Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Walden Two, B. F. Skinner’s only published novel, was written early in his academic career and represents, as Alan C. Elms asserts, “his first major publication on human behavior.” Skinner’s career as a behavioral psychologist had begun in the 1930’s with laboratory experiments on rats and pigeons. Using positive reinforcement, or rewards for desired behavior, Skinner taught the test animals to push buttons for food and even (with the pigeons) to distinguish colors, dance, and play Ping Pong.

These training sessions took place in a special box, eventually dubbed the “Skinner box,” which scrupulously controlled environmental stimuli. Skinner’s belief that positive reinforcement could work as effectively on human beings led him in the early 1940’s to create a glassed-in crib that served as a training box for children. Designed to create a completely comfortable, supportive, and stimulating environment for early learning, the crib became infamous when Skinner announced in a Ladies Home Journal article that he had used it for two and a half years to rear his second daughter, Deborah. The announcement created a national controversy, but in Walden Two, Skinner reiterated his belief that children should be reared in communal nurseries for efficient learning rather than in traditional family structures to satisfy conventional values. Though his novel perpetuated his controversial image, millions of new readers surfaced in the early 1960’s and made the book the one by which Skinner is most widely recognized.

In later, more academic books such as Science and Human Behavior (1953) and Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971), Skinner again argued for the principles behind Walden Two. These books created as much controversy as Walden Two, but it is Skinner’s utopian novel that today remains the clearest and most accessible presentation of his radically behavorist thinking.