Robert Nichols

20th century American beat poet

Robert Nichols

A landscape architect who once operated a construction business with a community storefront on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Robert Nichols was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1919. He left home at an early age, and some of his travel experiences are recounted in his first book of poems, Slow Newsreel of Man Riding Train (City Lights, 1962). He died of cancer in 2010.

cover image of the book Exile


With Exile, Robert Nichols concludes his innovative utopian tetralogy, Daily Lives in Nghsi-Altai. Thus far, we have peered at this imaginary central Asian land through the eyes of exploring Westerners and the inhabitants themselves, learning the ways of both city dwellers and country folk. We have come to see Nghsi-Altai––a technologically “advanced” communalized country within a “primitive” social and religious matrix-no longer as a paradox but as a civilization in balance. Yet even a balanced civilization must pay its price. A “population lottery” is held––and the Harditts, the village family of the earlier books, begin their arduous journey into exile. Moving through the countryside and regions of Nghsi, they join a growing caravan under the guidance of shamans. A carnival troupe playing in the villages is encountered along the way, and a last glimpse is seen of William Morris, William Blake, and the Cuban filmmaker Santiago Alvarez––the original Western “discoverers” now become shadowy entertainers. The three biomes––farmland, forest, and industrial belt––are soon left behind. The caravan plunges into a limbo swamp, “the kingdom of decay.” With magical powers of vision conferred upon them by the shamans, the Harditts and other emigrés view the processes of nature––the continual breakdown and re-creation––and are stripped of clan and ancestral village attachments. The final stage of their own recycling is by boat: under the mountain, through the cataract, and out––“into America.”

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cover image of the book The Harditts In Sawna

The Harditts In Sawna

The Harditts in Sawna is the third volume of Robert Nichols’s utopian tetralogy, Daily Lives in Nghsi-Altai. In the previous books (Arrival and Garh City), we were treated to tantalizing glimpses of the imaginary central Asian country of Nghsi-Altai seen through the eyes of three travelers from the West, followed by an investigation of the city in a technologically advanced society which yet maintains an elaborate, “primitive” kinship system. We now turn to six narratives of village life, focusing on members of the Harditt family. Maddi, a twelve-year-old schoolgirl; Dhillon, a farm apprentice; his married older brother, Srikant––these are the Harditt children of earlier volumes. “Women in Middle Age” tells of Sathan, their mother, and Nanda, their aunt, and the workings of the matriarchy in Sawna. An account is then given of the death of the grandfather, Old Harditt, and his translation into the family’s Ancestor Society. And finally, we see Venu, Sathan’s husband, as an elected official of the Wind Brotherhood of solar engineers. These are not, however, tales of individuals in the usual sense but probes in the web of relationships that constitutes a communal society, the widening circle of clan, tribe, and phratry. Each story, moreover, reveals an aspect of a delicate political-industrial balance––for the world of Nghsi-Altai is modern, indeed a paradigm of an alternate society.

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cover image of the book Arrival


We are about to penetrate an imaginary land in central Asia. Nghsi-Altai––a place no better or worse than the United States, merely its opposite. Consider this: a country with an advanced, ecologically balanced technology but a rigid, even “primitive” social organization, where a communalized political structure exists in harmony with a priestly yet mystical religion. It is as if the Industrial Revolution had come to northern India in the ninth century or, in our own time, Bakunin and Kropotkin had gained control of the First International and the anarchists of Catalonia had won the Civil War in Spain. Here, then, is the setting of Arrival, the first book of Robert Nichols’s sequence of four novels, Daily Lives in Nghsi-Altai. Three visitors from the West––a novelist, a visionary, a revolutionist, filmmaker––move through this seemingly kaleidoscopic world. Landscapes and livelihoods, ceremonies and manufactures are not so much described as progressively discovered, as each explorer in his own way comes to familiarize himself with the alien society of Nghsi-Altai. Call it what you will––adventure or utopian literature, science-fiction perhaps––Nichols’s tetralogy is not novelistic literature in the conventional sense but rather an extended improvisation, anecdotal in the telling, compelling in its ideas, exuberant in its humor. Further volumes in this series will be issued periodically by New Directions.

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