Gender and Sexual Perversity in Novels of Socialism at the Turn of the Twentieth Century
Edward Bellamy insisted on describing his utopia as “nationalist” rather than “socialist,” saying in a letter to William Dean Howells that he could never “well stomach” the term “socialism,” not only because of its “foreign” ring, but also because it suggested to him “all manner of sexual novelties.” Nor was Bellamy alone among his colleagues: most utopian socialist writers in the US disavowed the term, many, like Bellamy, coining other labels for their cooperative, manifestly socialist societies. Certainly socialism’s American detractors had often, and long before Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1888), gone to the deep rhetorical well of domestic and sexual perversity for arguments against socialism, beginning with reactions to antebellum utopian communities like Oneida, with its institution of “complex marriage,” and those based on Fourier’s model of a “New Amorous World.” But Bellamy and his followers’ conservative gender and sexual politics did not do much, apparently, to disarm the appeal to the imagined sexual and domestic perversity of socialism in the many novelistic replies to Looking Backward.
This paper investigates this particular rhetorical terrain in novels of socialism in the era of Bellamy, in which the tensions between socialist and capitalist modes of social and economic organization are imagined through a dialectic of normal and perverse domesticity and sexuality (particularly masculine sexuality). In novels such as manufacturer David M. Parry’s speculative, dystopian Scarlet Empire (1906) and Thomas Dixon’s romance, Comrades: A Story of Social Adventure in California (1909), two divergent rejoinders to Bellamy, I argue that the heavy lifting of imagining the prospects of socialism has less to do with envisioning a loss of individual agency within a collective, cooperative society and more to do with envisioning a collapse of normative domesticity and masculine sexuality. These two–the fate of individualism and gender and sexual identity–are clearly enmeshed. The paper will address Parry and Dixon’s, as well as other novels of socialism (both “against,” as are these two, and “for”) that emerged on the heels of Bellamy’s novel in order to better understand the ways in which ideas of socialism at the turn of the last century are wrapped up with the period’s politics of gender and sexuality. “Looking backward” to these popular fictional narratives of socialism will not only illuminate their historical moment, but might also help give us some purchase on the continued rhetorical power of “socialism” among powerful conservative political groups to signal perversity and influence voting, a rhetorical tactic which we can expect to see more of as we approach the Presidential election this November.