“Utopia has always been a political issue, an unusual destiny for a literary form,” writes Frederic Jameson in Archaeologies of the Future. One writer Jameson takes up in his account of literary utopias is George Bernard Shaw, whose Back to Methuselah (1921) he reads as an optimistic allegorical account of class struggle in the waning days of the British Empire. Writing in 2005, Jameson detected a general resurgence in utopian thinking, which had been considered dangerous during the Cold War, and retrograde in progressive cultural movements predicated on the value of difference. It is not surprising, then, that he emphasizes the progressive aspects of Shaw’s socialism, rather than the authoritarian sympathies and tendencies scholars such as Matthew Yde (2013) have detected in Methuselah and in Shaw’s writing more generally.
Both Jameson’s and Yde’s books participate in a recent resurgence in critical discourse on utopia, and especially modernist utopias. From high modernism (Surette 2011) to “hippie modernism” (Blauvelt et al., 2015) to “utopia limited” (DeKoven, 2004), scholars across the arts and humanities have reassessed the intersections of utopia and modernism over the past decade. This panel contributes to that discourse by claiming Bernard Shaw’s distinctive place in it.
Illustration: John Farleigh, woodcut for Back to Methuselah (New York: Limited Editions Club, 1939)