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Islandia by Austin Tappan Wright

Islandia (original 1942; edition 1975)

by Austin Tappan Wright

Series: Islandia (1)

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
4121236,780 (4.24)96
Authors:Austin Tappan Wright
Info:Plume (1975), Paperback
Collections:Your library
Tags:fantasy, posthumous, utopian

Work details

Islandia by Austin Tappan Wright (1942)

  1. 00
    Always Coming Home by Ursula K. Le Guin (Cecrow)
    Cecrow: Ania, apia and alia
  2. 00
    Walden by Henry David Thoreau (Cecrow)
    Cecrow: I find echoes of Thoreau's philosophy in Islandia

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Austin Tappan Wright worked in an American law office until his death in a 1931 car accident, after which his family discovered thousands of pages devoted to an imaginary place he called Islandia. With the help of an editor they assembled a complete 1,000 page novel describing the visit of John Lang, American consul, to this isolated, largely closed country in the southern hemisphere.

Islandia is frequently described as a utopian novel. To the extent this is a utopia, it is not one achieved by any readily stated idealistic philosophy (allowing for some Epicurean shades). Islandians eschew environmental menace and advanced technology as being unnecessary to human happiness. Sociologically, Islandian language and culture might be rated more advanced than ours for having better defined and grappled with the different shades that exist in human relationships, acknowleding the inherent contradictions in pleasure and jealousy, lust and envy. As one of its people illustrates through a fable, for the Islandians happiness is not achieved by denying or seeking to eradicate unhappiness but by its better integration, aided by a strong appreciation for nature. They are also devoted to the merger of arts and science. Farming, for one example, is guided not only by practical considerations but also by the preservation of harmonious aesthetics.

For a nation invented from wholecloth, Islandia is curiously grounded in the real. There is nothing of the absurd, whimsical or fantastical in its creation; it might exist anywhere on Earth, just over the horizon. If anything is unrealistic, it is its people's curiously muted response to stimuli. They are not excited by competition, and are almost entirely lacking for ambition. In place of capitalism and service to the almighty dollar, they are driven only by their roles as caretakers of family property and persons. Whether this would actually transpire in reality is impossible to say, as it could not be faithfully tested by any experiment that lasted less than several hundred years. The overriding sense-of-place-and-home carries over into their attitude towards death. The dead are mourned, but not grieved over. Burial is to become one with the land as another type of service to it, and there are no graveyards to add blemish.

This is only the start. I could write an essay's worth (or several) on examining Islandian life and all of its curious detail; a fact which I find astonishing to reflect upon, given that in all its thousand pages the novel never falls into the weeds of exposition. John Lang learns about Islandia almost sheerly through experience, and I learned of it alongside him. For this reason, because nothing about it is sewn neatly together and presented as a whole for study, the opportunity for interpretation is enormous. Whole schools of thought might compete with one another over what makes Islandia tick (or whether it actually would tick), drawing on provided evidence.

I've scarcely touched upon what I loved most about this novel. I loved the romances John engages in with these incredibly complex and intelligent women who astound with their insights and clear-headedness, penetrating immediately to the core of what John is feeling long before he does, aided by a cultural upbringing that proves all of its worth by this one result alone. This all by itself makes me a believer in the Islandian way of life, or at least provides me with the longing to visit such a place where psychology has been rendered child's play and where love - given the four Islandian words for love that make the single English word look feeble and fumbling by comparison - can be plumbed to its depths and all of its riches unearthed.

I wish I did not have to acknowledge this novel's one sour note: that at the same time Mr. Wright was writing up this brilliant meeting of the sexes, he was also casually propping up racism in equating his continent's black population with savagery that requires containment so it does not invade Islandia's all-white population. It's an unfortunate stain on what would otherwise be a wonderful treasure for every reader to enjoy. ( )
1 vote Cecrow | Jun 27, 2018 |

It's set in the first decade of the last century. Our protagonist has a bromance at Harvard with a scion of the ruling elite of Islandia, a mysterious country on a mysterious continent in the southern hemisphere (more likely the Atlantic than the Pacific, from the hints we are given). After graduation, he pulls some family political strings and gets sent there as the American Consul. And he falls in love, with several of the young women of Islandia, but most of all with the country itself, whose relaxed social and sexual attitudes are a stark contrast with the rather repressed American culture of the Gilded Age. It's a great work of world-building, with a series of romantic plots overlaid (and some politics, but really not all that much). The pace is fairly gentle, but I did find myself caught up in the story, especially the awkwardness of the narrator's relationships with the women of both Islandia and the USA. It's a long read, but worth it. ( )
  nwhyte | May 21, 2018 |
Every now and then a book comes along that is entirely different. The urge to throw superlatives around like confetti becomes irresistible. But there is the word I seek! Irresistible! Wright imagines a continent, Karain, somewhere in the Southern Hemisphere, the "southern" tip of which is a country unto itself, Islandia. Here live a people, essentially white, who came down from the glacial heights of the mountain chain that separates this part of the continent from the rest and took over the area from the original natives, black, many hundreds of years earlier. Islandians live in an idyllic pastoral culture of great stability (which is based, on Epicurean values --they know nothing of the philosopher--but that is, in essence, the culture they have evolved)--the real Epicurean values--not the negative overlay dumped by the evolving Christian power base. For me it is as if I had carefully prepared to read [Islandia]--by recently reading both [The Swerve] (about the recovery of Green and Roman texts that triggered the Renaissance) and [The Metaphysical Club] (the attempt in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to move philosophy in the direction of social utility--which is a horrible reduction). Wright tries to create a society where there is an attempt to balance human need for close bonds within a group with the equally pressing need to be allowed to make independent choices. It is by no means a perfect world, people sometimes make stupid choices, that make them unhappy, but no one makes the mistake of blaming others. It is startling that a hundred years ago Wright was creating this world in which men and women strive to meet as true equals, the whole culture is based on each person standing squarely on their own ground (literally as every family has their patch of earth) and to know how tentative is the progress world cultures have made toward that ideal (for many it is not even become an ideal, of course). The second and equally important thread is man's relationship and responsibilities toward the planet and its resources. This forms the crux of the Islandian hesitation to open themselves up to immigration and trade as the predominant western cultures, American, French, German and British are all about exploitation and greed dressed up as progress, development and civilization (and that arrogant attitude hasn't changed much either!).

The story is set in 1908 and our protagonist, John Lang, becomes friends with Dorn, an Islandian, who is sent to Harvard (interestingly not Oxford or Cambridge--as if they can guess what the next dominant world power is soon going to be). Lang learns Islandian and is chosen to be the first American consul to Islandia, his brief being to help the cause of opening up this isolationist country to trade. Lang soon realizes that the benefits (spoils) will go to the outside world and destroy the Islandian culture and is torn. The plot hinges around this conflict and his own attractions to various Islandian women -- and his gradual learning of what a different culture this is as many of his assumptions about men and women and how they should relate are overthrown.

The false note is in the treatment of the other races on the continent, casually evicted a thousand years earlier from what became Islandia, and not in any way encouraged to have any interaction with Islandians. Also, as a plot device, the Germans have infilitrated most of the rest of the continent and are using the native black population to further their devious and ambitious ends to take over the whole of the continent. Given that the bulk of the novel was written between the two wars, this is isn't surprising, but the racial insensitivity casts a shadow on Islandia as a utopia, they have their blind spots too -- so open about gender equality, but so closed about race.

There is always something to cavil about and that is it, and it isn't enough to damage what is a great story full of wonderful ideas, wisdom, and joy. Despite the flaws it gets ***** ( )
4 vote sibyx | May 15, 2018 |
Without a doubt, one of the strangest, most intriguing books I've ever read. I had to take it in small doses, because I found reading it rather like eating some kind of rich dessert: too much and it was simply overwhelming.

Wright's world-building talent is exquisite. You feel like you're there, experiencing the brilliance of the Islandian seasons, feeling the lush fabrics, hearing the waves lap around your boat with the warm sun on your face. The genealogies, the political processes, the linguistic quirks, the raw human emotion ... all here, all described with an uncommon skill. Islandia may be a fictional place, but Wright makes every rock, pony, and blush feel as real as anything.

I've got a few quibbles with the book, which is certainly of its time, but overall, just wow. Take your time and read it slowly, and it's like few other books out there. ( )
2 vote JBD1 | Dec 30, 2016 |
Islandia is like a Victorian-era Hobbit, except the hobbits are humans, and live in a bucolic wonderland south of the equator instead of north, in lush pastures and woods and villages as delightful as any in the Shire. The country of Islandia is so well conceived — existing as it does on the continent of "Karain," a continent that's about the size of Australia but more like Africa in shape -- I'm convinced it indeed exists, somewhere….

The majestic mountains in Islandia's northernmost reaches, reminiscent of Switzerland's or New Zealand's, and that have formed a natural border but not-so-impenetrable barrier between it and its vulgar, uncivilized, cut-throat neighbors of the Sobo Steppes, are mandatory travel destinations for the most intrepid mountaineer's itinerary, thus making Islandia (as reported by Austin Tappan Wright, Esq.) as much of an in-depth documentary of this fascinating nation as it is a 1,024 page novel presently published by The Overlook Press.

At the novel's outset Islandia is on the cusp of opening its doors to foreign trade and diplomatic relations for the first time in her history, and it's this intrigue of industrialized Germany, England, and the United States attempting to outsmart one another (and agrarian Islandia) while vying for first rights to Islandia's unspoiled mineral deposits and other natural resources, that propel the narrative forward through the young idealistic eyes of recent Harvard grad and neophyte U.S. consul to Islandia, John Lang; or, "johnlang" -- one word -- as the natives would call him upon being introduced to him, since Islandians have no conception of last names. No conception, either, of wristwatches or pocket watches; no conception of time as we know time for that matter -- at least not time as civilization in the West understands it. Islandia is in fact timeless, I would wager, and maybe eternal.

Austin Tappan Wright was as accomplished with his intricate and eccentric world building as Mervyn Peake and Frank Herbert were with theirs in Gormenghast and Dune, respectively. The main difference between them and Islandia, and between it and other classic achievements of imagination like Lord of the Rings, being Islandia was not straight fantasy or science fiction like they were; rather, Islandia's rich and fully realized fictive locales and culture occupied the here and now alongside the real world of the first decade of the 1900's in what was Austin Tappan Wright's day, and it's this duality of interwoven fantasy and reality that make Islandia for me an utterly unique reading experience. It's also, because of its optimism, completely devoid of today's empty and stultifying cynicism, the unexpected reading equivalent of good old-fashioned comfort food. Like chicken fried steak w/country gravy and buttery mashed potatoes. Or like the flaky crust of a piping hot roast turkey potpie.

Hard to fathom how such a novel as vast and extraordinary as Islandia, going on seventy-five years now, has continued receding into obscurity through literature's mainstream cracks and not left its cult status behind ages ago. ( )
11 vote EnriqueFreeque | Apr 13, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 12 (next | show all)
The fascination of Wright’s book lies partly in the way it matches our instinctive understanding of the interior richness of other people. The thrilling privacy and patience of its construction, its unique combination of vastness and particularity—together these give us the impression of an author slowly, painstakingly bringing forth a work as colossal and idiosyncratic as a self.
added by Cecrow | editNew York Times, Charles Finch (Nov 2, 2016)
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In the year 1901, it was the custom at Harvard for seniors to entertain the incoming freshmen at 'beer nights', where crackers and cheese and beer, to those who drank, and ginger ale, to those who did not drink, were served.
“The ability to say things isn’t what makes things true.”
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0899683851, Library Binding)

On his death, Austin Tappan Wright left the world a wholly unsuspected legacy. Among this distinguished legal scholar's papers were thousands of pages devoted to a staggering feat of literary creation - a detailed history of an imagined country complete with geography, genealogy, representations from its literature, language and culture. In a monumental labor of love Wright's wife and daughter culled from this material a thousand page novel, as detailed as J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-earth. Islandia has similarly become a classic touchstone for those concerned with the creation of imaginary worlds.

Islandia occupies the southern portion of the Karain Continent, which lies in the Southern Hemisphere. Its civilization is an ancient one, protected from outside intervention by a natural fortress of towering mountains. To this isolated country - this alien, compelling and totally fascinating world - comes John Lang, the American consul. As the reader lives with Lang in Islandia, as he comes to know this magnetic land, its unique people, its strange customs, he may find himself experiencing a feeling of envy, a wish that he, like Lang, be permitted, at the book's end, to return once more and spend the rest of his days in Islandia.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:12:01 -0400)

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Islandia occupies the southern portion of the Karain Continent, which lies in the Southern Hemisphere. It's civilization is an ancient one, protected from outside intervention by a natural fortress of towering mountains.

(summary from another edition)

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