Worth Revisiting: Islandia
Reviewed by Joan L. Cannon
By Austen Tappan Wright © 1942
Published by Farrar & Rhinehart; Hardcover, 1013 pp
This lengthy story covers a short time in the life of a privileged young man who forms a friendship at Harvard with another student from Islandia in 1905. John Lang of New England and Dorn of Islandia cement a friendship reminiscent of the male bonding of classics. After spending a summer together on Cape Cod, Lang has learned enough Islandian from Dorn and by studying on his own to secure a job as consul to the nation that occupies the southern coast of a continent whose nearest land mass would be Antarctica — if it existed. Endpapers in the original edition enable the reader to be oriented.
What Lang discovers in the idealized agrarian, humanist society alters him profoundly. So does his passionate love for a woman who, in the time period of the novel, would have been extraordinary, if only slightly less so today. He is befriended without prejudice by some very interesting characters of both sexes and all ages as he travels through the country he is charged with influencing in favor of foreign trade.
He narrates not only his adventures and minute observations of customs and landscape, flora and fauna, but his reactions to all of them. At once he reveals himself as an introverted, intelligent, compassionate, incredibly observant young man who might better have found himself at Brook Farm than Harvard, it seems. Thoreau's ghost is a faint, benign presence through discussions of the desirability of "simplicity" in social structures.
Sections read like poetic romance, others like adventure, some like fantasy of the best and most convincing kind, some like philosophy. The pace varies much in the way one's daily experience might in a place where the only means of transport are one's own legs, horses, or boats without motors. The reader is fully immersed in a complete new life in a very few pages, and by the last of over a thousand, has been in some way imprinted.
The reissue of this remarkable novel — I have just finished my third reading of it has resulted in many new reviews. It occurred to me that there may be something I can add to those because of the chronology of my readings.
Some time, probably during World War II or just afterwards, I read the book for the first time as a late adolescent. Its impact was considerable. The figure of a young man endowed with what must (from what he daily reveals in his narrative) be endowed with hard physique and no little athletic ability, with a fine liberal arts education and gentle and genteel manners, who is so exquisitely aware of every lovely thing to which he is exposed, was to me irresistible.
Descriptions of geography and views and light and atmosphere are captivating. To our 21st Century shortened attention spans, they may seem excessive. Without a nod to Freud, Lang's penetrating psychological analyses may seem advanced for his twenty-something years, especially in his ability to understand his own motivations. His complete open-mindedness is remarkable. These characteristics, however, guarantee his appeal to the young.
The next time I read Islandia I was in my fifties, with the life experience one would expect. My husband traveled abroad a good deal, and I found the book again as a marvelous way to be distracted while I was lonely. By then, the love stories were comprehensible. I was often moved by the dilemmas facing a young man who might have been schooled in the traditions of courtly love, so careful was he. I understood by then how admirable Lang really was in ways that have been long out of common fashion.
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