LITR 5439 Literary & Historical Utopias

lecture notes

Introductory meeting


How to know Thomas More

1. Saint in Catholic Church (1935) (lawyer for Henry VIII; resisted English church's separation from Rome)

2. subject of 1966 film / play A Man for All Seasons

3. Renaissance man / Christian Humanist

4. Author of Utopia (1516)--not necessarily  


Historical background to More's Utopia (1516)

Printing press developed 1450s (Gutenberg Bibles)--More's traveler makes references to printing in Utopia

Discovery of America by Europe 1492--More makes direct references to travels and writings of Amerigo Vespucci, + setting of text's dialogues is Brussels, important port for New World commerce and exploration

Renaissance (1400s-1500s) as revival of humanistic and empirical thought from Classical Greece and Rome, in contrast to emphasis on divine revelation and tradition in Middle Ages

Rise of modern "power politics" in statesmanship, formalized in Machiavelli's The Prince -- Utopia, especially in its emphasis on "If I were advising a leader" bits, often seems like a reply to The Prince that differs by emphasizing the need for leaders to be humble and models of virtuous behavior rather than power players.


Christian Humanism

Thomas More is often characterized as a "Christian Humanist," Renaissance tradition or school of thought

Other examples:

Erasmus, Dutch theologian and philosopher, opponent of Luther

John Milton, Paradise Lost 

William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation


"Christian" and "Humanist" more often seen today as two opposing sides in "culture wars"

But opposition isn't essential, though always tensions

productive to regard as two essential traditions in western civilization

Utopia is not Christian but not exactly Pagan either--note insistence on their belief in afterlife as foundation of morality







Utopia: Your Virtual Life



Nature of seminar topic

What's your familiarity with topic of utopian literature?

In American schools, subject mostly approached negatively, through "dystopias" or "satirical utopias" like 1984, Brave New World, or Lord of the Flies.



roundtable discussion

Identify self, where you are in graduate studies, teaching or research interests

Comment or question on course objective, author, text.

What previous familiarity or reading in subject? Questions?


welcome, syllabus, webpage



webpage mostly used for convenience, formal presentations and web-reviews


review assignments

1-2 student presentations per student

2-3 student presentations daily


final exam

+ research postings


nature of 5-wks grad course

downsides of schedule: 

If you're slow starting or distracted, not much time to recover.

Few opportunities for extended out-of-class research

schedule forces selection of shorter texts, when many 


upsides of schedule: (or, making silk purse from sow's ear)

3 meetings per week: not much time to forget (until class is over)

intensive study, concentration

classroom-intensive course: impossible to manage traditional lecture-discussion for 9 hours a week, so good chance to force-grow some student leadership, cooperative learning

pleasure of working, sharing with peers (also danger of irritation in intensive contact)

gain quick immersion in unusual but promising subject matter

summer school often has many teachers: utopia a good teaching subject, with appeal beyond Literature or English majors




I will email posting of the presentation schedule to students tonight or tomorrow. Welcome to suggest changes or raise problems if you hurry. I'll make necessary corrections and bring copies to class Thursday.




nature of 5-wks grad course

compromise between upholding standards (esp. reading and research) and cooperating with time limits

resolution: do your reading, perform in class at as high a level as possible

foreswear leisure, vacation plans

At the point where the course is just about to break you, the course is just about over


course texts sound more exciting than they are

everything is readable

most exciting texts are dystopias (Anthem, Revelation)

see literary objective: problems of plot in utopia > description, travel literature, tour of perfect world

Are these novels? Or what?

interest has to happen in discussion



definitions > examples

The word “utopia” comes from the title of Sir Thomas More’s utopian novel / tract of 1512, Utopia.  

The word is made up of Greek parts, formed either from 

ou (no) + topos (place, as in “topography”) to mean “no place,” 

or from 

eu (good, as in “euphoria”) + topos (place) to mean “good place.”

In late 20th-century popular or scholarly usage, the word “utopia” may be used in several ways:

·        “Utopia” may refer to an actual or historical community in which participants agree to particular rules or modes of behavior that distinguish them from everyday society and are designed to promote greater happiness, fulfillment, or harmony between humans and their environment. Some scholars, planners, and residents call these actual places "Intentional Communities."

·        “Utopia” and especially the adjective “utopian” may describe visionary political attempts to improve or reform society.  Usually such usage is negative or contemptuous.  For instance, slogans associated with a leftist like Hillary Clinton such as “It takes a village [to raise a child]” may be criticized by right-wingers like Rush Limbaugh as “utopian,” meaning “hopelessly impractical.” Scholars may refer to large-scale utopian movements like Marxism / Communism in Russia and China as "mass utopias."

·        A "utopia” may also be a term referring to a novel or a non-fiction book or essay that describes an ideal or planned community or the adventures of a person within one.








Objective Is the utopian impulse universal, or is it special to western civilization, esp. in its modern phase? Has the utopian impulse become extinct or evolved? Is utopia “progressive / liberal” or “reactionary / conservative?”





Warning about Utopia: tedious reading, very long paragraphs

but just because it's tedious, doesn't mean it's not clear and rewarding

We could spend longer with it, but may not want to

Anyway, work through it however you can, and we'll help each other out in discussion Thursday


In what ways does Utopia resemble a novel? (Broadly, the "modern English novel" would not appear for app. 200 more years--DeFoe's Robinson Crusoe 1719)


discussion leader should direct class to 1 or 2 passages in their area of text, provide context and preview theme, read through passage, and invite discussion.