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The Last Utopians

Four Late Nineteenth-Century Visionaries and Their Legacy

The entertaining story of four utopian writers—Edward Bellamy, William Morris, Edward Carpenter, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman—and their continuing influence today

For readers reared on the dystopian visions of Nineteen Eighty-Four and The Handmaid's Tale, the idea of a perfect society may sound more sinister than enticing. In this lively literary history of a time before "Orwellian" entered the cultural lexicon, Michael Robertson reintroduces us to a vital strain of utopianism that seized the imaginations of late nineteenth-century American and British writers.

The Last Utopians delves into the biographies of four key figures--Edward Bellamy, William Morris, Edward Carpenter, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman—who lived during an extraordinary period of literary and social experimentation. The publication of Bellamy's Looking Backward in 1888 opened the floodgates of an unprecedented wave of utopian writing. Morris, the Arts and Crafts pioneer, was a committed socialist whose News from Nowhere envisions a workers' Arcadia. Carpenter boldly argued that homosexuals constitute a utopian vanguard. Gilman, a women's rights activist and the author of "The Yellow Wallpaper," wrote numerous utopian fictions, including Herland, a visionary tale of an all-female society.

These writers, Robertson shows, shared a belief in radical equality, imagining an end to class and gender hierarchies and envisioning new forms of familial and romantic relationships. They held liberal religious beliefs about a universal spirit uniting humanity. They believed in social transformation through nonviolent means and were committed to living a simple life rooted in a restored natural world. And their legacy remains with us today, as Robertson describes in entertaining firsthand accounts of contemporary utopianism, ranging from Occupy Wall Street to a Radical Faerie retreat.

Author Information

Michael Robertson is professor of English at The College of New Jersey and the author of two award-winning books, Worshipping Walt: The Whitman Disciples (Princeton) and Stephen Crane, Journalism, and the Making of Modern American Literature. A former freelance journalist, he has written for the New York Times, the Village Voice, Columbia Journalism Review, and many other publications.


"A brilliant and eloquent guide through the life, times, and imaginations of some of the most compelling writers of the turn of the twentieth century, The Last Utopians is not an epitaph but, rather, a reminder of how vital and humane the utopian imagination once was and might be again." —Daniel T. Rodgers, author of Age of Fracture

[Michael Robertson] has a commendably clear and enjoyable literary style. It is always welcome to read a book from an academic press that is written to be understood rather than to impress.---Richard Howells, Times Higher Education

[I]nstructive and touching.---Adam Gopnik, New Yorker

"The Last Utopians transports the reader to that no place/good place where a loving transcendence permeates being and existence. Michael Robertson accomplishes an impressive balance of affirmation and critique in this fascinating study of utopian historical visions and contemporary lived experience. A great read for hopers and gripers alike."—Sheila Rowbotham, author of Edward Carpenter: A Life of Liberty and Love

"Beautifully clear and coherent, and enlivened by touches of humor, The Last Utopians illuminates the unique contributions of Bellamy, Morris, Carpenter, and Gilman and makes a persuasive case for the continuing value of their work. The book should appeal to a wide range of readers who are interested in history, literature, and politics, as well as the development of feminism and gay liberation."—Naomi Jacobs, University of Maine

In this timely analysis . . . Robertson leaves readers with nourishing food for thought from another era.

"This is an excellent book. Its focus on ‘lived utopianism' and concern with contemporary movements such as ecological intentional communities is especially relevant in a time of widespread political and economic discontent."—Florence Boos, University of Iowa

"Today, more than ever, we need utopians—dreamers, fantasists, arcadians, romantics, visionaries, pie-in-the-skyers—those audacious enough to imagine such exotic things as economic democracy; gender, sexual, and racial equality; the accountability of the powerful; people over profit; and the channeling of human anger and violence into constructive, collective movements for a good society. So Robertson’s book about four nineteenth-century utopians is of great interest right now. But let’s hope his visionaries are not the last."—Jonathan Ned Katz, author of The Invention of Heterosexuality

One of the most engaging features of The Last Utopians is the author’s determination to personally explore and report on the projects of the 'contemporary partial utopians' who understand that 'utopianism is essential to society, that without it, we’re reduced to a resigned acceptance of a morally intolerable status quo.'

"Published at a moment when dystopian scenarios dominate the popular imagination, Robertson’s engrossing study illuminates the promises and pitfalls of utopian thinking for contemporary progressive thought and practices. This is a timely book with much to teach us about the perilous passage from social critique to realizable change."—Cynthia J. Davis, author of Charlotte Perkins Gilman: A Biography

[I]n their time, all four were culture heroes: best-selling authors, popular lecturers, public figures, and objects of veneration and pilgrimage. Michael Robertson, an English professor at the College of New Jersey, has undertaken to tell their story . . . with sympathy and insight.---George Scialabba, Arts Fuse