Utopian Society Thinkers James Hilton Part 1

About the famous utopian thinker and writer James Hilton and history of his planned utopia Shangri-La.


JAMES HILTON (1900-1954)

That magic land of Shangri-La, where people lived to be 200 and more, was the invention of James Hilton, the quintessential Briton. He was, according to a reporter, "a smallish, unassuming, fresh-faced Englishman with a very contained manner. His hair was neat, and his speech was neatly turned." (A photograph shows him with intense eyes and hair parted in the middle, sheikh-style.) His novels were moralistic and, as one reviewer said, "overlaid with not unpleasant but faintly mauve sentimentalism." But Hilton didn't care for reviewers; he once stated: "The novelist who sells the reader a good time tends to do so furtively, hoping that certain critics will not notice the offense since they could not possibly pardon it." He need not have been so defensive. Actually, he was an engrossing storyteller.

Hilton was born at Leigh in Lancashire in 1900, but he grew up in London, where his father was a schoolmaster. He was educated at Leys School and Christ College, Cambridge, from which he received a B.A. in history and the English tripos (first class) in 1921.

At the age of 17, Hilton had an article published in the Manchester Guardian, and his first novel, Catherine Herself, came out when he was still an undergraduate. This spectacular early start leveled off, however, and it was not until Hilton was 34, with 15 years of writing only moderately successful novels under his belt, that he became a bestselling author with the publication of Goodbye, Mr. Chips in 1934, a year earlier than Lost Horizon. The story was originally a Christmas feature for the magazine British Weekly. After getting the idea for it while riding his bicycle, wrote the short novel in four days. Following its publication in the U.S. in Atlantic Monthly, Goodbye, Mr. Chips was brought out in book form. Alexander Woollcott praised it in The New Yorker and on radio, and the book was on its way. In 1939 it was made into a movie starring Greer Garson and Robert Donat. Lost Horizon, the story of Shangri-La was a sleeper and rode to bestsellerdom on the coattails of Goodbye, Mr. Chips.

From 1935 until his death in 1954, Hilton lived in California.

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