Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Republic of the Future by Anna Bowman Dodd-Part One

Awhile back, in writing about Francis Stevens, I mentioned a book called The Republic of the Future by Anna Bowman Dodd (1887), an early dystopian novel and maybe the first by an American woman or by any woman anywhere. There isn't much about Anna Bowman Dodd on the Internet. Unfortunately, I don't have access to the online resources that I have used in the past in researching and writing about writers and artists. I'll just have to go with what I have found.

Anna Bowman Blake was born on January 21, 1858, in Brooklyn, New York, the daughter of a merchant. In 1883, she married Edward Williams Dodd (1848-1909), a Bostonian and a direct descendant of John Hancock. Like his father-in-law, Dodd was a merchant. He was also a clubman, and according to the New York Times (Oct. 1, 1909), the Dodds' home on Madison Avenue in New York "was the rendezvous for all that was most distinguished in the social world, in art, and in literature." In later years he and his wife lived in France. Dodd was in failing health for some time towards the end of his life. He died at his home, Le Manoir de Vasouy, in Honfleur, Calvados, Normandy, on September 6, 1909. His widow survived him by two decades, dying in Paris on January 29, 1929.

Described by the Encyclopedia Americana as "a voluminous writer for the magazines from her youth," Anna Bowman Dodd authored many books, most of which are travel books, including Cathedral Days: A Tour in Southern England (1887), Glorinda, A Story (novel, 1888), On the Broads (illustrated by Joseph Pennell, 1896), Castilian Days (1899), Falaise, the Town of the Conqueror (1900), In the Palaces of the Sultan (non-fiction, 1903), On the Knees of the Gods (novel, 1908), Heroic France (1915), Up the Seine to the Battlefields (1920), In and Out of Three Normandy Inns (1924), Tallyrand, the Training of a Statesman, 1754-1838 (1927), The Struthers, and An American Husband in Paris. She also wrote for The London Art Journal. The Republic of the Future, or Socialism, A Reality, from 1887, was her first book or one of her first. Though satirical, it is also a serious foretelling of a future society into which we seemed to have arrived, at least in part.

You would think that a long-forgotten writer would remain forgotten. Instead, Anna Bowman Dodd was recently (in relative terms) the subject of an article called "An 1887 Science Fiction Novel Predicted DeBlasio and Bloomberg’s New York" by Daniel Greenfield (Feb. 15, 2014). When it comes to predictions, I'm with Yogi Berra who said (perhaps apocryphally), "It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future." Science fiction writers aren't very good at making predictions, but we should remember that science fiction isn't about prediction. Instead, the idea is to extrapolate into the future, or into an alternate past or present, what we already know about ourselves and the world in which we live. That's where the predictive power comes from, and that was what Anna Bowman Dodd was able to do, to a really startling degree, in 1887. I should point out that Looking Backward: 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy (1850-1898) was published the same year as The Republic of the Future, although I don't know which came out first. (See postscript below.) The fashion in academia and the penumbrae of academia is to call a work like Anna's "reactionary" or "an attack" on socialism or progressivism. I would say that once an effective observer pokes holes into a bloated gasbag of an idea, that idea can never really get off the ground. That's what Anna Bowman Dodd did with socialism, and in fewer than one hundred pages.

Postscript (June 4, 2015): I have just read a review of The Republic of the Future, a review published in the New York Times on August 1, 1887. I still don't know the date of publication of Looking Backward: 2000-1887, but I have read of booksellers placing the newly published volume on their shelves in January 1888. So, maybe Anna Bowman Dodd's book came first and beat Bellamy to the punch.

Next: Quotes from The Republic of the Future.

"The longer I stay here the more I am impressed with the profound melancholy which appears to have taken possession of this people." (p. 58)

"They have the look of people who have come to the end of things and have failed to find it amusing." (p. 23)

The other day, I closed with a painting from the 1940s, Lawrence's cover for Famous Fantastic Novels from September 1948. Here is a painting from that same era, "The Subway" by George Tooker (1920-2011), from 1950. The people in the picture don't seem to me to be melancholic so much as filled with anxiety and despair. Also, they aren't living in a socialist society, or not yet. Nonetheless, there is a feeling of dystopian conformity and of being caged without the possibility of escape. The painting could easily be a work of fantasy or science fiction, but maybe of a later period, for it is in strong contrast with the exuberant images of science fiction of its time. On the other hand, 1984 by George Orwell was published only a year before Tooker finished his painting.

Text copyright 2015 Terence E. Hanley

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