Monday, March 28, 2016


One of the publications I regularly check for Shaw-related essays is the Journal of William Morris Studies. The journal, which can be accessed freely on the website of The William Morris Society, often contains references to Shaw, whether because of their friendship or because of their shared interests (socialism, typesetting). The summer issue (2015) of the journal contains a brief reference to Shaw, quoted as saying that Ebenezer Howard was 

"One of those heroic simpletons who do big things whilst our prominent worldlings are explaining why they are Utopian and impossible."

These words are taken from a letter that Shaw wrote after Sir Ebenezer's death in 1928, addressed to A.C. Howard, his son. I guess he must have taken solace in the fact that someone like Shaw would say such things of his father. The letter has not been included, to my knowledge, in any of the collected Shaw correspondences, and is held as part of the Ebenezer Howard papers

Ebenezer Howard Grave

The Shavian twist, as usual, comes when we read the rest of the paragraph, which continues as follows: 

"And of course it is they who will make money out of his work."

Shaw is here probably referring to the success of Howard's inventions, like some printing machines for which he took out several patents. However, as many of you may know, Sir Ebenezer Howard is best known as the founder of the first "utopian" Garden Cities. Perhaps his ideas and prospects about these Garden Cities are best summarized in his Garden Cities of Tomorrow (1902), a thorough account of the different aspects that an ideal city should address. 

At any rate, what interests me the most about this quotation is not so much what it says or what it implies for the understanding of the figure of Ebenezer Howard. In this case, what I find of interest is that Shaw's words have been chosen to synthesize the spirit of Howard's urban dreams on countless occasions - thus indirectly conferring a great deal of authority to Shaw. 

Beevers, to begin with the obvious, quotes this passage in his critical biography of Howard. Likewise, the introduction to English Garden Cities published by English Heritage also chooses Shaw's words to epitomize the nature of Howard's plans. Even a recent article on an exhibition revisiting the legacy of William Morris mentions Howard twice, Shaw's words included. 

This is, in sum, another example of how Shaw manages to capture the elusive nature of human personality with his phenomenal command of words and ideas - perhaps he should have taken up playwriting!

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