Utopianism Essay - Critical Essays




The term utopia designates a highly idealized and hence unattainable society—the word itself derived from Sir Thomas More's fictional Utopia (1516), which literally means “no place.” More created his ideal island republic in order to satirize by contrast the conditions in the England of his day. The idea was not new with More, as critics observe that the utopian impulse in literature can be traced back at least to classical antiquity and Plato's Republic. In the nineteenth-century novel, the utopian tradition flourished as writers sought to dramatize the political and economic principals—equality, freedom, and material plenitude among them—necessary for the advancement of society. Likewise, a number of real-life experiments were undertaken in the form of contained, usually short-lived, utopian communities designed to test the viability of a fully cooperative society where competition and want were unknown. After a period of considerable popularity, the utopian mode in literature had begun to give way by the close of the nineteenth century, to its inverse: a dystopian vision of the future in which human freedom and happiness were extinguished by an oppressive society.

Utopian expressions in the literature of the United States have long been bound up with the popular myth of America as a land devoid of the restrictions on liberty that were thought to prevail in the Old World. In American fiction of the nineteenth century, writers frequently described positive utopias, representing an idealized future in which progress, technology, and social enlightenment were allied for the purposes of reducing toil, economic scarcity, and political inequality. Critics acknowledge that such utopian schemes are perhaps best represented by Edward Bellamy's popular novel Looking Backward, 2000-1887 (1888). Based upon the socialist principles of community ownership of property and the elimination of capitalist exploitation of labor, Bellamy's novel describes an ideal America in the year 2000 using the precepts of utopian socialism. Such positive utopias as Bellamy's represent only one strain of the utopian tradition in American literature. Another perspective highlights the comparative function of utopia; a view illustrated in such works as Herman Melville's Typee (1856), which contrasts a primitive South Seas paradise with modern civilization, and Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Blithedale Romance (1852), a novel drawn from Hawthorne's experience as part of the small, utopian community formed by social reformers at Brook Farm in Massachusetts.

In nineteenth-century British utopian literature scholars generally observe the dominance of the satirical mode in the tradition of More's Utopia and Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726). Samuel Butler's Erewhon, or Over the Range (1872) is such a satire set in a remote, idealized land. Somewhat more positive in outlook, the writings of William Morris represent a utopian vision informed by both an atavistic return to medieval social forms and a belief in utopian socialism. Morris's speculative News from Nowhere (1890), while lacking in the concrete economic criticism of Bellamy's work or the playfulness of Butler's, stands as one of the most influential of the nineteenth-century British socialist utopias.

Another force at work in the utopian fiction of the nineteenth century that has elicited the interest of modern critics involves the significant feminist element in the genre. Scholars note that utopian works by women of the nineteenth century generally offer a view of the future in which women's political and social rights have been expanded to allow equality with men. Such works frequently feature themes of equal justice and opportunity between the sexes or reflect an inversion of traditional roles in patriarchal hierarchy—a movement that, critics contend, reached its literary high point in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's feminist utopia Herland (1915). An alternate strain of feminist utopianism is represented by Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford (1853), in which feminine cooperation and goodwill become the touchstones of an idealized society.

Representative Works

Edward Bellamy
Looking Backward, 2000-1887 (novel) 1888

Calvin Blanchard
The Art of Real Pleasure (novel) 1860

Charles Brockden Brown
Alcuin: A Dialogue (novel) 1798

Edward Bulwer-Lytton
The Coming Race (novel) 1871

Samuel Butler
Erewhon, or Over the Range (novel) 1872

Lewis Carroll
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (novel) 1865

James Fenimore Cooper
The Monikins (novel) 1835

Elizabeth Burgoyne Corbett
New Amazonia: A Foretaste of the Future (novel) 1889

Florence Dixie
Gloriana; or, The Revolution of 1900 (novel) 1890

John Adolphus Etzler
The Paradise Within the Reach of All Men (novel) 1833

Elizabeth Gaskell
Cranford (novel) 1853

Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Moving the Mountain (novel) 1911
Herland (novel) 1915

Nathaniel Hawthorne
The Blithedale Romance (novel) 1852

William Dean Howells
A Traveller from Altruria, Romance (novel) 1894
Through the Eye of the Needle: A Romance (novel) 1907

Sylvester Judd
Margaret: A Tale of the Real and Ideal (novel) 1845

Mary E. Bradley Lane
Mizora: A Prophecy (novel) 1890

Herman Melville
Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life. During a Four Months' Residence in a Valley of the Marquesas (novel) 1846

David A. Moore
The Age of Progress; or, A Panorama of Time. In Four Visions (novel) 1856

William Morris
News from Nowhere (novel) 1890

James Reynolds
Equality—A Political Romance (novel) 1802

Timothy Savage
The Amazonian Republic (novel) 1842

Olive Schreiner
“Three Dreams in a Desert” (short story) 1890

Adam Seaborn
Symzonia (novel) 1820

Percy Bysshe Shelley
Hellas (poetry) 1822

David Stirrat
A Treatise on Political Economy (political philosophy) 1824

George Tucker
A Voyage to the Moon: With Some Account of the Manners and Customs, Science and Philosophy, of the People of Morosofia and Other Lunarians [as Joseph Atterley] (novel) 1827

Mark Twain
“The Curious Republic of Gondour” (short story) 1895

Criticism: Overviews: Utopian Literature

Joel Nydahl (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: “Early Fictional Futures: Utopia, 1798-1864,” in America as Utopia, edited by Kenneth M. Roemer, Burt Franklin & Company, 1981, pp. 254-91.

[In the following essay, Nydahl surveys the utopian vision expressed in American fictional works of the late eighteenth century.]

The earliest utopian visions in and of America were of millennial expectations fulfilled: Columbus saw on the shores of the New World a stage upon which would be acted out Saint John's great prophetic drama; John Winthrop's “Citty on a Hill” was to be a society of godly men waiting for, and working to bring about, the final apocalyptic defeat of the forces of Satan; John Eliot's...

(The entire section is 13073 words.)

Simon Dentith (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: “Imagination and Inversion in Nineteenth-Century Utopian Writing,” in Anticipations: Essays on Early Science Fiction and Its Precursors, edited by David Seed, Syracuse University Press, 1995, pp. 137-52.

[In the following essay, Dentith studies the ways in which nineteenth-century utopian literature employs and transcends the trope of inversion.]

In Chapter 17 of Adam Bede, ‘In which the story pauses a little’, George Eliot contrasts the ‘wonderful facility for drawing a griffin’ with the difficulty faced in trying to draw a real lion. George Eliot was a writer who was generally anti-utopian in spirit, for whom science meant not so much the...

(The entire section is 6441 words.)