Quick! Think of one of the most important books in American literature.
While there are many reasonable answers to this question, works such as Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or Gone With the Wind, it might seem reasonable that you’d be confused if you heard somebody answer “B. F. Skinner’s Walden Two!”
I was confused when I first heard the title of the book while starting my PhD studies. I (incorrectly) assumed that perhaps I needed to have read the first “Walden” novel, and some readers may possibly think a similar thought.
I bring up this particular work of American literature because, to my great surprise, I saw it represented in the recent release of DC Comic’s sequel to Watchmen, Doomsday Clock #1 by Geoff Johns and Gary Frank. The book is shown towards the end of the issue as a fixture on Clark Kent’s bedside.
I want this particular column to work through some unique questions that I had upon finishing Doomsday Clock #1:
- What is the importance of Walden Two?
- Why is it interesting that this book is on Clark Kent’s nightstand?
- What do these things have to do with Watchmen by Alan Moore and Multiversity’s segment called Pax Americana by Grant Morrison?
This column will be a two-part release, with Part I dealing with some foundational issues concerning Walden Two, Superman and American Literature. Part II will then dig more properly into Doomsday Clock #1 and Pax Americana. We can probably cover much of Questions 1 and 2 in this column, with Part II tackling Question 3 head on later.
For now, let’s figure out what the Walden Two/Superman connection is, if any!
Walden Two, Walden of 1854, and American self-reliance
Before I can really dig into this topic, let me just set up some terms so that everyone can follow along.
Walden Two is classified as a “utopian” work, i.e. it is a story focused around asking and answering questions relating to how our world is set up. What is an important distinction here is that, sometimes, two terms get switched around when talking about this idea.
First, there is “Utopia,” which means “not place,” i.e. it is not actually somewhere in this world, it is a fantastical idea, an idea which is worth working towards, yet is not strictly reachable.
In contrast to this, we have “Eutopia,” a “Good Place,” a place that can genuinely exist within the world. The opposite of a eutopia is a “Dystopia,” a “Bad Place.”
Well, for one, classifications of Walden Two as a book focused on an unimaginable ideal are off the mark since the novel focuses on the kinds of real-world applications to build a better world that were within a speculative realm of functionality. While not everything in Walden Two is by every means achievable, it stands to reason that the ideas within the book, under the right circumstances, could be undertaken by those who wish to pursue the kind of world Skinner writes about.
Walden Two focuses on a series of characters (Professor Burris, two young men, and another professor, Professor Castle) who are invited to visit ‘Walden Two,’ a small community of people who have been gathered by a man named T. E. Frazier. The name of the community, Walden Two, is a kind of pun on the idea of a “Walden-esque community, but for multiple people as opposed to just one.”
The community (and, thus the novel) are “spiritual successors” to the famous societal journey undertaken by Thoreau near Walden Pond. The accounts of Henry David Thoreau to try and discover the best means of living within the world is the point the 1854 novel Walden, yet his intention was always somewhat limited in that he was the only one living near the pond. Skinner, via the character of Frazier, seeks to showcase a communal system of people seeking answers to life’s big questions in their own removed space. It is a place where the goal is to build a new form of society in which the best practices and ideas are used to make life better for the whole group.
While the novel is in itself not so much a classic narrative as it is a lengthy series of philosophical exchanges, part of the drama in the novel revolves around if Frazier has or has not established a dictatorship among those he has gathered. While Frazier is in no way an antagonistic character, Professor Castle serves as a pro-democratic voice for a more traditional society. While Frazier is pompous and sure of himself, ultimately it will be up to the reader to decide if they think the world is in need of more ‘Walden’ styled communities.
The challenge of works such as Walden and Walden Two is that both are attempts by their authors to work through uncovering means of being in America. American literature, as I have come to understand it, is a genre fought with trying to discover answers in a society which is beset by various anxieties.
Can we really be as free as we wish to be? What does freedom mean in the face of responsibility? Can the freedoms of some be tyranny or dogma to another? Can we find spirituality and peace at all? Should we be reliant on others for everything or should be only trust in others once we have come to funny care for ourselves?
These are not easy questions and both Walden and Walden Two provide answers which many may very well reject with the same passions that others may pick up and champion.
So, again a question returns to the forefront: why is it interesting the Clark Kent has a copy of Walden Two on his nightstand?
Superman, America, and Freedom
In an interview given by Grant Morrison with New Statesman in 2011, the author of All-Star Superman provided this comment concerning the historical mutability of Superman. He says:
“Every generation has its own version of Superman and they can often be very different.
At the beginning, Superman was very much a socialist superhero. He fought for the unemployed, the oppressed, he beat up wife-beaters. It’s about a man driven by a burning sense of injustice — there are no monsters or robots, he fights against corrupt council officials! He was conceived as a Depression-era superhero, who dealt with the problems of ordinary people.
By the time of the war ten years later, he’d become like Elvis — he’d had his hair cut, suddenly he was riding missiles and telling readers to “slap a Jap”. He was suddenly very for American foreign policy.
In the 1950s, he became a patriarch — with a family, surrounded by Supergirl and Superdog. I feel that was representative of men home from the war who’d seen horrific things and were being expected to ‘act normal’. And so on, through the decades. So you have to go back to first principles and ask: how would a champion of the oppressed act today?”
Morrison’s comments concerning Superman’s socialist roots bring a common “point” about superheroes to the surface. At their heart, American superhero comics were a way to entertain while also musing about what it might take to make the world a better place. In the case of Superman, he was an actual walking force of literal change.
Whether he was knocking down dangerous buildings or putting pressure on corrupt landlords, Superman began his role as a communal hero who (through the power of comics) showed how Siegel and Shuster envisioned a changed world. While it wasn’t the role of Superman to make man aspire to turn Earth into a Utopia — nor did he ever use his power to carve out a tangible Eutopia — he was certainly a character whose identity was based around communal change for the collective good of all peoples. This is even if, as Morrison pointed out, his narrative was briefly colored by war-time rhetoric.
What has endured about Superman is his ability to serve as a force for inspiration, one that can and should motivate us, his readers, to create the changes in this world that he himself never pursues in his 2D comic world.
Where American society is laced with anxieties about what we should be, or how we should pursue change in our world, literature has been there to fill our collective consciousness. Walden, Skinner, and Siegel and Shuster present places like Walden Pond, Walden Two and Superman to lay out before us tough questions — questions that, through introspection and experimentation, we can work through.
We can work through the questions of literature alone, as Thoreau did, or we can undertake such pursuits in groups, as Frazier attempts to do. And, through it all, characters such as Superman exist as an aspirational force to point out to us our flaws as humans so we might overcome them.
Superman’s greatest trait, funny enough, is his humanity. While some could argue that he has never had a “biologically human” day in his existence, works like Thoreau present an idea that what makes us special is not so much our ability to feel pain, or to die, bur rather it is our ability to consciously stop, assess where and when we are, and to try and understand the context of our existence.
We should look to nature for inspiration if we find ourselves feeling separated from a source of spirituality, Thoreau argues. While Superman is a religious mixture of Moses and Christ wrapped up in colorful clothing, he is very much a character who can inspire us in our world the same way he inspires the fictional characters he interacts with. Few Superman stories succeed when they try and present the character as distant, or (pardon the pun) alien.
Superman is a fixture of American popular culture, and I dare to say literature as well, who represents numerous things, but one of the most interesting is freedom. Superman has never been the kind of character who strong-arms the weak, who compromises his integrity through intimidation, or who uses his power to enforce his whims of mankind.
If you’re into that kind of story, Injustice might be for you, but in normal continuity he was been a character who wants us to use our freedoms to make the world a better place if we wish or, or to allow it to remain as it is.
Superman’s goal has been to inspire man, and in this regard he and Thoreau share certain things in common, among them a desire to see humanity freed from oppressive tactics and beliefs. Thoreau was actively against slavery when it was in fashion within US culture. He was famously a writer who championed dismantling slavery in all its forms and he even worked alongside the heroes of the Underground Railroad.
He and Superman then are of one mind when it comes to the fact that certain systems of oppression should be undone when they appear, hence why Superman is always depicted as a hero who fights crime, averts natural disasters and saves civilians.
While Superman is not a character who uses his powers to carve out a new world, his role in literature has some crossover with the works of Thoreau, in spirit if not in style or genre. Superman reading a text like Walden Two is fascinating because it might he hard to see where he would fall, on the side of Frazier or Castle?
To be sure, the heart of the issue with Walden Two is this: is it better to have a society built to be ‘better’ by one person, or should such an endeavor ultimately be something which should come together through the works of a society?
Next time: Dr. Manhattan, Peacemaker and the building of a better world through force and violence. Watchmen, Doomsday Clock and Pax Americana take center stage.