LITR 5439 Literary & Historical Utopias

Web Review



60s-70s Utopias,

esp. Marge Piercy, Woman on the Edge of Time (1976)




Overall historical progression of utopian and dystopian communities & texts in American literature:

Antebellum USA (1830s-50s): peak period for intentional communities, partly because of Financial Panic of 1837, partly b/c of growth of millennial religion:

Communities: Shakers, Mormons, Oneida, Brook Farm (Transcendentalist-Fourierist), Fruitlands (Alcott family)

Texts: Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1852 novel The Blithedale Romance is set at a fictional version of Brook Farm, of which Hawthorne was briefly a member; Louisa May Alcott, "Transcendental Wild Oats": satirical essay-sketch on her family's stay at Fruitlands community in early 1840s. Much journalism promoting or criticizing utopian communities.

 

Progressive Era (1890s-1910s): reaction against libertarian Gilded Age, growing inequality, plutocracy.

Utopian novels: Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward, 2000-1887 (1887), C. P. Gilman, Herland (1915); also utopian novels from England, e.g. Samuel Butler, Erewhon (1872), William Morris, News from Nowhere (1890)

 

New Deal / Cold War (1930s-1950s): growth of Social Democracies or Democratic Socialism (social safety net, growth of middle class, etc.)

Communities: Amana Communities, plus various socialist communes, + unions and government-supported conservation and arts (CCC & WPA)

Dystopian novels: Aldous Huxley, Brave New World (1931); Ayn Rand, Anthem (1938); George Orwell, Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1948); William Golding, Lord of the Flies (1954)

Utopian novels: B.F. Skinner, Walden Two (1948)

 

1960s-70s: social reform (civil rights) and protest (Vietnam); sexual revolution; mind alteration; Human Potential Movement

Communities: Twin Oaks, Esalen Institute, numerous hippie communes

Utopian novels: (most of these texts are too long for summer school)

Ursula K. LeGuin, The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (1974); Always Coming Home (1985)

Ernest Callenbach, Ecotopia (1975)

Marge Piercy, Woman on the Edge of Time (1976)

Samuel R. Delany, Trouble on Triton: An Ambiguous Heterotopia (1976)

Marge Piercy, Woman on the Edge of Time (1976)

Settings: NYC apartment house, mental hospital in 60s-70s, ecotopian commune 1-2 centuries future

Characters:

present-day: Consuelo (Connie) Ramos, her 20-something daughter & grandchild, residents and officials of mental hospital

future: Luciente, medium who travels from future to past, bringing Connie to future

+ utopian citizens who resemble characters in mental ward

motive for time travel: Utopians, wanting Connie's world to change, show her the impact of 20c life on future.

Alternatively, Connie's time travel may be interpreted as her hallucinations involving characters in mental hospital.

 

Points of interest

Utopian content

Compared to most utopian novels, Woman is impressively multicultural.

Future commune she visits is Mattapoisett on site of Wampanoag Indian village (contemporary Massachusetts).

Off-on war between ecotopian commune and corporate-world technology (cf. Ecotopia)

This ecotopia, like Callenbach, mixes low-tech and high-tech, primitive social structures + eugenics

Commune: no private property, no private family > separation of childbirth from motherhood.

 

Literary qualities

Partly because much of the content appealed to my 60s-70s ideology, Woman is perhaps my favorite reading experience in utopian fiction. However, this reading experience was also enhanced by the quality of the text as fiction.

Marge Piercy comparable to Margaret Atwood, Sandra Cisneros, Maya Angelou in combining some degree of critical respectability with best-seller popular status.

Novelistic flavor—intelligent but emotional characters, suspense, wonder.

  • Reader becomes invested in characters and their outcomes. As in a real community, the reader "lives with" the characters and cares what happens to them.

  • The war between Mattapoisett and the world techno-state replicate social questions raised by Vietnam, corporate imperialism, environmental movement.

  • The political-economic-global conflicts parallel conflicts or past problems in Connie's 20th-century domestic life,

 

Marge Piercy homepage

Greenman review of Woman on the Edge of Time