“Nobody will ever believe how they looked. Descriptions aren’t any good when it comes to women, and I never was good at descriptions anyhow. But it’s got to be done somehow…”
Herland, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s proto-feminist utopian novel, has the premise of a Russ Meyer picture. Three young, single explorers—a wealthy lothario, a timid academic, and Vandyck Jennings, our equable narrator—are on an expedition in a remote, densely forested hinterland when they hear an exciting rumor. According to the local savages, there exists a strange land, atop a mountain at the source of a great river, inhabited only by women. “Women Country,” grunts their guide, by way of explanation. No man who has traveled to this country has ever come back. This can mean only one of two things. Either the women are murderers, or they are extraordinarily lovely.
The explorers decide to see for themselves. “There was something attractive to a bunch of unattached young men in finding an undiscovered country of a strictly Amazonian nature,” writes Gilman, with characteristic understatement. The men hire an airplane and fly to the magic mountain. On the way they have fantasies of “a sort of sublimated summer resort—just Girls and Girls and Girls.” Things begin promisingly enough. From the airplane they spy wide plains, parklike meadows, manicured forests, and towns with neat rows of pink houses. It is almost “too pretty to be true.” Upon landing they discover that even the vines have been thoughtfully trained around the trees, which are as cultivated “as so many cabbages.” Every tree bears fruit, and in one tree they discover sweet fruit indeed: a trio of nymphs dangling from the high branches and giggling down at them. Chasing after the girls, the men arrive in a spotlessly clean town, where they are soon surrounded by packs of women. But these aren’t the women of Supervixens or Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. They are athletic, wear their hair short, and are beyond childbearing age (the younger women, they later learn, are being hidden from them). The women’s garments—comfortable and not particularly formfitting—have an astonishing number of pockets. To the men, their hosts resemble “women doctors” or “aunts.” “If they were only younger,” gripes the lothario. But Gilman will have her revenge.
We know what’s coming next: the guided tour. Utopias are the most predictable of fictional forms, and the most transparent in their strategies. Each tenet of the imagined world stands in opposition to a tenet of our own; each is an improvement, or an enlightened reversal of what we practice. A social motivation looms heavily behind Herland.
After publishing The Yellow Wallpaper (1892), a harrowing account of a woman driven to madness by her husband’s extreme psychiatric therapies, Gilman had devoted herself to writing books about economics, education, and domestic life, decrying the economic imprisonment of women in a society that denied them financial independence. She believed that, in order “to be human, women must share in the totality of humanity’s common life.” But in 1915 American women shared almost none of it. Women were allowed to vote in only a handful of states, all of them in the scarcely populated West. They were largely left out of the workforce, the arts, and organized religion. Men had even begun advising them how to raise their children, as the behaviorists argued that mothers should defer to the scientific wisdom of experts—doctors, teachers, and psychologists who knew better than them.
Vandyck and his pals hold these views themselves, so they are stunned to discover, during their tour of Herland, that women are not inherently “timid, inexperienced, weak,” but have been so conditioned by men; or that women act weak, and exhibit others behaviors associated with “femininity,” only in order to pacify, appease, or seduce men. There is no shame or jealousy in Herland, only a thriving collective zeal for self-betterment and harmony. Unlike the rest of the globe—which has just entered into World War I—there is no war. There is not even petty crime.
Most of Gilman’s views anticipate the Women’s Rights movement of the ’20s, along with the advent of feminism four decades later, but others diverge significantly. For all of Gilman’s condemnation of the male view of women as “limited beings,” the women of Herland are limited as well—by an intense, all-consuming devotion to motherhood. Childrearing consumes their thoughts and activities. “Motherhood was the dominant note of their whole culture,” writes Gilman, and it is not immediately clear whether this is intended as a compliment or a slight.
Contemporary feminists, at least, will be unsettled by this monolithic view of womanhood. The women of Herland possess no sexual desire, which makes sense because they give birth parthenogenetically. They are selfless to the point of monotony, since all of their energies are directed toward raising the next generation. There are few conflicts because they all share this devotion. “By motherhood they were born and by motherhood they lived,” writes Gilman. “Life was, to them, just the long cycle of motherhood.” Their mantra is noble—to the point of absurdity. Because of the society’s uniformity, its art is bad, confined to pageantry celebrating the rites of motherhood. The literature suffers too: they only have children’s books.
Gilman understood that the purity of any utopia is its fatal flaw. Even the leaders of Herland understand this. They are eager to learn more about the outside word, so they ask Vandyck to take his bride, Ellador, on a fact-finding expedition to the “bi-sexual” lands. Vandyck warns that the rest of the world is not nearly so nice as what she’s accustomed to, but she doesn’t mind. “I shall enjoy it all,” she says, imagining “far greater movement, constant change, with new possibilities of growth.” Knowing of the existence of this other world, she has come to see her own as tedious. There is never any news. The art is bad. The sex is nonexistent. In the novel’s sequel, With Her in Ourland (1916), Vandyke and Ellador travel the world, hoping to spread the enlightened ideas of Herland. They observe war, class struggle, and racial injustice. But in the end they return to Herland. It’s only 1916; they’re not ready for the world. And the world isn’t ready for them.
Other notable novels published in 1915:
The Rivet in Grandfather’s Neck by James Branch CabellThe Bent Twig by Dorothy CanfieldThe Song of the Lark by Willa CatherThe Genius by Theodore DreiserThe Harbor by Ernest Poole
Bestselling novel of the year:
The Turmoil by Booth Tarkington
About this series:
This monthly series will chronicle the history of the American century as seen through the eyes of its novelists. The goal is to create a literary anatomy of the last century—or, to be precise, from 1900 to 2014. In each column I’ll write about a single novel and the year it was published. The novel may not be the bestselling book of the year, the most praised, or the most highly awarded—though awards do have a way of fixing an age’s conventional wisdom in aspic. The idea is to choose a novel that, looking back from a safe distance, seems most accurately, and eloquently, to speak for the time in which it was written. Other than that there are few rules. I won’t pick any stinkers.—Nathaniel Rich
1902—Brewster’s Millions by George Barr McCutcheon1912—The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man by James Weldon Johnson1922—Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis1932—Tobacco Road by Erskine Caldwell1942—A Time to Be Born by Dawn Powell1952—Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison1962—One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey1972—The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin1982—The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux1992—Clockers by Richard Price2002—Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides2012—Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain1903—The Call of the Wild by Jack London1913—O Pioneers! By Willa Cather1923—Black Oxen by Gertrude Atherton1933—Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West1943—Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles1953—Junky by William S. Burroughs1963—The Group by Mary McCarthy1973—The Princess Bride by William Goldman1983—Meditations in Green by Stephen Wright1993—The Road to Wellville by T.C. Boyle2003—The Known World by Edward P. Jones2013—Equilateral by Ken Kalfus1904—The Golden Bowl by Henry James1914—Penrod by Booth Tarkington1924—So Big by Edna Ferber1934—Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara1944—Strange Fruit by Lillian Smith1954—The Bad Seed by William March1964—Herzog by Saul Bellow1974—Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig1984—Neuromancer by William Gibson1994—The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields2004—The Plot Against America by Philip Roth2014—The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez1905—The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton