First edition cover
|Author||Austin Tappan Wright|
|Publisher||Farrar & Rinehart|
|Media type||Print (Hardcover)|
Islandia is a classic novel of utopian fiction by Austin Tappan Wright, a U. C. Berkeley Law School Professor. Written as a hobby over a long period, it was posthumously edited down by a third by his wife and daughter, and first published in hardcover by Farrar & Rinehart in 1942, eleven years after the author's 1931 death.1
The original Islandia was conceived by Wright while he was yet a small boy. Creating its civilization became his lifelong leisure occupation. The complete Islandia papers include "a detailed history ... complete with geography, genealogy, representations from its literature, language and culture."4. The complete and never published version of Islandia can be found in the Houghton Library at Harvard University. A 61 page Introduction to Islandia by Basil Davenport was published along with the original novel in 1942.
The protagonist of the novel is an American named John Lang, who graduates from Harvard in 1910. The setting is Islandia, an imaginary country set in the real world of that time. This remote nation "at the tip of the Karain semi-continent" is near "the unexplored wastes of Antarctica in the Southern Hemisphere."2 The citizens have imposed "the Hundred Law, limiting access to Islandia to a bare one hundred visitors at a time."3 Wright may have had in mind both the self-imposed isolation of Siam, starting in 1688, and that of Japan, starting soon after the Battle of Sekigahara in 1603. In any case, for the country of Islandia, these two factors have shrouded this nation in mystery.
Islandia's culture has many "progressive" features. For example, prostitutes are rehabilitated back into respectable society. Another "progressive" feature is the citizens' love of nature, and their rural lives. Everyone, including members of the upper classes, engages in some kind of useful work, especially farming. The word for city in Islandian, "elainry", literally means "place of many people"; all city families have a country home to which they can return.
Like other writers of speculative fiction, Wright decided to imagine a society that differs from ours in one or several key features. One of these is that, while Islandian civilization is technologically primitive, it is far in advance of Western culture in terms of understanding of human emotion and psychology. Wright wrote much of the story in the 1920s, but set it before World War I, providing a particularly stark contrast between Islandian understanding, and the emotionally unperceptive and self-repressive Victorian world. Immersed in the Islandian culture, John Lang steadily grows in understanding of his emotions and his sexual feelings. He grows accustomed to the sexually permissive Islandian culture. Wright's portrayal may have been intended as a positive comment on the growing sexual permissiveness of American culture in the 1920s.
Another difference between Islandian culture and the West is that Islandians determinedly reject the rush of modern Western life, and most modern Western technology. It is a rural society with an arcadian worldview, which at one point Dorn humorously describes as "enlightened Hedonism". They're not interested in building railroads for quick travel. But they do not blindly reject all Western technology; they use a few Western inventions that they judge to be worthwhile, such as modern rifles, and Singer sewing machines.
Among John Lang's discoveries, he finds that the Islandians use four words for love:
- alia: love of place and family land and lineage,
- amia: love of friends,
- ania: desire for marriage and commitment, and
- apia: sexual attraction
|Kingdom of Islandia|
Karain semi-continent, with Islandia at south (top)
Islandia in 1907
|Creator||Austin Tappan Wright|
|Ethnic groups||Islandians, Bants|
While an undergraduate at Harvard, John Lang becomes friends with an Islandian fellow-student named Dorn, and decides to learn the Islandian language (of which there are very few speakers outside Islandia). Once he has graduated, his uncle, a prominent businessman, arranges his appointment as American consul to Islandia, based primarily on his ability to speak the language. Gradually John Lang learns that his tacit mission as American consul is to do whatever is necessary to increase American trade opportunities in Islandia. He does not undertake this mission right away, preferring to take a little time first to get to know the country and the people.
John Lang meets and falls in love with Dorn's sister, Dorna. They spend some time together alone, which John finds unnerving at first, since they are not chaperoned. When Dorna comes to understand John's feelings, she tells him that she does not love him in return in that way (though he wonders whether she means "cannot", or "will not"). She accepts the hand of the King instead, a handsome young man who has been courting her for some time.
One of the culminations of the plot is the decision by the people of Islandia to reject the aggressive overtures of the Great Powers for unrestricted trade and immigration, choosing instead to maintain their tradition of isolation. As this political struggle comes to a head, John Lang follows his conscience and sides with the Islandians, to the great disappointment of many American businessmen who were looking forward to new lucrative trade opportunities, including John Lang's uncle.
Near the end of the novel, John Lang is allowed to become a citizen of Islandia as a reward for heroism in an attack by a neighboring group. By this point he has fallen in love with an American friend with whom he has maintained steady correspondence. They decide to marry, and when she arrives in Islandia she, too, is granted citizenship.
There are also three sequels, all written by Mark Saxton, the same man who edited the original Islandia manuscript. All three of these were written with the permission of Wright's estate.
- The Islar, Islandia Today - A Narrative of Lang III. This book is set in then-modern times in 1969. The plot concerns a coup attempt in Islandia that takes place while the national government is debating whether to join the United Nations. The protagonist, as indicated in the title, is John Lang's grandson.
- The Two Kingdoms, published in 1979, is a prequel set in the 14th century. The plot concerns the events surrounding the reign of the only female leader in Islandian history, and the dynastic change that ensued from this.
- Havoc in Islandia, published in 1982, is yet another prequel, set in the 12th century. At this time in Islandian "history", the Roman Catholic Church attempted to overthrow the government of Islandia, and, having failed, was itself expelled from the country forever. Sylvia Wright, Wright's daughter and the executrix of his estate, died shortly before this book was completed, and there have been no additional books since.
Reviewers describe these books as entertaining and self-contained. The prequels concern events that are mentioned in passing in the original novel, and evidently are based on Wright's unpublished notes.
Islandia is mentioned briefly as a modern instance of myth in Hamlet's Mill (p. 51), along with The Islar.
1 In the Introduction to Islandia, Austin Tappan Wright, 1942, Introduction by Sylvia Wright, 1958.
2 p. v in the Introduction to Islandia, Austin Tappan Wright, 1942, Introduction by John Silbersack, 2001, ISBN 1-58567-148-7.
3 p. vi, Ibid.
4 back cover, Ibid.