Kristen Egan walks us through a creepy utopian novel from 1915, and explains why environmentalism and eugenics went hand in hand in the early 20th century.
ED: To wrap things up today, we’re going to spend a few minutes looking at a novel that in a lot of ways encapsulates how Americans thought about cleanliness at the turn the 20th century. The novel is called Herland. And it was published in 1915 by an author and social reformer named Charlotte Perkins Gilman.
The book may not have been a commercial success, but it did lay out a blueprint for a perfectly clean society, one that would have resonated with a lot of Americans.
BRIAN: The story starts with three male explorers who stumble onto an astonishing sight, Herland, a nation consisting entirely of women.
There are neat towns with sturdy houses, orchards of fruit trees, well-built infrastructure. Most of all, it’s clean.
KRISTEN EGAN: They comment about how there’s no dirt, there’s no smoke, and there’s no noise.
BRIAN: This is Kristen Egan, a professor of English at Mary Baldwin College.
KRISTEN EGAN: And they just can’t get over how clean it is. And they even say things like, “the streets of Herland were as dustless as a well-swept floor.” And they’ll say that the country itself is as neat as a Dutch kitchen.
BRIAN: Egan says the men noticed two kinds of cleanliness right way. There’s the domestic side, starched linen and sparkling dishes. But there’s also the world outside the home.
KRISTEN EGAN: In addition to the lack of pollution, the women practice composting. They practice sustainable agriculture. They only grow fruit-bearing trees. They don’t bury dead bodies. They only cremate people. It just goes on and on. So they’re doing everything they can to create an environment that is sustainable.
ED: The connection between cleanliness and what we’ve come to call environmentalism has lasted right on up to the present day. Don’t litter. Keep America clean. They’re slogans we can all get on board with. But in Herland, the idea of cleanliness also pointed in a darker direction, toward policies that didn’t wear quite as well.
BRIAN: To understand this third take on cleanliness, you need to know a little more about Herland’s history. Thousands of years ago, the nation was home to men, too. But the men marched off to fight a war and, well, a sudden volcanic eruption killed them all off.
The women back home survived.
KRISTEN EGAN: And you might assume that a nation full of only women would die out at some point because of some obvious biological limitations. However, this is a utopia. So there’s going to be some stretches of the imagination, some miraculous things that have to happen in the plot line in order to have the utopia.
And the miraculous thing that happens here is that the women end up suddenly possessing the power to reproduce parthenogenetically.
ED: That it is to say they could reproduce without men. Apparently, one of the original women who survived the volcanic eruption was able to become pregnant on her own. She had five daughters. And then each of those daughters was also able to have five daughters of their own. Soon enough, the society was reproducing rapidly and happily without men.
KRISTEN EGAN: And that gets us to the third form of cleanliness and, perhaps, the most sinister form of cleanliness, which is a form of racial cleansing.
The women are described as being of Aryan heritage. And they practice eugenics.
So we know that they have parthenogenetic powers. But if a woman is undesirable in the country, she is asked not to breed. She is essentially asked to abstain from procreating.
And if, for some reason, the undesirable woman decides to procreate anyway, the child will be taken from her. She won’t be allowed to raise her own child. And instead, the women at the community that are deemed most fit to raise the child will raise the child. And so, in that way, they’re performing cleanliness in the sense of racial purity.
ED: Now the prospect of eugenesis utopia of this sort sounds really creepy to us today. But in the novel, the three male explorers didn’t bat an eyelash at the idea. And they were probably just like most readers of the book. Eugenics was mainstream.
KRISTEN EGAN: It was clearly a reactionary impulse in response to all the immigrants that were coming into America around the turn of the century and during the progressive era. And there was real fear that we would have a kind of racial contamination, that the Anglo-Saxon roots of the race would die out. And in its place, instead, all these immigrants would be taking over, and their bloodlines would be taking over the country, so to speak.
ED: Fears of racial contamination were taken seriously, seriously enough that in the early 20th century 33 US states legalized compulsory sterilization for various so-called undesirables. By the 1960s, more than 60,000 Americans had been sterilized. Supporters saw the programs is a step toward a pure society.
BRIAN: There’s an interesting ending to the novel. One of the explorers has married a Herlander woman and wants to return to the United States with his bride. But the Herlanders have heard stories about America, stories of pollution and epidemics.
So in the end, they asked the happy couple to keep their location secret. Opening up the nation to dirty outsiders is not a risk the Herlanders want to take.
ED: Americans of the era apparently thought along the same lines. In 1917, Congress passed an immigration law that barred, quote, “all persons mentally or physically defective” as well as nearly all would-be be immigrants from the Middle East and Asia.
A few years later, another law dramatically restricted Jewish immigration. The law’s purpose was to, quote, “maintain the racial preponderance,” end quote, of Anglo-Saxon blood, in other words to keep America clean.
BRIAN: Helping us tell that story was Kristen Egan, an assistant professor of English at Mary Baldwin College.