economy, he argues, big business calls the shots behind the facade of governments. Diplomats may do the negotiating, but “the force that pulls hardest and in the direction of Islandia is a group of businessmen. Foreign businessmen are clever in capturing other forces and directing them to their own ends. Among those captured is what is called government in foreign countries.” Islandian institutions may be firmly based among the people, but government abroad is “merely a mask with a terrible face put on by different groups at different times.”
Even worse would be the inevitable destruction of the Islandian way of life. Dorn’s arguments echo the anti-industrial sentiments of late 19th-century artists and literati, and also anticipate Karl Polanyi in The Great Transformation (1944), which emphasized the power of market economies to destabilize traditional ways of life. Massive investment in Islandian resources, says Dorn, will surely undermine a culture based on the centrality of small-scale agriculture as land turns into a commodity and factories pull Islandians into cities. A society based on traditions of reciprocity will need to create formal rules and regulations to replace historic customs. (Without being explicit, Wright was channeling the theories of contrast between traditional and modern communities associated with sociologists Ferdinand Tönnies and Georg Simmel.) The result will be “the gradual detachment of large classes of people from the soil and the destruction of the Islandian family and of alia,” the deep Islandian attachment to ancestral lands.
Given that the United States and Europe are known to Islandians, it is fair to assume that Wright imagined the local population was familiar with the different trajectories of nations brought into the global economy. The conservatives could have feared the experience of the Kingdom of Siam, which tried to retain independence and survived only because France and Britain found it a convenient buffer between their colonial domains in Burma, Malaya, and Indochina. The modernizers might have cited Japan as a counterexample, a nation that had prospered with increased engagement, to the point of smashing the Russian Empire in the war of 1904–’05 and earning recognition as a major military and diplomatic power.
The vote in Council is tense as the provincial lords are polled one by one. Two expected conservatives surprisingly go with the modernizers, but six supposed adherents of Mora’s party choose instead to reject the treaty, likely because they realize that the pace of change in an integrated economy would be uncontrollable. The final vote is 23 to 11 to reject. The German consul is livid, while the other Europeans resign themselves to finding new ways to open up Islandian opportunities.
Islandia basks in an Edwardian glow from the supposedly sunny and stable years at the very start of the 20th century. Wright and his readers both know that World War I blasted the European state system wide open, rendering the polite diplomacy of the “Islandian crisis” irrelevant — perhaps the reason why the novel drops the political plot in its second half and zeroes in on Lang’s personal development. The imperial powers quietly step back after the Islandian decision in 1908, implying that the small nation is not an important concern as Europe moves toward war.
At the same time, the Edwardian setting suggests direct comparisons with the era of neoliberal globalization that has followed the end of the Cold War. As in the early 1900s, the relative stability of the international state system in the 1990s and early 2000s shifted attention from military confrontation to the operations of global capitalism. We can translate the Islandian crisis of 1908 into the language and situation of our globalizing era, in which the most developed economies claim the natural resources of other nations as a matter of right and the interests of multinational corporations often override those of individual national economies. The “Structural Adjustment” or austerity programs imposed on debtor nations from Ghana to Greece are the dressed-up version of earlier European interventions to forcibly open markets and compel debt payments by Latin American states — Britain against Argentina in the 1840s, France in Mexico in the 1860s.
Wright could not anticipate the full complexity of 21st-century neoliberalism — the dominance of abstract financial instruments and the simultaneous power and volatility of international capital markets. Nevertheless, he was clear that foreign investment and capture of Islandian resources would be even more disruptive than direct trade. Islandia offers a wonderfully enticing portrait of a place I would dearly love to visit, but it also contains the knowledge that Islandian society would not be likely to survive intact into the 21st century.
Carl Abbott is Professor Emeritus of Urban Studies and Planning at Portland State University. He is the author of numerous books, including Imagining Urban Futures: Cities in Science Fiction and What We Might Learn from Them (2016).