Maybe I’m the only one who didn’t know about Islandia, the novel by Austin Tappen Wright. Both my brothers, for example, have read it. But that was back in their hippie days when I’m certain that the Islandian agrarian ways, the idealized simple life, the personal, nearly libertarian freedom of the Islandian concept had great appeal to people living in teepees and growing organic gardens. The blurb I read referred to the book as the “best utopian novel ever written.” I’m not sure I consider Islandia a utopia but it is a fascinating, attractive place—a complete fiction from the mind of an New England attorney who left a 2000 plus page typescript manuscript behind for his daughter to edit to around 1000 pages. (Apparently, Wright’s father and grandfather also created fictional worlds so perhaps this kind of thing is genetic).
Here’s the gist. (This has never been a film or mini-series). A young American befriends an Islandian student at Harvard in the early 1900’s and learns the language while on a summer sailing trip with him. The Islandian fellow returns home and later our American, John Lang, is appointed consul to Islandia, a country as xenophobic as Japan before Perry. (Foreigners can stay one year only if they pass the physical and have legitimate business). Islandians are xenophobic but almost neurotically hospitable. Lang arrives in the middle of a controversy and is welcomed by his old friend’s family who establish a room for him in their home to use whenever he might decide to drop by. The controversy involves the Islandian prime minister trying to talk the national council into ratifying a treaty he had signed with Germany which would open up Islandia to development. Lang’s friend Dorn is on the opposing side and the plot of the first part of the book involves the politics between the first families of Islandia as to whether or not it would be good for the country to have choo choo trains, telephones and combustion engines or whether the Islandians would continue to travel by horse and wagon. The xenophobes fear not only foreigners but foreign inventions. In the midst of this geopolitical intrigue is the concern that the northern farms might be raided by the quaintly named “Mountain Negroes” who live across the border. (The Islandians seem to be of a Caucasian persuasion though their skins are coppery from all of their outdoor time). There’s really not much to the plot. The book is more concerned with Lang’s interaction with Islandia, its geography, culture and people, especially its ladies.
Lang has an adventure with Dorn, and a legendary mountaineer named Don, and the lone wolf King (are utopias monarchical?) of Islandia (the King of Islandia apparently has no court or castle but roams the country dropping in on people) when they come across what appears to be a German border incursion. This is somewhat of a diplomatic embarrassment for Lang as counsel and because of his friendship with the Dorns and others who oppose opening the borders, and his failure to help American business corrupt the country, he is dumped from his job. In his remaining time in Islandia, Lang travels about visiting various families, working on a farm and then volunteers for the border patrol in a sort of ad hoc militia and circumstantially becomes a national hero by surviving a sneak attack of the …MN word…and warning the closest farms saving many, including the queen. Subsequently the treaty is defeated after a long, interesting and dramatic debate at the council. Islandia is saved from the pollution of foreign interests and Lang is rewarded with an invitation to remain in the country. He is also given permission to import a sewing machine as a gift—an exception to the Islandian preference to do every single thing the hard but natural way.
When his year is up he returns to New York to see if Islandia is what he really wants, goes to work with his uncle who got him the counsel’s job in the first place, and makes his best effort to be a successful businessman. He begins to call on a young woman who had corresponded with him during the time he had been away. In his absence she had read the book on US History which he wrote for the Islandians in Islandian. By this exercise she learned the language, and, conveniently, had become an orphan, allowing her to make decisions with no parental input and leaving her without financial resource. After a drawn out romance they decide to marry and return to Islandia where the Dorns have agreed to sell Lang one of their three farms. The rest of the book involves the rocky integration of the new wife into Islandian life, culture and society.
The real story of Islandia, however, involves the romances Lang has with two Islandian ladies and then, thus Islandized, his relationship with the American woman who will be his wife. It’s a Victorian sexual fantasy. Lang, a virgin in his late twenties, first falls in love with Dorna, Dorn’s sister. Wright brings this moody, ambitious, dark-haired, earthy beauty completely to life. It is obvious that ATW was a true admirer of females. For Lang, falling in love with an Islandian is no easy matter because they have three different kinds of love and American men have trouble with one kind of love. But Lang is up to the challenge and tries to get all three kinds lined up so that Dorna will be his. She is unlike any woman he has known. Wild and independent she goes barefoot on her little sailing craft after picking him up for a visit and they spend the night getting back to the farm and sleep in the same cabin! Unheard of in Lang’s day. Later she strips for a skinny dip as will any Islandian lass. Lang is smitten beyond description having seen no more than an ankle before landing on Islandia. But Dorna and Dorn and Nattana (we’ll get to her in a moment) all warn Lang against marrying an Islandian woman. Why this would be a bad idea we are not quite certain. But they are very clear that he shouldn’t do it. It involves the intricacies of the three kinds of love. In the end, Dorna opts to marry the gorgeous young king who has, apparantly dropped by her farm a few times. This decision also involves the three kinds of love, only one kind of which involves lust. Islandian girls are quick to admit their physical passion.
Lang, unrequited, ends up at the another farm that has quite a few daughters and becomes lovers with Hytha Nattana, the complicated, hot-to-knot weaver he had met in the early part of the book. Nattana refuses to marry him but weaves him a wardrobe (Islandians wear loose-fitting natural fabrics and comfortable, sensible shoes like sandals). The clothes are all she is able to save when the you-know-who’s attack and trash the farm. (Later on she gets that sewing machine as her handsome reward). And, then, romance number three—the wife—who after a couple hundred pages succumbs to the charms of utopia and the ardor of John Lang. We leave them on the farm, harvest completed, winter coming on, prepared to travel the country, visit Lang’s old friends while working on three kinds of love.
I wonder if the editors of Islandia were fair to the author. I wonder if they should have edited a word. Even at 1000 pages (the edition I read was 900) there seems to be much missing, or rather, much more the engaged reader would like to know about Islandia no matter how tedious it might be. There are endless descriptions of the natural beauty of Islandia, and enough about social customs to make you believe it is another culture. And, there is an attractiveness about the place. If it were to exist now we would want to travel there and ride horseback through the countryside and visit a farm or two and stay at an inn and revel at the backwardness of a 2000 year old civilization. (Lang introduced ice skating to the country!)
If you make it through page 250 you will no doubt finish the book. It would be a great summer hammock read and I wish I had saved it for those lazy days of summer.
“The sun shone hot and and the air was full of the warm fragrance of earth and of vegetation. It was a fertile region. Leaves of vegetables and grass in the meadows were lush and green; sprouting maize and grains held up strong stalks and full heads; and flowers in gardens glowed as though just watered. Even the road itself was invaded, and sometimes our horses’ hooves thudded in the grass.”
It’s quite an achievement to create a world and write it down and make it coherent, consistent and enticing. One ends up yearning for a more simple, open, physical life and where skinny-dipping is as natural as water. It’s no wonder that Islandia is a cult classic with many diehard supporters. A Google search will lead you to Islandia websites and more information about ATW, Islandia and the lost manuscript (the typescript survives).