The Historical Novels Review recently published a piece I wrote about historical novelists who write about utopian communities or similar subjects. I’m working on a longer article, but for HNR, I had a tight word limit, so I confined myself mainly to an interview with fellow novelist T. C. Boyle.
Here’s the article as it appeared in HNR. By the way, they also have a review of The Language of Trees, which you can read here.
The list of historical novels grows ever longer, as does the list of utopian (nowadays, more likely dystopian) novels. Yet few novels occupy places on both; the historical and the utopian seem to be antithetical impulses. Although utopias fascinate historians and sociologists, they pose narrative challenges that may help explain why few historical novelists have entered this territory.
The classic utopian/dystopian novel is set either in the future or in a geographically indeterminate present. For this reason alone, historical novelists would find this genre inhospitable. A few novels give fictional treatment of actual communities; Terra Ziporyn’s Time’s Fool (2001) portrays a child of the Oneida colony of New York who becomes a zealot for sexual hygiene, highlighting the oppressive potential of utopian idealism. My novels explore similar themes using a community based on the 19th-century Icarians.
Similarly, T. C. Boyle’s The Road to Wellville (1993) finds the dark and ridiculous sides of another utopian project, John Harvey Kellogg’s sanitarium in Battle Creek, Michigan, where the health-obsessed sought relief through Kellogg’s regimen of vegetarianism, abstinence, and “colonic irrigation.” The novel also sees the authoritarian shadow behind the utopian impulse, especially with a charismatic leader in charge.
I recently posed a few questions to Boyle about his work:
Wiegenstein: American history and literature seem populated by obsessives, cranks, and con-men. Does the American sensibility lend itself to this tendency?
Boyle: Because we are essentially an anti-authoritarian nation founded by and harboring utopian cultists, we are uniquely susceptible to the leader (con man?) who says, “Give yourselves over to me and my regime and I will purify and sanctify you.” Examples in my work include The Women (about Frank Lloyd Wright), The Inner Circle (Alfred Kinsey) and The Terranauts (John Allen and the Biosphere II project), and that is only a partial list.
Wiegenstein: In The Road to Wellville, the characters’ preoccupation with diet seems to have contemporary resonance. Do you see a connection to the utopian impulse?
Boyle: Yes, even in the early 1990s when I was writing The Road to Wellville, I was inspired by the parallels between the early health-food advocates and the ones we see now, as well as their food and exercise fads. Kellogg had splendid ideas–vegetarian diet, no alcohol or tobacco, regular exercise–but what made him ludicrous (and suspicious) in my eyes was his messianic and puritanical bent. (Incidentally, I loved Alan Parker’s film version, with Anthony Hopkins in the ever-so-slightly menacing role of Dr. Kellogg.) Further, I do see our obsession with purity of food as part of the utopian impulse, as you put it, and, as The Road to Wellville suggests, what does this have to with but the very saving of our souls (and corporeal beings too) through staving off death?
Wiegenstein: In writing The Road to Wellville, did you feel compelled to stay close to facts, or relatively free to invent? How did you decide where to draw the line?
Boyle: Fiction has no compulsion to do anything but exist as art. That said, in all my historical novels, I have been motivated by the oddness of actual events and their correspondence with today (how did we get here?), and so have given the history to you as I have received it. All the facts of Kellogg’s life are accurate (so too with my portrayal of Frank Lloyd Wright in The Women and Alfred C. Kinsey in The Inner Circle)—I suppose I’d be a historian if I weren’t a novelist. But the novelist can dig into the brains and p.o.v. of historical figures in the way historians can’t, and that is a great joy for me. As for your final question regarding the line between invention and fact, my conscience is clear.
Steve, Thanks for posting and getting my mind headed in this direction. I recently finished the second volume of a novel set during and after the Civil War and I was aware of the Utopian movement thought didn’t deliberately use anything I know or learned about it. However, the real-life woman (unnamed) had a notable life in a coastal southern city during that period working with young unmarried and working mothers and their children. She and her husband even had a beach house that was dedicated to providing vacations at the beach for some of these women. In my novel, the second volume, the fictional main character ends up, without intention, taking first two, then more, then more of these women into her home and before long her very large house is, itself, a utopian community. I found the whole idea fascinating to work with and am interested now in doing more with it.