on November 14, 2003
This edition focuses primarily upon William Morris' influential utopian romance News from Nowhere, and contains some useful notes for the reading of the text together with several other of his pieces relating to the themes of Earthly Paradise, the arts and crafts and the nature of work.
If News from Nowhere seems unfamiliar to most people now, it is perhaps not so much due to its age than to the many successful novels written since that warn of the perils of striving blindly toward some Brave New World ideal. Yet News from Nowhere was itself written partly as a reaction to one such industrial utopia, namely Edward Bellamy's `Looking Backward', and is perhaps more relevant today than at any time since its original publication in 1890. William Morris offers here a prophetic anticipation of the concerns of today's growing environmental and `anti-globalisation' movements.
Although others have presented Morris' ideas as backward and Luddite, such labelling imparts a misleading picture of his views. Indeed, far from being a 'Luddite' Morris was quick to embrace the innovative Jacquard loom in his own workshops - a programmable punch-card system for automated weaving, and one of the precursors of modern computing. The irony inherent in such a label will not be lost on those familiar with the history of the Luddites.
Rather than denouncing technology News from Nowhere sees a world so technologically and socially advanced that it has surpassed any need for the industrial technology of Capital, ably providing for its own happiness and wellbeing without it. Progressive and sustainable technology is woven so seamlessly into its idyllic tapestry that if you were to blink you would easily miss it. And this is exactly the point Morris was making about the appropriate use of technology. Unpolluting, smokeless furnaces and silently powered barges drift by almost unnoticed as a group of friends make their way gently along the Thames by rowing boat - another technology perfectly suited to their own immediate needs and fancies.
The power and beauty of Morris' novel does not lie simply in the descriptions of the material environment of its imaginary society. Morris' vision is never so shallow. He is concerned above all with the quality of life of its inhabitants and the forms of social organisation that bequeath them its benefits, and how this contrasts so starkly with the forces of coercion and seduction that govern our own society. The inhabitants that Morris describes with such convincing lucidity are nurtured in a social environment founded upon a resurgence of vernacular values and an abandonment of institutionalised forms of control and exploitation. The fire of Morris' polemic being eloquently voiced through the dialogues of old Hammond in the heart of the novel.
If you are interested in a serious and profound analysis of our own society and the development of a saner view of the world then News from Nowhere will provide you with many pertinent insights. A testimony to the prescience of his vision, written as it was almost one hundred years before the environmental revolution in thinking that swept the world in the late 1980's and beyond, Morris provides us here with a very timely view of an alternative future to that promised by our own society, leading us as it is towards the brink of ruinous global turmoil.
This long neglected novel won't fail to move the hearts of a new generation of readers who may be disillusioned with a life of stifling employment and meaningless industrial consumption.
on January 7, 2006
"News from Nowhere" is a Utopian fantasy in strong reaction against the Industrial (factory) Capitalism of the time (1890s England).
It's like a cross between "Rip Van Winkle" and "Gulliver's Travels." William, the hero, goes to sleep in 1890s England (the powerhouse of rapacious Industrialism and Imperialism) and wakes up in a post-2000 England, where Industrialism is gone, and life is like heaven.
How has all this happened? Simple. People have given up the Ethic of Scarcity mentality, which says "Let him who does not work not eat"--which turns life into never-ending toil. And they have turned to an Ethic of "Follow Your Bliss."
This, naturally, has destroyed Industrial (factory) capitalism.
Morris believed that Industrial (factory) Capitalism, with its fierce division of labor and assembly-line techniques--although very efficient--was grotesque and dehumanizing. Like Marx, he believed that such a system turned workers into mere components of the machine--mechanical and highly expendable.
For workers, it made life repetitive and soul-killing (and body-killing) drudgery. And for consumers, it turned out floods of shoddy assembly-line trash--"goods" that were hardly good at all but unesthetic, cheap, throwaways.
Morris realized that Industrialism had traded quality for quantity, and it had given the wrong answer to Jesus' question, "What profiteth it a man if he gain the whole world and lose his soul?"
(Sound familiar? It is precisely what we have now.)
He wanted to change all that. And unlike the Marxian socialists, Morris did not see the factory system as inevitable.
He favored a more anarchist type of socialism.
In "News from Nowhere"--in the TRULY brave new world he envisions--there is no government (because people are quite capable of governing themselves and reaching mature agreements), there are no schools (because people instinctively learn what is useful and what interests them), and most of all there is no work, in the sense of toil and drudgery (because people do what they like, out of their own artistic gifts and interests).
As a result, people like their lives and they like other people. They are happy, and as a consequence healthy. They make things and do things not for profit but because they like doing them--and in the grand scheme of things, all necessary and beautiful things get done.
This is a marvelously charming book, and presents the (quite achievable) Anarchist Paradise in simple and concrete terms.
Yes, I mean that with a capital S. The title story, "News from Nowhere", is a Socialist Utopia like Bellamy's "Looking Backward." In fact, Morris wrote an intro to Bellamy's brief book, and criticized it (gently) for not going far enough.
Morris' view of that happy future occupies about half of this thick compilation. It is an incredible Eden, where hale, hearty, and lovely people swing into everything with the greatest gusto. Morris' character, the Guest, arrives just when everyone is falling over themselves to row upstream for the privelege of baling hay. Through some Socialist magic, everyone has become beautiful, intelligent, and youthful. In fact Ellen, who takes a shine to the Guest, has such "beauty and cleverness and brightness" (her own words, p.223) that she lives out of town to avoid causing a ruckus among the young bucks there.
Outside of everyone's passion for good, hard labor (with the fear of some future shortage of sweaty work to go around), 'Nowhere' is most notable for the changes it has wrought on the English countryside. Since government no longer serves a Socialist need, the old trappings of power have been torn down. The one exception is the old Parliament building, which now serves as the transfer station between the producers of manure and its consumers - with a clear implication that little has changed.
Exchange of manure is about the most sophisticated social interaction, since Morris declares that "this is not an age of inventions. The last epoch did all that for us," (p.192) and they let more of the old knowledge slip away every year. Instead, his healthy and pastoral people work for love of work, and infuse some vague sense of art into whatever it was they were going on about. Issues of medical care are waved away under their general shiny health, despite the fact that pastoral, non-technological people filled their graveyards with women dying in childbirth.
The other half of this book is divided between a number of essays and lectures, most of which extol the Socialist ethos. About 120 pages of "Lectures" discuss design, and some few - with gritted teeth - acknowledge that science may deserve to exist. Yes, he tolerates those people in whom the desire to know burns most brightly. Mostly, however, "science" is something good for cleaning flue gas so the rural colors may shine more brightly.
Morris was a visionary. He was also a brilliant and driven man, a skilled artisan, and eloquent writer. Unfortunately, he was born into a good-sized estate, so never had to pay all that much attention to the fussy bits of how people put the bread on their tables. The disconnect between his plenty and the majority's need is painfully apparent, but not to himself.
The best-reasoned essay of the lot was the last, on the founding philosophy of his Kelmscott Press. He explained, in concrete terms, how he decided on the principles of artisanship of printing, and goes into some detail about how well-made text should appear. Much of what he said made sense, and much of the rest could be confirmed or denied by printing up a few pages and seeing what worked - the essence of his reviled "science."
Morris had a fine and wide-ranging mind. This book shows many of its aspects, but also shows many of its failings. I was happier thinking of him only as the founder of the Arts and Crafts movement.
on June 24, 2010
Morris' dream was that the divisions between work, life and art would blur. He believed that industrial consumerism led to toil, inequality, environmental destruction and inferior products. He also insisted--in contradistinction to Edward Bellamy--that "the true incentive to useful and happy labour is and must be pleasure in the work itself" and that a free society is one where "the unit of administration [is] small enough for every citizen to feel himself responsible for its details, and be interested in them; that individual men cannot shuffle off the business of life on to the shoulders of an abstraction called the State, but must deal with it in conscious association with each other". I think his ideas are as important today as they were at the end of the 19th century.
on June 23, 2000
I suspect that many people who come across this book will be art lovers, specifically admirers of Art Noveau and perhaps even recent visitors to the exhibition of this particular form of turn-of-the-century expression at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. And this is, notwithstanding the prominence of the title story and Clive Wilmer's introduction, which focuses on the political aspects of Morris's writing, a book about the author's vision of beauty, of craftsmanship not for its own sake, but with the aim of producing work of skill and magnificence, and, as a secondary but vital consideration, the satisfaction of the artist. Morris comes across as a brilliant man, devoted to his many crafts (he taught himself thirteen) and passionate about human equality, though the impression from his writing is that the quality of the artist's skill, and particularly in the field of the decorative (what he calls the 'lesser') arts, matters more to him than the egalitarianism he trumpets. The political pieces, such as the title story, which comprises almost half the book and portrays Morris's vision of an ideal society in the year 2102, are the weakest, speculating as they do about a population of uniform mind in its espousal of the superiority of the Mediaeval ideal of art and its fanatical rejection of progress and technology. Genetics, the evolutionary territorial imperative, the diversity of human imagination which has since spawned the Information Age, are all swept aside by the juggernaut of Morris's Luddite, Gothic world-view (and although I accept the context in which he writes, namely late-Victorian London, I can't ignore his failure to mention the benefits of the industrialisation he despises, such as the increased life-expectancy, the majesty of the scientific leaps within his lifetime). Nonetheless, Morris is an inspiring polemicist: his rejection of the State, his fierce and uncompromising belief in his ideas, his utterly convincing support for the rightness of the individual's potential for common-sense and ability to recognise what is good, what is true, in the face of the pronouncements of authority, mark him as a defender of freedom quite apart from many of his orthodox Marxist contemporaries.
on March 5, 2013
Morris published this book in 1890, at the age of 56, six years before his death, just as the Socialist League which he had founded had disintegrated and effectively put an end to his involvement in politics. It is of course a Utopia, taking the form of a dream he had of a better world. In it we find an expression of his philosophy, which is both backward and forward looking: backward in his idealization of a pre-industrial age when men took pride in craftsmanship, and forward in progressive views on education and the place of women in society. I have always thought of Morris as a lovable idealist, but one who was totally impractical. Socialists were inspired by him, but as the labour movement advanced, for better and for worse it compromised with capitalism and a badly defective parliamentary system. Morris had wryly realized that the labour movement has passed him by - but at least he could still dream; and his dream was in places so wildly unrealistic that one must assume that at least some aspects of this Utopia were written with tongue in cheek.
He dreamt of an England nearly two centuries after his time (the exact date is never specified). London has been considerably de-urbanized - the ugly and squalid buildings against which he had campaigned had mostly gone, to be replaced by open spaces, woods and gardens; the Thames in London is clean again and is swarming with salmon. Village life and the life of small towns had revived; the industrial towns in the North and in the Midlands had gone - there was next to no factory production, and the people were happily multi-skilled in manual craftsmanship. Idleness was unknown; so was money - everybody worked unpaid. Children did not have to go to school, happily learnt from doing, learnt to read without being taught, and many were able to speak more than one language. Women were fully emancipated and honoured - for their traditional roles as housewives and mothers. Couples remained together as long as they liked each other sufficiently, and if they parted, there was no disgrace and no economic considerations which made that process so confrontational. Because everybody was happy, they all looked much younger than they were and very handsome; and their clothes were as bright as those of the 19th century had been dull.
There were no civil or criminal laws, no courts, no police, no prisons they were not needed when there were no disputes about property and few crimes of passion, which were treated as diseases rather than as crimes. There is no central government - all decisions are made at the communal level, and after discussions, the minority readily goes along with the decisions of the majority. They had tried State Socialism, but that had enslaved the people almost as much as capitalism had.
There is a long historical section in which Morris imagined the process by which 19th century society had replaced the old system with the new - General strikes, and a civil war.
Morris rides some other of his hobby-horses: the people in his dreams are more interested in myths and legends of old than they are in depictions of contemporary life.
All this is conveyed in a rather didactic style (which I found both unimaginative and tediously repetitive, and with many romantic cliches) in the first half of the book. In the second half, it seems to me, what interest there was in the first had quite disappeared, as we get an account of him going by boat, with friends he has made, up the Thames from Hammersmith to beyond Oxford, noting that the "cokneyfied" houses that had spoilt its banks had all gone and that the ugly iron bridges spanning the river had been replaced by more handsome wooden ones. He falls in love(rather soppily, I think) with one of the young women in the party - and then he wakes up.
I have always been fond of Morris; but, as a literary production, I found this tract very disappointing.
on February 25, 2014
This is the required book for the class, buy here can save more money, and get it so fast .
on November 14, 2014
Great. used for school.
on September 27, 2014
on December 2, 2014
I'm afraid that with the best will in the world I can't help finding William Morris a bit of a dope.
NEWS FROM NOWHERE is a "utopian" novel, but that Morris could conceive it reflects on his intelligence, because the colossal ignorance of human nature it exhibits is both risible and repugnant.
To keep this unmemorable fantasy in print likely means that you can't underestimate the bad taste of mindless idealists of any age and their willingness to buy books that second their silly views.
William Morris wallpaper designs are worth looking for, but avoid this foolish book.