The Triumph of Human Empire: Verne, Morris and Stevenson at the End of the World, by Rosalind Williams

Tom Wright on a study of how three late 19th century writers contemplated humanity’s impact on the environment

December 5, 2013

For some years, humanists and scientists have urged us to adopt the term “Anthropocene” to refer to our geological era. In her captivating and unsettling new book, Rosalind Williams recovers an alternative term for the imprint of man. Reaching back to Francis Bacon’s 16 story New Atlantis, she borrows his language for the goal of a lost race obsessed with “the enlarging of the bounds of human empire”.

The advent of an intensely humanised Earth is a fundamental geological event, but as Williams argues, this “human empire” should also be seen as “a still-unfolding event of consciousness”. Opting to focus on the turning point of the late 19th century, Williams explores a key phase in this “unfolding” through the work of three late contemporary observers: Jules Verne, Robert Louis Stevenson and William Morris.

Williams’ engaging blend of history of science, literary criticism and cultural studies has flowered through a series of compelling and important books. In particular, her Notes on the Underground (1990) explored the cultural consequences of the overwhelming prevalence of built-over natural environments. Returning to this theme and focusing on the period of high industrial and imperial expansion, her similarly wide-ranging new book uses three case studies to offer an account of fin de siècle anxiety that is rich in instructive parallels for our own moment of ecological alarm.

As this book reveals, two and a half centuries after Bacon, the fear of “human empire” was terrifyingly alive. Just as the “closing” of the American frontier in the 1890s generated a period of New World soul-searching, a similar ferment had been at work for a generation in a European cultural consciousness that was increasingly alert to the ambivalent prospect of the end of an unmapped world. Through Williams’ lucid narrative, the Frenchman, the Scottish visionary and the English socialist emerge as troubled observers of mankind’s global ambitions, allowing “a lingering trust in the path of historical progress” to coexist “with anxiety about intersecting crises that keep coming, reinforcing and intersecting each other, submerging and obliterating the track of progress”.

Their shared approach to thinking through these overlapping contradictions of modernity lay in the imagination of the sea, and in the shift from realism to romance. “Water and romance”, Williams tells us, “are media of human existence, that offer a fresh experience of the world, that open upon new perspectives, that offer understanding, liberation, even transcendence.” In Verne’s The Mysterious Island (1873), Stevenson’s 1870s travel books and Morris’ The Well at the World’s End (1896), Williams traces a struggle to account for and defy human empire through imaginative engagement with the vanishing spaces of the “empty” world. As we escape to Iceland, to the Californian coast and to the “centre of the Earth” we appreciate the urgency of their search for a new way of articulating the relationship between humans and the globe. Inevitably, Williams ends up telling us mostly about the carriers-forth of European ambition rather than the victims. But she is careful throughout to stress the diversity of opinions about ecological and political imperialism during a period that is often misunderstood.

The result is a book that manages to be densely researched, accessible and disarmingly polemical. Williams’ triplet of complex and neglected figures, writing “through the rolling apocalypse of their time, at once deciphering and prophesying it”, reminds us that “we are not the first to live in this historical condition” of intense ecological concern, and encourages us to think seriously about our modern-day duties. The Triumph of Human Empire will be a thought-provoking book for anyone concerned with the imagination of the “Anthropocene” and how it was formed.

The Triumph of Human Empire: Verne, Morris, and Stevenson at the End of the World

By Rosalind Williams
University of Chicago Press, 432pp, £21.00
ISBN 9780226899558 and 9589 (e-book)
Published 28 October 2013

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