In A Traveler From Altruria, William Dean Howells reminded Americans that if they continued to justify their egoism and selfishness at the expense of the common good, all that had profited them in this world would have been purchased at the cost of their souls

Dismissed as an apologist for the manners and morals of the American bourgeoisie, William Dean Howells long ago fell out of critical favor. Too sympathetic to the bourgeois ethos to critique its shortcomings, Howells seemed content to ridicule the harmless eccentricities and to chronicle the occasional misadventures that disrupted the otherwise comfortable lives of middle-class Americans and their families. Since he wrote about the ordinary and the everyday, Romantics considered his perspective trifling, frivolous, and inconsequential. Modern critics, by contrast, found his vindication of bourgeois respectability diffident, cowardly, and anemic. But Howells was neither trivial nor craven. Beginning in the 1880s, his literary world grew steadily darker. Evil asserted itself with greater vigor and influence while good became ever more passive and ineffectual. A Traveler from Altruria (1894), Howells’ dystopian vision of American life during the Gilded Age, exemplifies this pattern of artistic and intellectual development, even if superficially the novel resembles a genteel satire. 

The most self-consciously philosophical of Howells’ novels, A Traveler from Altruria does not offer a realistic narrative. The characters are archetypical and allegorical, although each has a distinct personality and a singular outlook. Unlike A Modern Instance (1882), The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885), or A Hazard of New Fortunes (1889), in this work Howells does not pretend to stark realism, the literary aesthetic that he introduced into American fiction. His contrivance instead accentuates the degree to which various representatives of American society deviate from their professed ideals. With few exceptions, they assert their respect for working men, their esteem for women, their reverence for farmers, and their devotion to freedom and equality. But in Gilded Age America, as Howells points out, workers are bullied and oppressed; women are denied political rights; farmers are crushed by debt; freedom is an illusion and equality a sham. So immersed in their world view, so protective of their culture, status, and way of life are Howells’ characters that they cannot see the flaws in their perspective, even when he makes them painfully apparent.

Had Howells been content to reveal the hypocrisy of the American middle class, A Traveler from Altruria would have been a successful but far less important book. Howells sought to address a problem that was more serious and disturbing than mere pretense and duplicity. He did not regard his middle-class characters as hypocrites, for hypocrisy requires that a person affirm certain ideas and values in principle while disavowing them in practice. Most of the characters in A Traveler from Altruria do not know what they think, believe, or feel. Howells was concerned, first, to explain why they dishonored and betrayed the ideals that they professed to cherish and, second, to clarify why they did not recognize they were doing so. From this point of view, hypocrisy was preferable.

With the exception of the contemptible Professor Lumen, Howells’ cast of characters, which includes a lawyer, an industrialist, a minister, a physician, and a banker, are not haughty, malignant, or evil. They are invariably affable, courteous, and forthright. The most illustrious villains in literature (and sometimes in life), such as Lucifer in Milton’s Paradise Lost to name only the most obvious example, are sympathetic figures because they know the good and reject it. There is something refreshingly audacious about their willingness to tempt fate and accept the consequences. In this respect, Howells’ characters are worse than bad. Although they are given to uttering bold pronouncements, their conduct is apprehensive, superficial, irresponsible, and petty. Neither obviously nor intentionally malevolent, they are unaware of, and thus indifferent to, the misery and injustice that surround them. They cannot or will not acknowledge that reality, for they deny that such afflictions continue to torment American society.

These men work hard and measure their success in terms of the wealth, property, and status that the world bestows on them in exchange for their effort. They do not repent of their sins because they do not understand themselves to have committed any act or neglected to perform any office that requires penance and absolution. The world they have created—the world that they dominate—is, for the most part, as pleasant and genial as are they. In Howells’ estimation the problem lies therein, for that world is tedious, dismal, and ultimately murderous. Describing the typical American businessman in A Traveler from Altruria, Howells is as once damning and sympathetic. He never forgets that these men are themselves victims. Perhaps their wounds are self-inflicted, but they are excruciating and sometimes fatal nonetheless.

“Hot, worried, and anxious,” these casualties of American enterprise stumble off of the trains that have carried them from the city to the resorts where their wives and children are spending the summer. After six days of labor, the thirty-six hours of leisure that they permit themselves scarcely offer a moment’s respite. They arrive exhausted and their pleasures leave them more exhausted still by the time they depart on Sunday evening. With unintentional irony, Mr. Twelvemough, who serves as the chaperon for Mr. Homos, the Altrurian traveler, during his visit, explains that Americans, eminently practical people that they are, determined:

If we continued to kill ourselves with hard work, there would be no Americans pretty soon…. [A]nd as soon as we made that discovery we stopped killing ourselves and invented the summer resort. There are very few of our business or professional men now who don’t take their four or five weeks’ vacation. Their wives go off early in the summer, and if they go to some resort within three or four hours of the city, the men leave town Saturday afternoon and run up, or come up, and spend Sunday with their families…. A hotel like this is a nest of happy homes.

Recognizing that periodic sojourns to resort hotels are insufficient to save some unfortunate businessmen, Mr. Twelvemough does not recoil in horror at the consequences. He relishes them. He informs Mr. Homos that:

You have no conception of how hard our business men and professional men work. I suppose there is nothing like it anywhere else in the world. But, as I said before, we are beginning to find that we cannot burn the candle at both ends and have it last long. So we put one end out for a little while every summer. Still, there are frightful wrecks of men strewn all along the course of our prosperity, wrecks of mind and body. Our insane asylums are full of madmen who have broken down under the tremendous strain, and every country in Europe abounds in our dyspeptics.

Mr. Twelvemough expresses delight in this “terrible fact.” “There is no doubt,” he says, “but we Americans are proud of overworking ourselves; Heaven knows why.” It is, he supposes, merely the cost that prosperity exacts.

Dismayed at the physical and spiritual toll that a civilization devoted to business necessitates, Mr. Homos inquires about other “weary workers.” Mr. Twelvemough is uncomprehending. “What other weary workers?,” he asks. He assumes that he had “gone over pretty much the whole list.” Those who perform manual labor, from farmers, factory workers, and miners to waitresses, porters, and teamsters, never enter his consciousness. He takes no notice of them and, therefore, they do not exist.

Mr. Twelvemough is especially culpable for this oversight, for by profession he is a writer. Howells placed the responsibility for articulating and defending truth not with workers or businessmen, but with men of learning and women of leisure who have the time, the inclination, and the ability to ponder and reflect, since presumably they are not consumed with making a living or turning a profit. In A Traveler from Altruria, these sentinels of intellect and culture bear the weight of Howells’ moral indignation, which other writers, such as Sinclair Lewis, reserved for businessmen. Professor Lumen is the principal object of Howell’s wrath. Entrusted to uncover, safeguard, and perpetuate truth, Lumen devotes himself to falsehood, ignorance, and malice.

An advocate of laissez-faire social and economic policies, Lumen settles the fate of the working poor and the unemployed in a ruthlessly Darwinian fashion. Discussing the treatment appropriate to these unfortunate men and women, Lumen argues that, if they cannot or will not provide for their own maintenance, they deserve confinement in the poor house or the penitentiary. “It seems a hard fate,” counters the minister, “that the only provision the law makes for people who are worn out by sickness or a life of work should be something that assorts them with idiots and lunatics, and brings such shame upon them that it is almost as terrible as death.” In answer, Lumen retorts that “it is the only way to encourage independence and individuality…. Of course,” he acknowledges, “it has a dark side. But anything else would be sentimental and unbusinesslike, and in fact, un-American.” The economic orthodoxy of the late nineteenth-century assumed that human beings were inherently selfish. Rather than lamenting greed and acquisitiveness, Professor Lumen sees those qualities as the main instruments of social progress.

The eminent sociologist William Graham Sumner, who occupied the chair in political and social science at Yale, supplied the model for Professor Lumen. The leading exponent of Social Darwinism in the United States, Sumner was a disciple of the English social theorist Herbert Spencer. According to Sumner’s interpretation of Spencer’s thought, conflict was the defining characteristic of human life in general and, in particular, of economic life. The weak and incompetent were doomed to failure in this pitiless struggle, while the strong endured and grew stronger. Whatever misfortunes and anguish individuals might endure, society as a whole benefitted from the elimination of its stupid, wanton, infirm, and useless members, who were unsuited for survival. Sumner agreed with Spencer that freedom was both the most vital condition and the most important result of social evolution. As such, he was adamant that individuals must enjoy absolute freedom to compete, succeed, or fail. However brutal and remorseless, competition must be permitted to continue unimpeded, without interference from government. The only legitimate role for government, Sumner insisted, was to secure the private property of men and to defend the honor of women. Any further regulation or attempt to mitigate suffering, including charitable aid to the poor, would only beget social injustice and encumber human advancement.

Some Americans, Sumner wrote “seem to be terrified that distress and misery still remain on earth and promise to remain as long as the vices of human nature remain.” The survival of the fittest was inscribed in the nature of existence. “If we do not like survival of the fittest,” Sumner contended, “we have only one possible alternative, and that is the survival of the unfittest. The former is the law of civilization; the latter is the law of anti-civilization.” Attempts to alter or challenge natural law were fraught with peril and, Sumner thought, would surely end in disaster. In a free society, the best people rise to the top. Wealth and power are both the compensation for their diligent toil and the mark of their superior virtue. “It is only to the man of morality that wealth comes,” professed the Episcopal Bishop William Lawrence. “Godliness is in league with riches.” Evolution and Providence alike rewarded intelligence, prudence, strength, and virtue while punishing folly, improvidence, weakness, and vice. Both millionaires and paupers, Sumner concluded, were the corollaries of natural selection and divine ordinance.

Just as Professor Lumen is supposed to be the guardian of knowledge and truth, so Mrs. Makely, the wife of a typically genial, uninformed, and worn out New York businessman, is supposed to be the custodian of manners and morals. Like Professor Lumen, she fails to perform the duties of her office. Mrs. Makley is a fraud, a snob, and a bit of an imbecile. She is arrogant, condescending, and scornful. Again, like Professor Lumen, she has a touch of the demonic about her. At the end of the novel, she asks Mr. Homos to lecture about Altruria to raise funds to renovate the village church. But by setting the cost of admission at $1.00, she hopes to exclude the local residents themselves, thereby transforming the affair from a show of her benevolence into a display of her importance.

For the most part, even Mrs. Makely’s peers find her boorish and tend to avoid her company. Members of the lower classes, by contrast, treat her with undisguised contempt. Even the gentle and benevolent Mrs. Camp, the bed-ridden widow of a local farmer who fought in the Civil War, permits her children to insult Mrs. Makely by telling her the truth about her attitudes toward the poor country folk who live in the vicinity of the resort. “I am sure that you cannot say I look down on the natives,” boasts Mrs. Makley. “Oh, yes, you do,” replies Mrs. Camp’s son, Reuben. “You’ve got more money, and you’ve got nicer clothes, and you’ve got prettier manners. You talk about things that most natives never heard of, and you care for things they never saw. I know it’s the custom to pretend differently, but I’m not going to pretend differently….” The boy’s sister adds: “You know very well, Mrs. Makely… you don’t regard me as you do the young ladies in the hotel.” “And this is the way you all feel towards us?,” a distraught Mrs. Makely asks, her feelings hurt and her pretensions to kindness, justice, and equality shattered.

If the majority of Americans are exhausted by work or obsessed with profits; if intellectuals such as Professor Lumen are intractable and heartless; if women such as Mrs. Makely are frivolous and occasionally cruel, the clergy, in Howells’ estimation, are feeble and worthless. In A Traveler from Altruria, Howells is virtually silent on the role of the clergy. During the conversations that take place on the hotel veranda, the minister contributes nothing of significance. He can only lament how fundamentally unchristian American society has become. Howells at last turns to artists and writers to furnish a truthful assessment of conditions in the United States. A romantic novelist, Mr. Twelvemough represents the artistic consciousness. His observations and judgments afford uninspiring prospects.

The author of such delightful and popular novels as Glove and Gauntlet and Airs and Graces, Mr. Twelvemough has settled contentedly into the life of a renowned literary hack. He, too, is vain and inconsequential. Mr. Twelvemough’s unusual name reveals his character. “Twelvemos” are small pieces of paper cut from a single sheet, or are another name for pages in a book made from paper cut to this size. Mr. Twelvemough is a minor writer of unimportant books. Howells accentuates and exploits Twelvemough’s limitations by relying on him to perform as the narrator. The story of the novel is filtered through Mr. Twelvemough’s impressions, most of which are unreliable, misleading, or wrong. If the world of late nineteenth-century America were not bad enough, Howells adds insult to injury by compelling his readers to see it through the eyes of one who admires it, or who at least sees nothing terribly wrong with things as they are.

Mr. Twelvemough is steeped in self-deception. Enamored of his own romantic idiocies, he projects them onto his guest, Mr. Homos, implying that Homos himself is a romantic and that Altruria is an elaborate fabrication. For Mr. Homos, Mr. Twelvemough’s assumption is a cruel denial of any hope in human progress. It is the worst insult that he can utter to suggest that Altruria is merely the product of a vivid imagination, and that humanity is thus held forever in bondage to the world as it exists. Like the fatuous Mrs. Makley, Mr. Twelvemough is self-centered, irresponsible, and a little unfeeling. He is most pleased with scenery, events, and people when they arrange themselves according to his literary sensibilities. Nothing is real and no one is alive for him until he can recast them as episodes or characters from one of his novels. While showing Mr. Homos the beautiful countryside that surrounds the resort and, incidentally, explaining how it is being ravaged for profit, Mr. Twelvemough comments not on the grandeur of nature but on the literary possibilities of the setting. “I treasured it up in my own mind,” he recalls, “intending some day to make literary use of it.” When visiting the Camps’ home with Mrs. Makely and Mr. Homos, Mr. Twelvemough looks about the drab, cramped parlor and takes in with his “literary sense the simplicity and even bareness of its furnishing,” identifying literary possibilities even in the poverty and suffering of the poor.

Howells’ narrative strategy isolated the world of the novel and, by implication, American society during the 1890s, from the world of Altruria. Howells intimates that, in a way, Mr. Twelvemough is right. Given the confines of his imagination, only the world that he knows is real. The mountain resort denotes society as a whole, and of that society Howells fashions a prison. Mr. Homos’s lengthy description of life in Altruria with which the novel ends substantiates the confinement that the Americans endure without realizing it. His lecture does not issue in a call for reform. It only heightens the vast and perhaps unbridgeable differences that exist between America and Altruria.

The crowd of downtrodden farmers and agricultural workers yearn for an account of the marvelous world from which Mr. Homos has come. They eagerly pay any price to hear him discourse about Altruria, thereby frustrating Mrs. Makely’s scheme to exclude them. But when he finishes, they, like the middle-class characters, return to their own world, which is the only reality they know or have ever known. Mrs. Makely prattles effusively with insincere praise; Professor Lumen sneers with cynical disdain; Mr. Twelvemough remains unsympathetically courteous; the minister denies the possibility of establishing the kingdom of God on earth; after a while, the crowd disperses. Mr. Twlevemough had it right when he earlier confessed to Mr. Makeley that he found Mr. Homos to be “quite as incredible as you do. There are moments when he seems so entirely subjective with me that I feel as if he were no more definite or tangible than a bad conscience.” For most of the Americans who have listened to Mr. Homos’s talk, the wonders of Altruria remain similarly unreal.

When at last Mr. Homos takes his leave of Mr. Twelvemough, the latter is grateful to see him go. “We parted friends…but his acquaintance had become more and more difficult, and I was not sorry to part with him. That taste of his for low company was incurable, and I was glad that I was not to be responsible any longer for whatever strange thing he might do next.” Like the other middle-class characters, Mr. Twelvemough has learned nothing from the encounter with Mr. Homos, which moves Howells toward his pessimistic, but not hopeless, conclusion.

The businessmen who dominate American society can permit Mr. Homos to address the gathering of farmers and workers because these men and women are powerless. Those in charge know that nothing will change. Mr. Homos’s words will not inspire thinkers, writers, or clergymen to envision a new social order, and the working class has no prospect of applying Altruian ideals of democratic equality and Christian benevolence to their daily lives. The guiding principle of American life, as the industrialist has earlier made clear, will remain looking out for “the good of Number One first, last, and all the time.” The United States will still be a country “where every man is for himself.” Neighborliness may be the essence of the Altrurian social philosophy, but as Mrs. Makely avows “all living for one another, not each for himself, is perfectly un-American.” Howells assumes that Americans will sustain their attachment to ruthless competition and the seductive quest for wealth, all the time displaying a casual indifference to the fate of their fellow citizens and a heartless contempt for the poor, whose troubles are neither their concern nor their problem.

After Mr. Homos departs, people go on as before, although Mr. Twelvemough discerns that Mr. Homos “remained very popular with the classes most affected… and… left large numbers of admirers in our house and neighborhood, devout in the faith that there was such a commonwealth as Altruria, and that he really was an Altrurian.” The “more cultivated people,” of course, “continued to be of two minds on both points.” Howell’s ultimate irony was to show the defects of late nineteenth-century American society and to offer an alternate vision of order only in the end to hint that this alternative, however captivating, was unrealistic and unavailable.

Although disgusted by the viciousness that he thought inherent in American capitalism, Howells never lost faith in Christianity or democracy to cure its ills. The early Christians, Mr. Homos reminds his audience, “loved one another and…had all things in common.” A rebirth of Christianity was a necessary prelude to any meaningful reform. Like his protagonist, Howells was convinced that Americans could effect such a transformation in their way of life by exercising the right to vote. “The way to have the golden age,” argues one of Howells’ characters in The World of Chance, a novel that he published in 1892, two years before A Traveler from Altruria, “is to elect it by the Australian [i.e. the secret] ballot. The people must vote themselves into possession of their own business, and intrust [sic] their economic affairs to the same faculty that makes war and peace, that frames laws and that does justice.” Faith in Christianity and faith in democracy were deeply intertwined and mutually reinforcing in Howells’ thought.

The lawless abuse of power was only and ever destructive, no matter whether it was the workers or the capitalists who were at fault. The advance of a Christian and democratic civilization was, for Howells, the hallmark of the only sort of progress that mattered. In the wake of the Homestead Strike during which workers battled Pinkerton detectives in the employ of Andrew Carnegie, Howells wrote to his father that “every drop of blood shed for a good cause helps to make it a bad cause.” In a second letter, he lamented that working men did not realize that they had another source of power far for effective than violence: the vote, which they consistently failed to utilize. Although hardly sympathetic to the plight of the workers, the banker in A Traveler from Altruria most closely expresses Howells’ view. The banker reassures his companions that workers, who compose the “immense majority” of the American population:

Throw away their strength whenever they begin to fight, and they’ve been so badly generaled [sic], up to the present time, that they have wanted to fight at the outset of every quarrel. They have been beaten in every quarrel, but still they always want to begin by fighting. That is all right. When they have learned enough to begin by voting, then we shall have to look out. But if they keep on fighting, and always put themselves in the wrong and getting the worst of if, perhaps we can fix the voting so we needn’t be any more afraid of that than we are of the fighting. It’s astonishing how shortsighted they are…. The spectacle of their stupidity and helpless wilfulness [sic] is so lamentable that I could almost pity them. If they chose, it would take only a few months to transform our government into the likeness of anything they wanted.

The demands of labor may have been just, but, Howells, like the banker, regarded their methods as foolish, myopic, dangerous, and immoral. He wrote to his father that the working class “has the majority of votes and can vote the laws it wants, and it won’t, but prefers to break the laws we share.” That they refused to avail themselves of this advantage, Howells confessed was beyond his capacity to understand.

As much as was the case with Mr. Homos, Howells’ confidence in democracy and Christianity thus seemed naïve and impractical to his contemporaries. Yet, as naïve and impractical fantasies go, Howells felt assured that his was better than most. A Traveler from Altruria is Howells’ cautionary tale. In the novel, he intimates that democratic values and Christian ethics are incompatible with the practices of American capitalism. As Mr. Twelvemough surmises, Mr. Homos may have come to encourage Americans to restore the wholesome customs and beliefs that they have forsaken, and will accept no glib excuses for their laxity:

I glanced at the Altrurian, sitting attentive and silent, and a sudden misgiving crossed my mind concerning him. Was he really a man, a human entity, a personality like ourselves, or was he merely a sort of spiritual solvent, sent for the moment to precipitate whatever sincerity there was in us, and show us what the truth was concerning our relations to each other?

The unanswered question that Howells posed was what, if anything, Americans intended to do to remedy the decadence into which they had fallen.

In A Traveler from Altruria, Howells set out to devise an uncomfortable predicament for his countrymen. He sought to assail the exultant complacency, the optimistic faith, and the moral certainty of a generation which, as Vernon L. Parrington later wrote “accounted the world its oyster and wanted no restrictions laid on its will.” If Americans rejected Howells’ dream of establishing a Christian democracy as inconceivable and absurd, then they equated themselves with the narrow-minded and unimaginative characters whom he had derided in the novel. If, by contrast, they ignored the withering indictment that he leveled at American society, or worse, if they rejoiced in the triumph of the strong and discounted the privation of the weak, then they exposed themselves as heartlessly cruel and morally blind. His was the voice of an insistent and uneasy conscience that could not be silenced. Irksome and exasperating, that conscience intended to remind Americans again and again that if they continued to justify their egoism and selfishness at the expense of the common good, all that had profited them in this world would have been purchased at the cost of their souls.

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