Walden Two Essay - Critical Evaluation

B. F. Skinner

Critical Evaluation

B. F. Skinner was the twentieth century’s most influential advocate—not to say ideologue—of behavioral engineering. When in 1971 he made the cover of Time magazine, applauded as the greatest living American psychologist, it was a culmination of his quest to bring his controversial message into the American sociocultural mainstream.

In his student years, Skinner was drawn to the fiction and nonfiction of the science-fiction legend and unapologetic eugenicist H. G. Wells. As a young man, before he ever penned his first psychology paper, Skinner determined he would be a writer, buoyed by praise from poet Robert Frost. However, the rejection letters he received from the publishing houses to which he submitted the typescript of Walden Two (the only book of his not written in longhand) unanimously censured the novel’s static plot, one-dimensional characters, and ham-fisted style. Indeed, the bulk of the story consists of a series of lectures and harangues given by Frazier to the visiting group, punctuated only by the querulous Castle. This dogged adversary of the novel’s behaviorist character was modeled on Alburey Castell, a philosopher who was engaged in a running verbal feud with Skinner about the merits of behavioral engineering.

Skinner himself conceded that the closest thing to a protagonist in his novel, T. E. Frazier, was an ill-concealed incarnation of his own views. To be precise, the author partitioned himself narratively in the manner of Thomas Moore in De Optimo Reipublicae Statu, deque Nova Insula Utopia (1516; Utopia, 1551). In this classic of the genre, Moore cast himself as a sympathetic but uninformed listener, while voicing many of his actual opinions through Hythloday, the bearer of news from nowhere. Skinner, whose first name was Burrhus, named his narrator Burris, readily conceding in subsequent interviews and publications that Burris and Frazier were different parts of himself.

Given that Walden Two is essentially an expression of Skinner’s ideas on how to apply behavioral conditioning to human affairs, the plot is thin and derivative. It follows the conventions of utopian fiction established in such seminal novels as Utopia, Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward: 2000-1887 (1888), and William Morris’s News From Nowhere (1890). Walden Two would go on to become the most influential and the most vilified utopian work of the century.

Few could have guessed from its humble beginnings that the novel would achieve such fame and infamy. For more than a decade, it sold only a few hundred copies per year. The advent of the radical 1960’s, however, plucked it out of obscurity—so much so that by the early 1970’s the book’s sales exceeded 100,000 copies annually. Skinner’s utopia became a literary byword, as it went on to sell more than 2.5 million copies in all the major and most minor languages of the world and to receive more condemnations than any other work of utopian fiction.

Many readers, in fact, took Walden Two to be a satire of utopian fiction, if not an outright dystopia. The editors of the 1952 anthology The...

(The entire section is 1308 words.)