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.
Looking Backward, 2000-1887 (novel) 1888
The Art of Real Pleasure (novel) 1860
Charles Brockden Brown
Alcuin: A Dialogue (novel) 1798
The Coming Race (novel) 1871
Erewhon, or Over the Range (novel) 1872
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
Gloriana; or, The Revolution of 1900 (novel) 1890
John Adolphus Etzler
The Paradise Within the Reach of All Men (novel) 1833
Cranford (novel) 1853
Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Moving the Mountain (novel) 1911
Herland (novel) 1915
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
Margaret: A Tale of the Real and Ideal (novel) 1845
Mary E. Bradley Lane
Mizora: A Prophecy (novel) 1890
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Criticism: Overviews: Utopian Literature
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 missionary work with the Indians (in his view the Lost Tribes of Israel. …) was an attempt to fulfill scriptural prophecies leading up to the Second Coming and the establishment of the Kingdom of Heaven on earth; and the earliest speculative writings portraying spiritual and material progress were exclusively by men who saw America's manifest destiny in terms of a cosmic struggle between darkness and light culminating in a secular millennial age spreading from American to foreign shores.
Beginning in the second decade of the nineteenth century, however, American utopists turned from optimistic millennial speculation about America's future to severe criticism of the present situation. Expressing itself predominantly in satiric...
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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 possibility of emancipation as the recognition of limits, and for whom imagination was fundamentally subservient to realism; as such she can be taken as providing a strong case against the ‘imaginativeness’ of both science fiction and utopia. Her hostility to the ‘imaginative’ understood as drawing griffins is one that she retains throughout her writing; in an essay written at the end of her life she again insists on a similarly severe notion of the imagination:
… powerful imagination is not false outward vision, but intense inward representation, and a creative energy constantly fed by susceptibility to the veriest minutiae of experience, which it reproduces and constructs in fresh and fresh...
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Criticism: Utopianism In American Literature
SOURCE: “Art vs. Utopia: The Case of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Brook Farm,” in Antioch Review, Vol. 36, No. 1, Winter, 1978, pp. 89-102.
[In the following essay, Stoehr examines the impact of Nathaniel Hawthorne's life at the utopian colony, Brook Farm, on his novel The Blithedale Romance, and explores the tension between art and society in the novel.]
The United States has been a country of extraordinary faith and extraordinary cynicism. We are idealists who pride ourselves on our pragmatism. Our institutions fail miserably to do what we ask them to, and we shrug our shoulders. Young people are expected to go through a period of admirable moral fervor—and grow out of it. As Hawthorne said of his radical hero in The House of the Seven Gables, “This enthusiasm, infusing itself through the calmness of his character, and thus taking an aspect of settled thought and wisdom, would serve to keep his youth pure, and make his aspirations high. And when, with the years settling down more weightily upon him, his early faith should be modified by inevitable experience, it would be with no harsh and sudden revolution of his sentiments.”
Perhaps the most dramatic—certainly the most famous—example of the mix of faith and cynicism in the American character is the two-year sojourn of Henry David Thoreau at Walden Pond. Somewhat less well-known but at least as interesting, is...
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SOURCE: “Mark Twain's Utopia,” in Mark Twain Journal, Vol. XIX, No. 3, Winter, 1978-1979, pp. 1-2.
[In the following essay, Ferguson critiques Mark Twain's utopian story “The Curious Republic of Gondour.”]
“The Curious Republic of Gondour” was published anonymously in Atlantic Monthly for Oct. 1895. It was a time when Mark Twain was actively concerned with politics. He was not a party politician, though his sympathies were generally Republican. The 1876 Presidential campaign was the first in which he was deeply involved emotionally: he believed intensely in Hayes's commitment to clean government, and thought that Tilden's election would be a disaster.
Mark Twain's political thinking was in fact independent. He was firmly a republican, and a disbeliever in monarchy, and took satisfaction in the collapse of the thrones of Europe: “There never was a throne which did not represent a crime.” He was in some sense a democrat. He recognized and acknowledged that civilization depends upon the labour of the common man. Indeed he said—though perhaps his precise meaning drifts into epigram—“There are no common people except in the highest spheres of society.” He never questioned the existence of a ruling group, a power structure. He objected to the existence in some countries of a ruling class. Even in America the trouble was that the wrong people reached the top. The...
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SOURCE: “Melville and the Tradition of Primitive Utopia,” in JGE: The Journal of General Education, Vol. XXXIII, No. 1, Spring, 1981, pp. 6-14.
[In the following essay, Beauchamp evaluates the primitive, escapist utopia of Melville's Typee.]
Among the compensatory myths of political theory, before the Idea of Progress pushed all others to the periphery, three figured most significantly: the myth of the Golden Age, the concept of the Noble Savage, and the dream of utopia. Although these imaginative constructs differ to the obvious degree of each requiring its own rubric, they nevertheless interpenetrate in crucial ways and share a number of common features. Of the three, the image of utopia is the most complex, the most multi-dimensional, with the most tangled intellectual history. Those ideographs of society redeemed from the Fall and purified of the ills of the real world, which we call utopias, themselves divide dramatically into two types—what Lewis Mumford has called utopias of reconstruction and utopias of escape.1 The tradition of the reconstructive utopia begins with Plato's Republic and Laws and includes most of the works that constitute the literary-cum-philosophical genre: More's Utopia, Campanella's City of the Sun, Andreae's Christianopolis, Cabet's Voyage to Icaria, Bulwer-Lytton's The Coming Race, Bellamy's Looking...
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SOURCE: “Howells and the Practicable Utopia: The Allegorical Structure of the Altrurian Romances,” in The Journal of Narrative Technique, Vol. 13, No. 2, Spring, 1983, pp. 118-30.
[In the following essay, Uba explores the allegorical nature of William Dean Howells's utopian romances, A Traveller from Altruria and Through the Eye of the Needle.]
The utopian novels A Traveller From Altruria (1894) and Through the Eye of the Needle (1907) hold an anomalous position in the literary canon of William Dean Howells. Not only do they mark a shift away from his characteristic brand of realism but both individually and collectively they pose a problem of formal classification. In accordance with critical tradition, they are commonly referred to as “novels” or “romances,” yet the first term seems to refer in most instances to the generic definition of the novel as a long, fictional prose narrative (and thereby distinguished from poetry, the drama, and the short story), while the second, although more specific, mainly directs our attention to the works' self-evident departure from the realistic fiction for which Howells was and is principally known, the fiction of, say, The Rise of Silas Lapham or A Hazard of New Fortunes. In neither case do these labels tell us very much about the formal characteristics of either work or anything at all about the close relationship that...
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SOURCE: “Cog-Work: The Organization of Labor in Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward and in Later Utopian Fiction,” in Clockwork Worlds: Mechanized Environments in SF, edited by Richard D. Erlich and Thomas P. Dunn, Greenwood Press, 1983, pp. 27-46.
[In the following essay, Jehmlich investigates the problem of labor as it is addressed in Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward, and examines the novel's influence on subsequent utopian treatments of this problem.]
It is not only mechanized environments—Disneylands of all types and sizes—that threaten to cripple modern man and alienate him from both his fellow man and nature. A more immediate threat, so it seems, is contained in the means and methods by which such artifacts are being made—“advanced machinery” and “progressive” methods of human engineering. These threaten to dehumanize man by totally mechanizing his work.
The problems which arise here are as old as the industrial revolution and have increased rather than diminished since the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Their discussion should be of particular interest to science fiction writers, for these problems are just the stuff that science fiction is allegedly made of, namely, human problems engendered by technological progress and thus epitomizing the mixed blessings of modern civilization.
In truth, however, there is little explicit...
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SOURCE: “Substance and Reality in Hawthorne's Meta-Utopia,” in Utopian Studies, Vol. 1, 1987, pp. 173-87.
[In the following essay, Jacobs investigates the utopian elements of Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Blithedale Romance.]
“Upon my honor, I am not quite sure that I entirely comprehend my own meaning in some of these blasted allegories; but I remember that I always had a meaning—or, at least, thought I had.”
Hawthorne to Fields, 1854
The unusual mix of autobiographical/historical subject matter and allegorical method in Hawthorne's The Blithedale Romance has led readers down a number of critical paths which seem insufficient, even in the views of critics themselves, to account for both matter and method in the book. The earliest readers, taking for granted that Brook Farm was the real subject of the work, approached it as a roman a clef, eagerly seeking portraits of Fuller, Channing, and Alcott1 or an analysis of why the commune failed; the inherent interest of Blithedale's historical model has perpetuated this approach (Abel, Gordon). But the book's lack of specific detail has tended to frustrate attempts to use it as historical evidence, giving rise to such criticism as Elliott's that Hawthorne refuses “to confront the political and sociological issues posed by Brook Farm,” that he wants “the...
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SOURCE: “The Text as Tactic: Looking Backward and the Power of the Word,” in Looking Backward, 1988-1888: Essays on Edward Bellamy, edited by Daphne Patai, The University of Massachusetts Press, 1988, pp. 37-50.
[In the following essay, Khanna discusses Edward Bellamy's early utopian fiction in order to highlight the tension between “theory and praxis” in Looking Backward.]
Utopian fiction is a hybrid genre, and Edward Bellamy, one of the great utopists, worked its inherent contradictions into a text of surprising social and political power. Although modern readers are likely to dismiss Looking Backward, citing its systematized solutions to social problems, stereotypical characters, and static society, its very clarity in these areas may well have contributed to its remarkable success.
A fuller appreciation of Bellamy's achievement should emerge from a consideration of two contexts: the tradition of utopian discourse and the tradition of Bellamy's own fiction, his early writings. With these two contexts more firmly in mind, modern readers may better understand Bellamy's exploration of archetypal utopian polarities and his evolution as utopian artist.
The problematic character of utopian speculation can be readily ascertained by turning to definition, as well as by recalling important texts. In naming the genre, Thomas More evoked opposition by...
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Criticism: Utopianism In British Literature
SOURCE: “Counter-Projects: William Morris and the Science Fiction of the 1880s,” in Socialism and the Literary Artistry of William Morris, edited by Florence S. Boos and Carole G. Silver, University of Missouri Press, 1990, pp. 88-97.
[In the following essay, Suvin contends that utopian fiction is a subgenre of science fiction, using William Morris's News from Nowhere and Victorian science fiction of the 1880s as evidence to support this position.]
Historically, there is a very intimate connection between utopian fiction and other forms of what I have called science fiction in a larger sense, such as the extraordinary voyage, technological anticipation, anti-utopia and dystopia, among others. I have in fact argued that if science fiction is taken in that sense, then utopian fiction is not only, beyond a reasonable doubt, one of the historical roots of science fiction, but it can also be, logically if retroactively, subsumed into science fiction as one of its forms—that validated by and only by sociopolitics. While I do not intend to deny the usefulness of studying texts in all possible ways, for example, utopian fiction in connection with utopian colonies, I have elsewhere argued that when studied as fictional literature, utopia is most usefully seen as “the sociopolitical subgenre of science fiction.”1
I have further argued that this historical connection of...
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SOURCE: “Macropolitics of Utopia: Shelley's Hellas in Context,” in Macropolitics of Nineteenth-Century Literature: Nationalism, Exoticism, Imperialism, edited by Jonathan Arac and Harriet Ritvo, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991, pp. 86-101.
[In the following essay, Kipperman studies the utopian, romantic, and radical view of history offered in Percy Shelley's Hellas.]
“We are all Greeks,” said Shelley in his Preface to Hellas, “Our laws, our literature, our religion, our arts have their root in Greece. … The modern Greek is the descendant of those glorious beings whom the imagination almost refuses to figure to itself as belonging to our Kind, and he inherits much of their sensibility, their rapidity of conception, their enthusiasm, and their courage.” Shelley's idealism here echoes the excited report of the Greek revolution by Leigh Hunt in the Examiner. But, as historian William St. Clair records in his withering and often sad critique of philhellenism, That Greece Might Still Be Free, nearly identical sentiments were voiced in pamphlets and lectures all over Europe by suddenly politicized classics professors at the outbreak of the 1821 revolt.1 What is remarkable to St. Clair is how utterly wrong, even preposterous, such statements were; how little knowledge they reflected of the loosely knit bands of marauding tribes, unconcerned with the...
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Criticism: Utopianism And Feminism
SOURCE: “Coming Home: Four Feminist Utopias and Patriarchal Experience,”* in Future Females: A Critical Anthology, edited by Marleen S. Barr, Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1981, pp. 63-70.
[In the following essay, Pearson observes affinities in modern feminist utopian novels and suggests that such works “seek to transcend the limitations of female experience.”]
Feminist utopian fiction implicitly or explicitly criticizes the patriarchy while it emphasizes society's habit of restricting and alienating women. Each work discussed here assumes that the patriarchy is unnatural and fails to create environments conducive to the maximization of female—or male—potential. Upon discovering a sexually equalitarian society, the narrators have a sense of coming home to a nurturing, liberating environment.1
The creators of feminist utopias envision societies which are surprisingly similar. Mary Bradley Lane's Mizora: A Prophesy2 and Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland3 were originally serialized in newspapers and grew out of the nineteenth-century women's movement. The contemporary feminist movement influenced Dorothy Bryant and Mary Staton. Bryant's The Kin of Ata Are Waiting for You4 is mystic in its primary focus, while Staton's From the Legend of Biel5 is a highly symbolic novel about...
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SOURCE: “‘The Laws of Justice, of Nature, and of Right’: Victorian Feminist Utopias,” in Feminism, Utopia, and Narrative, edited by Libby Falk Jones and Sarah Webster Goodwin, The University of Tennessee Press, 1990, pp. 50-68.
[In the following essay, Albinski surveys the major themes and fictional modes of nineteenth-century British women's utopian fiction.]
For the utopian idealist, fiction offers advantages that the essay form lacks: it reaches a potentially wider audience while peopling one's vision and bringing it to life.1 Description and dramatization can, however, be uneasy partners, and sometimes the fictional elements are overwhelmed by the very eagerness to depict utopia in all its perfection, or the utopia by the exigencies of a fantastic plot. To achieve a balance between the two requires careful integration of narrative form with social analysis and proposals for reform. All too often nineteenth-century writers tack on an irrelevant sentimental romance.
How innovative have women utopists been in simultaneously creating utopian societies and fiction? The purpose of this essay is to identify some of the narrative modes used in British women's utopias of the late nineteenth century. A general introduction to the major utopian themes of the period and to commonly used fictional approaches (the author's preface, the role of the narrator, the fictional...
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SOURCE: “Reproducing Utopia: Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Herland,” in Studies in American Fiction, Vol. 20, No. 1, Spring, 1992, pp. 1-16.
[In the following essay, Peyser argues that Gilman's utopian novel Herland, rather than being a “playful deconstruction of patriarchal thought,” remains “ground[ed] in the dominant culture.”]
According to the prevailing view of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland, the utopian novel suited the aims of a radical feminism by subverting the confinements of a realism dedicated to the representation of, and thus acquiescence to, a patriarchal order. Summing up this position, Susan Gubar argues that “women abused by the probable refuse it by imagining the possible in a revolutionary rejection of patriarchal culture;” “feminism imagines an alternative reality that is truly fantastic.”1 Along these lines, Herland is seen as a sanctuary for the imagination, a place the reader can visit in order to gain a vantage point outside the prevailing culture. As Christopher Wilson puts it, “Herland is conceived as a mythological Archimedian standing point.”2Herland itself may therefore be less of a prescriptive model than a prelude to a critique, a machine for dismantling popular prejudices with an eye to some future reconstruction. Critics who take this position underscore the importance of Gilman's humor,...
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SOURCE: “Gaskell's Feminist Utopia: The Cranfordians and the Reign of Goodwill,” in Utopian and Science Fiction by Women: Worlds of Difference, edited by Jane L. Donawerth and Carol A. Kolmerten, Syracuse University Press, 1994, pp. 73-92.
[In the following essay, Rosenthal considers Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford as a feminist utopia.]
In her landmark essay, “Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness,” Elaine Showalter explains that outside of the dominant male culture the muted women's culture has a space, a “wild zone,” that “stands for the aspects of the female lifestyle which are outside of and unlike those of men” (262). According to Showalter, in an attempt to enlarge and endorse such spaces, “women writers have often imagined Amazon Utopias, cities or countries situated in the wild zone or on its border” (263). In a subsequent list of examples, Showalter cites first, “Gaskell's gentle Cranford” (263).1 And indeed, when read as an exploration of Showalter's wild zone, Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford suddenly explodes with resounding power. This text, seemingly so innocent, now presents the most stirring of visions; it creates the possibility that the muted culture might accept its marginal space, reject the dominant culture, and establish itself as an alternate community—a feminist utopia—a separate and better world in which women live pacifically...
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SOURCE: “‘In the Twinkling of an Eye’: Gilman's Utopian Imagination,” in A Very Different Story: Studies on the Fiction of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, edited by Val Gough and Jill Rudd, Liverpool University Press, 1998, pp. 129-43.
[In the following essay, Gough analyzes the utopian vision and technique of Gilman's novel Moving the Mountain, and contrasts this work with her later Herland.]
Many recent theorists of utopian thinking have pointed out that the strength of a literary utopia lies not so much in the particular social structure it portrays, but rather in how the utopian vision is portrayed. Since narrative strategies and formal devices encode ideological messages, the form of the literary utopia is at least as significant as its content. As Tom Moylan says:
… the utopian process must be held open as a symbolic resolution of historical contradictions that finds its importance not in the particulars of those resolutions but in the very act of imagining them, in the form of utopia itself.1
Not surprisingly, then, analyses of Gilman's most well-known literary utopia, Herland (1915), have shown how the novel's formal and structural properties contribute decisively to its subversive utopian message.2 The fundamental premise of such approaches is that imagined utopias are most...
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Beauchamp, Gorman. “The Iron Heel and Looking Backward: Two Paths to Utopia.” In American Literary Realism 1870-1910 9, No. 4 (Autumn 1976): 307-14.
Explores the affinities of the dystopian novel The Iron Heel and the utopian work Looking Backward.
Coleman, Stephen. “The Economics of Utopia: Morris and Bellamy Contrasted.” In The Journal of the William Morris Society VIII, No. 2 (Spring 1989): 2-6.
Distinguishes between the views of economic distribution presented in Edward Bellamy's Looking Backwardand William Morris's News from Nowhere.
Conway, Jill Ker. “Utopian Dream or Dystopian Nightmare? Nineteenth-Century Feminist Ideas about Equality.” In Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society 96, Part 2 (1987): 285-94.
Contrasts the threads of “utopian-radical” and “conservative-sentimental” feminism in nineteenth-century America.
Donaldson, Laura E. “The Eve of De-struction: Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the Feminist Re-creation of Paradise.” In Women's Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 16, Nos. 3-4 (1989): 373-87.
Differentiates between the feminist utopianism of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland and the dominant masculine, monologic utopian mode of the late nineteenth...
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