LITR 5439 Literary & Historical Utopias

Utopian Fiction

 &

Experimental Communities

in North America / USA


"The First Thanksgiving"

Pre-Columbian North American Indian culture as romanticized ecotopia? Speech by Chief Seattle & "Messiah Letter" of Wovoka

Biblical Utopias: Garden of Eden (Genesis), Heaven (Revelation), Apostolic Community (Acts 2.42-45)

Classical Greek utopias: Plato’s Republic; Plotinus, Platonopolis

Renaissance Europe: Thomas More, Utopia (1516); Tomaso Campanella, The City of the Sun (1602); Francis Bacon, The New Atlantis (1623)

Early European-America:

Communities: New England founded as state  with Christian based communitarian principles. "Pilgrim" colony of Plymouth attempts commonwealth resembling Plato's Republic. John Eliot, "Apostle to the Indians," organizes Indian "Praying Towns" on utopian principles based on Old Testament.

Texts: William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation (1600s); John Winthrop, "A Model of Christian Charity" (1630); John Eliot, Indian Tracts

(see Utopian Texts from "Founding Texts" of European America + Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations)

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); dystopias: slave plantations

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; James Fenimore Cooper, The Crater (1847);

[see 19th-century utopias]

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

Utopian novels: Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward, 2000-1887 (1887), William Dean Howells, Altruria Trilogy: A Traveler from Altruria (1891-2), Letters from Altruria (1904), Through the Eye of the Needle (1907); J. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900); C. P. Gilman, Herland (1915); also utopian novels from England, e.g. Samuel Butler, Erewhon (1872), William Morris, News from Nowhere (1890)

Dystopian novels: Negative responses and sequels to Looking Backward

Communities: community of Altruria, based on Howells' utopian trilogy below, briefly established in California in 1894.

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

Communities: various socialist communes, + unions & government-supported conservation and arts (CCC & WPA); Israeli kibbutzim

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); Aldoux Huxley, Island (1962)

(Huxley, Orwell, & Golding are British authors, but texts mentioned feature strongly in American school curricula and popular culture)

1960s-70s: social reform (civil rights) and protest (Vietnam); sexual revolution; mind alteration; Human Potential Movement; campus unrest; Great Society expansion of New Deal w/ Medicare, Medicaid, Headstart, etc.; Movement Conservatism reacts by creating corporate-supported counter-institutions.

Communities: Twin Oaks, Los Horcones, 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)

1980s- : "Neoliberalism": deregulated free market; privatization of government services; trade barriers and unions dismantled, lower taxation on wealth, limited government; corporations abandon responsibility for employees and communities in favor of shareholder profits; financial industry grows; USA turns from "rich country" to "country that makes rich people richer"; increasing inequality; repeated "crashes" of financial institutions followed by government bailouts; "new normal" of high unemployment and government / consumer debt; impending environmental catastrophes from overpopulation, overdevelopment & resource depletion, global warming, mutant viruses.

Communities: 60s-70s communes including kibbutzim adapt to neoliberalism with eco-tourism, retreats, organic products and handicrafts.

Utopian & dystopian fiction appears partially in texts including Toni Morrison, Paradise (1996); Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash (1992); Margaret Atwood, Maddaddam Trilogy: Oryx and Crake (2004), The Year of the Flood (2009), Maddaddam (2013).

Dystopian fiction: Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale (1985); Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower (1993), Parable of the Talents (1998).

Cold-War Dystopias continue to be taught in American high school curricula.

Young Adult Dystopias (usu. as series) become publishing phenomenon; e.g., Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games (2008); Lois Lowry, The Giver (1993); Scott Westerfield, Uglies (2005); various post-apocalyptic zombie / vampire dystopias, graphic novels, and films.