Entering Utopia

John Hay
University of Nevada, Las Vegas


I taught Equality on the final class of an undergraduate elective course on eighteenth-century American literature during the Spring 2017 semester at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. I had twenty-two students, most of whom were junior and senior English majors. We had begun the semester with Cotton Mather and the Salem Witch Trials in 1692 and were ending with Equality in 1802. Along the way, we covered texts by a variety of writers such as Jonathan Edwards, Benjamin Franklin, Phillis Wheatley, and William Bartram.

As I had devoted only a single day to Equality (the last of the semester), we jumped into the text aggressively. We had just finished discussing Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland (1798) the week before, and I explained that Equality was a very different novel yet shared an interest in both the political and the fantastic. I asked the class for their initial impressions upon cracking open the text, and the best response I received was one of surprise—surprise that such a utopian project was being addressed in America as early as 1802. One student, who had earlier taken my course on the New England Transcendentalists, observed similarities to the language surrounding the later Brook Farm and Fruitlands experiments.

Some other students indicated their familiarity with Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) and brought this up as a natural precursor. One student pointed out that More’s Utopia still featured criminality and incarceration, as did Equality’s Lithconia. We reflected on the potential irony of this element in imaginary utopias, especially given the problematically high incarceration rates in the United States today. Students mulled over the idea that even through utopian fantasy we seem unable to imagine a world without prisons. (I also took this opportunity to share with them Fredric Jameson’s now-famous observation that “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.”)

In order to generate some class discussion, I directed everyone’s attention to a few specific passages from Equality. Beginning on page four, I pointed out that Lithconia is located somewhere near the North Pole. I talked a little bit about polar fantasies (Kathryn Schulz’s New Yorker article on the topic, “Literature’s Arctic Obsession” [April 24, 2017], had just appeared), and then I explained that early literary utopias tended to be set on undiscovered islands. Such a fantasy was normal during the Age of Exploration, but by 1800 the idea of a large undiscovered civilization thriving in an unmapped region of the globe seemed unlikely. And yet, at the same time, the various major Enlightenment developments in science, technology, politics, and even religion had basically turned the future into a foreign country. Nineteenth-century utopias thus tended to be located in time rather than in space. Helpfully to my point, Equality perfectly encapsulates this shift from space to time when the narrator declares, “It is certain, that if there be not such an island, it is possible there will be, some time or other” (4).

We next spent a lot of time talking about the passage that begins, “Hatred, jealousy, pride, revenge, have their origin also in the imperfection of the social compact” (8). Drawing on material we had covered earlier in our course, we discussed the shift from the Calvinist strain prominent in America in the early 1700s to more radical rejections of Original Sin at the end of the century. Absent the conviction of Original Sin (and groups such as the Unitarians were beginning to downplay, if not outright dismiss, the concept in the Revolutionary Era), human individuals and societies become hypothetically perfectible, and thus the spirit of reform can flourish. So we touched on the nature of reform itself—the basic principle that people have the power to make the world a better place (as opposed to leaving it all up to God)—and its importance to the citizens of the early republic.

I then jumped to page sixteen and read to them the passage claiming that the Lithconians “are progressing from civil society to a state of nature.” Here I brought up Jean-Jacques Rousseau, with whose work some of my students were slightly familiar, and quickly addressed his extremely influential Discourse on Inequality (1754). We talked a bit about the “state of nature” and the concept of the “noble savage” (Hobbes vs. Rousseau, etc.). I tried to tie this in with the “deist” character of The Temple of Reason, reminding the class that we had come a long way from Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards.

I finished by jumping back to page fourteen and drawing attention to the fact that the Lithconians don’t have democratic elections. We concluded with a few questions about the degree to which Equality might or might not therefore be considered an “American” utopia: How important is voting to the concept of “Americanness”? To what extent is the ideal of democracy built on the practical reality of regular elections? Is democracy the goal of America, or is it just a means of achieving a utopian society?

I personally enjoyed reading and discussing Equality, but I’m not sure if I would assign it again. My class wasn’t very enthusiastic about it. However, its place at the very end of my syllabus made Equality a little harder to cover. Students were already working on independent research papers, and I suspect that many of them didn’t take the time to read Equality very thoroughly. From my own position at the head of the class, I wish that I had spoken a bit more about the text’s original serial publication—particularly in a newspaper with such an interesting ideological slant. Students may have been able to draw some interesting connections to media content being generated today.

In some ways, I think what might have been most interesting to students was my opening discussion of the Just Teach One project, which I was joining for the first time. They seemed interested in the process of canon formation and how individual college courses might contribute. So while I may not return to Equality as a pedagogical touchstone, I certainly plan to adopt future JTO texts.

JTO – Equality

Monica Urban
University of Houston
Spring 2017

In my lower-division literature course focusing on themes of belief, the supernatural, and utopian communities, we read Equality fairly early in the semester. Initially, I imagined this text would serve as a companion piece to our prior discussions about Transcendentalism. However, this text also enabled many connections among texts and expanded our definitions of terms such as “Romance,” “utopia,” and “republic.”

The students determined that whether a space was a utopia or dystopia depended on the perspective of the narrator. We defined the prerequisites of a utopia as mutual beliefs, unity, and the refutation of other social orders. Using our class-developed template, we considered what was missing from Lithconia. I suggested that we look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs during our discussion of utopias so that we could consider what was missing from this ideal society. Students noted that competition, motivation, differentiation, innovation, and fulfillment were potentially lacking in this utopia. This part of the discussion allowed us to explore intersections between democracy and socialism; autonomy and hierarchy; production and consumption.

Having just concluded a unit on the Transcendentalists, the students made connections to Emerson, especially his ideas of self-reliance and poverty. A handful of students were confused by the tone of the text and wondered if it were a satire like Alcott’s “Transcendental Wild Oats.” We compared the introduction of Equality to Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” in an effort to contextualize the use of satire. I asked the students to debate which literary form, the essay or a work of fiction, was the most effective delivery system of a political ideal. This exercise allowed us to consider the use of rhetoric not only by an anonymous author, but also having been written during the early republic. One student observed that the author’s identity lacks importance since the community, Lith/conia, could be defined as small particles of stone in which the whole is more important than the individual segments.

The students remained focused on the anonymity of the author in our second class discussion. I gave them some additional background on print culture from the 19th century and had them think about the subversive intent of authors like Charles Chesnutt and Alcott who were either forced to be oblique or use a pseudonym in consideration of their audience. The students concluded that since this was such a Christian nation at the time of publication, that the deist approach was radical, causing the author to remain anonymous, despite the popularity and the reprinting.

Many of the texts we read for the semester featured people of communities seeking something, but Equality allowed us to reorient our course trajectory to include creation, not only of a community but also of a piece of writing. We read the texts that semester in thematic rather than chronological order. Having recently read Poe’s “The Mesmerized Spectator,” a few students made connections between metaphysical healing through universal connectedness and the non-hierarchical community in Equality. There was a consensus among the students that search in many of these texts was for something spiritual but not religious. Many of my students were struck by the alteration of Genesis, resulting in a lack of original sin. We discussed the ways in which the lifting of this burden would change different social and familial structures.

I found that Equality fit well in the syllabus as it allowed us to consider authorship, print culture, and genre conventions. In the communities based on mutual belief, which we continued to study throughout the semester, Equality enabled us to question for whom true equality existed.

Placing Equality in the American Literature to 1865 Survey

Brian Yothers
University of Texas at El Paso

My encounter with Equality—A Political Romance this spring consisted in my inclusion of the text in my survey class on American Literature to 1865. Most of us who teach such a class have observed that it seems as if it should be two or three classes, were it defined in strictly intellectual terms rather than by the complicated set of compromises that goes into defining any English department’s curriculum.

Equality served as a bridge among the different courses that I’m tempted to imagine the American literature to 1865 survey as being divided among through its utopian framing and its attempt to answer precisely those questions that figures from the sixteenth-century explorer and captive Cabeza de Vaca and the seventeenth-century New England Puritans to the eighteenth-century framers of the founding documents of the United States and the nineteenth-century Transcendentalists were vexed by. Although I placed our in-class discussion of the text right before our transition from the eighteenth-century early republic to the rise of American Romanticism, I found occasion to mention the pamphlet throughout the early portion of the semester. Indeed, I ended up finding so many connections to Equality in our discussions that I’m tempted to use it as a means of launching the survey class in a future semester. Between its emphasis on economic and social inequality, its emphasis on the enabling conditions of friendship, and its presentation of utopian models for reimagining societal institutions, this text sends out filaments to virtually everything we discuss in an early and antebellum American literature survey.

To cite a seemingly unlikely example, when discussing Cabez de Vaca’s representations of indigenous people in Texas, I asked students to consider how his version of Catholic mendicancy and his observations of indigenous mores combined to call into question of the economic goals of New World colonization. This points toward the utopian tradition that narratives like Cabeza de Vaca’s help to inaugurate via Sir Thomas More’s Utopia and in which Equality participates. As similar premonition of Equality’s attempts to model a just society appears in John Winthrop’s frequently taught sermon “Of Christian Charity.” The fact that Winthrop emphasizes the idea of mutual care and responsibility in the Massachusetts Bay Colony even as he insists that class distinctions are divinely ordained means that students have the opportunity to think about the ways in which economic equality is not necessarily embedded in all texts that seek collective economic action and justice. When teaching Winthrop’s sermon, I have found that a fair percentage of my students focus on Winthrop’s argument that members of the community must contribute to the common good as an indication of something like social democracy, even as an equal number focus on his justification of class hierarchy as a sign of the reverse tendency.

Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia and Alexander Hamilton’s and James Madison’s contributions to The Federalist Papers offered a further opportunity to consider how they might set us up for a discussion of Equality. Not surprisingly, I found that the Federalist Papers carried some added cultural weight for some of my students in the wake of the substantial public success of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton: The Musical, and like Winthrop’s sermon, these texts provided a range of strategies for reimagining social relations while maintaining some existing hierarchies and jettisoning others for which Equality provided a useful foil.

Finally, Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason and Judith Sargent Murray’s On the Equality of the Sexes provided a perfect jumping off point for a discussion of how gender and economic issues fit together in a reading of Equality. My students had just read The Age of Reason, with its stirring affirmation that “my own mind is my own church” before Equality, and so they were ready for a text that would challenge models of morality based on divine commands rather than reason. They had just analyzed Murray’s reinterpretation of biblical stories associate with gender roles, so they were prepared for a text that attempts to reimagine the relationship between the sexes on a less hierarchical basis than inherited traditions would suggest.

My students’ reactions to Equality were mixed. As is often the case when dealing with utopian works, some students tended to focus on why the utopian community described is impractical—a not-unreasonable stance, but one that tends to limit the conversation that we can have rather than expand it. For this reason, I try to prompt students to think less about whether the utopian society would work were its prescriptions to be implemented, and more about what these prescriptions tell us about the relationship of the author to his or her present society. For example, many of the customs that seemed most unusual to students could be explained as being motivated by the paramount value that the Lithconians placed on friendship, and considering the centrality of friendship for this utopian society pointed toward both Winthrop’s emphasis on affective bonds among the New England Puritans and the importance of voluntary associations in the early republic.

One beneficial aspect of teaching Equality that emerged when we approached the middle of the nineteenth century was the degree to which the pamphlet served to illuminate the connections between Transcendentalism and Deism. I found that when students considered the opening chapter of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden and Margaret Fuller’s essay “The Great Lawsuit: Man vs. Men, Woman vs. Women,” the fact that they had already discussed Equality made these texts seem more manageable. Many teachers make connections among feminist writings over time, point out the development of feminist ideas between Murray and Fuller, or the appropriation by Fuller of Mary Wollstonecraft’s ideas and personal history. The text becomes richer still, however, when Fuller is understood as participating in a longstanding tradition of re-conceptualizing social and economic relations more broadly and that she is showing that questions of gender are central, not peripheral to such a re-conceptualization.

I am tempted to wonder about how this connective quality of the pamphlet might play out in related courses. Last fall, I had taught a course in American fiction to 1900, focusing particularly on novels that featured an interracial dimension. A piece like Equality, A Political Romance could have paired very nicely with Susanna Haswell Rowson’s Reuben and Rachel, with its attempt to find an inner meaning to contact between Europe and the America’s across generations. It certainly could make a useful context for teaching nineteenth-century novels like George Lippard’s The Quaker City or New York: Its Upper Ten and Lower Million, with their persistent focus on economic inequality in the antebellum US, or similarly focused fiction like Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” “The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids,” and “Rich Man’s Crumbs and Poor Man’s Pudding,” or Rebecca Harding Davis’s Life in the Iron Mills and Margaret Howth. In particular, it could shed special light on the economic dimensions of the seduction novel, from Charlotte Temple and The Coquette through The Scarlet Letter even as it is illuminated, in particular, but the late eighteenth-century seduction novel. I can also imagine it pairing nicely with Royall Tyler’s The Algerine Captive, in which Tyler satirizes late eighteenth-century norms in the United States in the first book and then presents an alternative that is the subject of both critique and desire in the second.

Because I taught Equality for the first time in a survey class, much of what I have to reflect upon here is prospective: I learned a good deal from both the connections that I found myself making with this work throughout the semester and the ways in which my students responded to it in our in-class discussion and beyond. What I have found is that this text offers more possibilities for this class and others than I had realized at the start of the semester, and I am looking forward to making this neglected text the linchpin for a more focused discussion of competing utopian visions in future classes.

Against Utopia – Teaching Equality: A Political Romance

Etta Madden
Missouri State University
June 15, 2017


“Against Utopia” may not be a unique title, but it expresses concisely what I recall as my students’ responses to the anonymously written Equality: A Political Romance (1802).[1] Yet these responses were typical of many student reactions to varieties of utopias they encounter in my classes—important to anyone considering inclusion of this short and stimulating narrative in a course. In spite of these responses, I remain a believer in this literary genre and ideological concept, especially for ways in which it opens the worlds of possibility or the “social dreaming” that by definition is the heart of utopianism.[2] My musings here wind through this assertion, focusing on two students’ responses to the narrative within the larger context of teaching American literature and utopian visions.

When Duncan Faherty and Ed White introduced Equality as the latest posting in the Just Teach One project, I had already announced a “utopian/dystopian visions” theme for my MA-level seminar in American literature before 1900. How, then, could I justify not including this short work on the imagined Lithconian society? Even before having read it myself, relying only on Faherty and White’s brief description, I put it on the course reading list. Surely, I thought, it would contribute to rich discussions of not only narrative devices but also of engaging themes and commonplaces of utopian literature, such as communal property ownership and sexual and marital arrangements differing from what has come to be considered as “the norm” in the early Republic. And it would add new facets to our understandings of such traditions American literature and culture.

My own understandings of the genre, I discovered upon reading Equality, remained unchanged. Nothing in its content or form surprised me—it consists of expected commonplaces of western utopian literature, reinforced by Thomas More’s Utopia (1516). This reading confirmed my view that the narrative would serve as a perfect work to assign early in the course, providing an opportunity early in the semester for students to test their understanding of the genre’s basic elements. Its brevity (approximately 50 pages) would keep them from getting bogged down in an extremely long and potentially plodding account. (Utopian narratives are known for lack of dramatic tension, as often a traveler, arrived in a new world, is escorted by a citizen who elaborates didactically on the political theories and social practices.[3])

In contrast to my reading of Equality, teaching it elicited surprising responses. Two examples suffice here. One emerged in a weekly response essay—an initial reaction—and the other in an end-of-term research-based essay, expressing thoughts developed over more time. Thematically, the responses centered upon marriage, family, and religion. Upon reflection, I see they had little to do with either my teaching or the narrative itself and much more to do with where the students are in their lives and careers.

In fact, these responses send me back to where I was, experientially, when I first began studying these alternative ways of imagining the world and its varied cultures. I first taught things utopian when I was a graduate student myself, more than 25 years ago as I began reading and writing about American religious communities. Since then assignments in my courses on utopian visions have varied from pre-1900 materials on the celibate Shakers and the Oneida community, whose members joined in the sexual practice of “complex marriage,” to a spectrum of secular and spiritual materials from various genres, cultures and time periods. Yet I often forget, as I introduce students to utopian traditions, the surprise element inherent in some of these alternative ways of existing and the time people need to process new information. Certainly I am reminded of these two aspects of teaching and learning as I consider Equality in the classroom.

This past spring my plans were to blend lesser-known with better-known works within a pre-1900 time frame. Equality would be preceded by two works and an introductory course lecture. Our readings began with part of More’s Utopia, not because last year’s quincentenary made it quintessential, but rather for how it sets out form and themes that have been replayed for 500 years. The author’s travels, political insights and stances, translated through his fictive imaginings, island setting, and traveling narrator Raphael Hythloday, set the stage for Unca Eliza Winkfield’s The Female American (1767) and the introduction and Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard sections of Hector St. Jean de Crevecour’s Letters from an American Farmer (1782). The latter two works allowed us to zoom in on travel, island and property ownership themes and the narrator’s role in complicating authorial stances. All three reminded us of the importance of understanding historical and political contexts for shaping such fictional visions or social dreaming.

My opening slide lecture had defined and illustrated variations on utopian commonplaces. I included, as usual, both literary and actual communities and their relationships: French radical’s Etienne Cabet’s novel Voyage en Icaria (1840) and the journeys and settlements of the Icarians in the US; Nathaniel Hawthorne’s experiences at Brook Farm and his Blithedale Romance (1852). And most importantly, we discussed the inverse relationships of utopias to dystopias. The students openly embraced Margaret Atwood’s keen insight, when you “scratch the surface . . . you see . . . within each utopia, a concealed dystopia; within each dystopia, a hidden utopia.”[4]

Yet even with these introductory definitions and admonitions, three weeks into the course, as we approached Equality, it was as if the students had thrown critical strategies to the wind. For example, although one short response essay focused on the Lithconians’ supposed lack of free will, sense of individuality, and personal desires as part of “human nature,” the supporting evidence for this claim noted Lithconian policies on sexuality, marriage and divorce—all arranged and “calculated to make the most of love” (13).[5] The student was troubled not only by the regulation that spouses only shared a bed (i.e. had sexual relations) once a week—although they might live in the same house, with several other non-biologically related adults—but also that the narrative provides no hint of any citizen objecting to the policies or having desires that differed from the ideal. Additionally, the student referred to concepts of family and the Lithconian policy, “there can be no family pride” (8) and the associated description, that children are “distributed in the houses as chance, passion or accident direct, male and female promiscuously” (12). This system designed with all citizens as part of one large family of humanity challenged what the student saw as a “natural connection” between a mother and “a child to whom she has given birth” and the lack of discussion of emotions among biologically related humans. In spite of my response that Equality’s author was emphasizing the learned or environmental aspects of such ties—even with references to contemporary adoptions—this student (and others in the class) appeared to resist thinking about other social organizations for marriage and family than those with which they believed “natural” and therefore normative in their lived experiences to date.

If such troubles emerge from distinctions about “human nature” and the “unnatural” in marriage and family bonds, the second student’s issues arose from an attempt to blur distinction, or to find common ground across time and beliefs. In this instance, the linkage of Equality to Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward: 2000-1887 (1888) was Christian socialism. Even with its overt Deist language and Faherty and White’s explanation of the narrative’s publication within a Deist newspaper, The Temple of Reason (1), Equality’s Lithconia and its citizens demonstrated to this student author all the elements of Christian socialism. Although the essay provided historical information on the origins of the “social gospel” and “Christian Socialist” movements later in the nineteenth century, the long section in Equality on the human constructions of religious institutions and any theological or political discussion of the label “Christian” were absent from the argument. In my attempts to work with the student on defining terms and understanding the place of religion and religious history in the narrative, I became aware that in the limited time frame of the course and this assignment, such results likely would not be realized.

In fact, through reflecting on these and other responses, I have decided that they exhibit a deeper and more pervasive attitude. Rather than being disappointed in the work’s literary qualities, these students (and many of their peers) are at root resistant to utopian visions. They are skeptical of “all things new.”[6] While they express interest in “thinking outside the box”—they are, in fact, trapped within it. That box is as much the world of their limited life experiences as it is a culture of cynicism, influenced by The Walking Dead and The Handmaid’s Tale in both video and literary forms. Where, then, does such a discovery leave me—especially as I consider teaching Equality again, or as you may consider it?

First, to the question of teaching Equality – I would absolutely do so. Second, as for what might be done differently—expect most students to be against Lithconia. Their interests in utopia emerge not from a love of it but from fascination with dystopias. For many, their cynicism embraces and supports a facility for seeing all possible new worlds with despairing darkness. Yet I remain all for teaching utopia—for the pinholes of light that appear through discussions of alternatives to the “norms.” Who knows when they might pop open?

With Equality not only property ownership and female agency emerge but also the small press publishing context of The Temple of Reason is critical. The marginal voices that spoke up about these topics—as Faherty and White discuss in their introduction—deserve discussion. Our voices as professors should be added to these by teaching works that contribute to dialogues that open rather than close possibilities. In fact, More’s Hythloday encouraged such conversation. His hope was discovering truths. The goal then remains today—social dreaming for a better world.

[1] Martin McGrath, “Against Utopia: Arthur C. Clarke and the Heterotopian Impulse,” Welcome to My World, August 1, 2011, http://www.mmcgrath.co.uk/?p=1406

[2] Lyman Tower Sargent, Utopianism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 5.

[3] Northrop Frye, “Varieties of Literary Utopias,” Daedalus 94.2 (1965): 323-373.

[4] Margaret Atwood, “Dire Cartographies: The Roads to Ustopia,” In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2011), 85.

[5] Page numbers refer to the version prepared by Faherty and White, “Just Teach One,” Common-Place: the journal of early American life, Spring 2017, http://jto.common-place.org/just-teach-one-homepage/equality-a-political-romance-1802/

[6] Robert S. Fogarty, All Things New: American Communes and Utopian Movements, 1860–1914 (Chicago: U Chicago P, 1990).

[1] Martin McGrath, “Against Utopia: Arthur C. Clarke and the Heterotopian Impulse,” Welcome to My World, August 1, 2011, http://www.mmcgrath.co.uk/?p=1406

[1] Lyman Tower Sargent, Utopianism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 5.

[1] Northrop Frye, “Varieties of Literary Utopias,” Daedalus 94.2 (1965): 323-373.

[1] Margaret Atwood, “Dire Cartographies: The Roads to Ustopia,” In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2011), 85.

[1] Page numbers refer to the version prepared by Faherty and White, “Just Teach One,” Common-Place: the journal of early American life, Spring 2017, http://jto.common-place.org/just-teach-one-homepage/equality-a-political-romance-1802/

[1] Robert S. Fogarty, All Things New: American Communes and Utopian Movements, 1860–1914 (Chicago: U Chicago P, 1990).

Exploring Utopian Literature and Thought in Nineteenth-Century America

Diana I. Dabek
Doctoral Candidate
Department of English
University of Miami

I’d like to start by thanking Duncan Faherty and Ed White for preparing this text, and for making it accessible to us all. As a graduate student, I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to partake in this project with so many other wonderful scholars and teachers. I taught Equality near the end of a unit on utopian literature in my undergraduate Early American Literature course (colonial-1865). I began with a brief overview of the history of utopian thought in Western culture, starting with Plato’s vision of the ideal Greek city-state to Sir Thomas More’s imaginary island of Utopia. We spent some class time talking about the genre of utopian literature and how it has evolved over the centuries. Mostly, I wanted students to understand that writers who engage with utopian themes usually do so as a form of social commentary.

After their crash course on utopian literature, students were introduced to the first of three “utopian” texts, C.B.B.’s Wieland (1798). The class was eager to understand why the utopian project failed for the Wieland family, and what exactly C.B.B. was trying to tell contemporary audiences through his experimental novel. I explained that Americans were experiencing a great deal of change in the years following the Revolutionary War. We touched on a wide variety of topics ranging from the Enlightenment to the rise of Jeffersonian democracy. Again, I asked the class to think about how C.B.B. used his novel as a form as social commentary. Some students suggested that C.B.B. was trying to warn Americans about the dangers of limited government. These students viewed the novel as a criticism of Jeffersonian democracy, which favored minimal institutionalized authority. Others in the class interpreted the text as a criticism of social isolation, noting that the Wielands reject some of the most common institutions like church and school. For the most part, students agreed that Wieland is a text that is steeped in issues of national identity and inquietudes about unchecked power.

After Wieland, we moved on to our second text, Equality (1802). From the start, students had a lot of questions concerning authorship and audience reception. For example, students wondered if the text would have been more successful had it been printed in a pamphlet by itself. Some students in the class were curious as to why it was published anonymously. Others wanted know more about Deism and how it figured into the author’s understanding and representation of a utopian society. All of these questions led to some interesting discussions about target audience and purpose. We explored these questions with the help of the prefatory material and some of the suggested reading (I found the articles by Michael Durey and Anthony Galluzzo to be especially helpful when discussing issues of authorship). We also spent some class time looking at excerpts from The Temple of Reason in order to get a better understanding of how contemporary audiences would have experienced the text. In total, we dedicated a week to Equality. Students had a difficult time understanding (and frankly even reading) the latter half of the text where the narrator provides a long account of the Lithconian origin story. As a result, we wound up spending most of our time talking about the first half of the text. Our primary goal was to analyze the text from different approaches (as a radical immigrant text, as a travel narrative, as a socialist tract, or as deist propaganda). In doing so, students were encouraged to read the text closely and to look for supporting evidence for each point of view.

In the end, students were asked to write a 6-8-page research essay on one of the three utopian texts (the third one was Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance). I am happy to report that several students in the class wrote thought-provoking and insightful essays on Equality. For example, I had a student who argued that the author of Equality hoped to appeal to Philadelphia’s laboring working class and immigrant population with his idyllic representation of Lithconia. Another student argued that Equality should be read as a criticism on the unattainably of the American Dream.

Overall, I truly enjoyed teaching Equality. This text encouraged my students to think about why utopian literature started to gain popularity in nineteenth century America. More importantly, it exposed them to a piece of literature that they otherwise would not have read.

“Equality—A Political Romance” and Early Contact Narratives

Tamara Harvey
George Mason University

We discussed “Equality: A Political Romance” on the last day of a survey of literatures of the Americas that stretched from Christopher Columbus to, this time, “Equality: A Political Romance.”  The class was made up of both undergraduates and graduate students and met once a week.  On that last Monday, students needed to complete their evaluations of the class and we needed to review for the final exam.  The weather was nice.  On top of it all, I wasn’t completely sure how this reading fit with the rest of the class—my lesson plan was only slightly more elaborate than “let’s throw this up and see what sticks.”  In short, these were not ideal conditions for tackling such an unusual text for the first time.

However, the students enjoyed it and thought I had chosen it as an ideal though quirky capstone to our class.  The utopian travel narrative conceit allowed them to think back to Columbus and The Travels of Sir John Mandeville from the first class of the semester as well as accounts of cultural contact and conquest by Hernán Cortés, Bartolomé de las Casas, Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, John Smith, and others.  The treatment of gender roles and sexual practices recalled both these contact narratives and other more feminist discussions of gender by Catalina de Erauso, Anne Bradstreet, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Benjamin Franklin, Judith Sargent Murray, Hannah Webster Foster, and others.  We were able to extend our discussion of deism, first touched on with Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography.  And finally, treating a periodical publication recalled an earlier database assignment in which students found and analyzed crime narratives written before 1801.

Because this reading came so late in the semester, students could not address it in a formal essay assignment,  so I made it a required text for an essay question on the final exam.  For this essay, I wanted to hold students responsible for the reading while giving them a range of opportunities for synthesizing the course material in a manner that suited their interests.  They needed to write a short essay treating three texts from the semester, one of which had to be “Equality—A Political Romance.” Because the exam was administered online, these essays were submitted like papers and students were on their honor to spend no more than 90 minutes writing the essay (they could prepare as long they liked). Here are the prompts I gave them:


  1. In the latter portion of the class we have read a number of works that are concerned with better fostering equality among people. Sometimes the solutions offered rest on political and social organization; sometimes they are grounded in civil exchanges among people on a more local level.  And in several texts, ideas about equality are developed through discussions of injustice and inequality.  Choosing two texts in addition to “Equality—A Political Romance,” compare and contrast some aspect of how equality is treated or fostered.  You might, for instance, focus on religious issues, political organization, or different forms of neighborliness and mutual support (though there are many other possibilities). Be sure to introduce your focused, arguable thesis at the beginning of your essay and remember to use close textual analysis to support your argument.
  2. Throughout the semester, we have read a number of texts that are critical of norms related to gender and sexuality. Choosing two texts in addition to “Equality—A Political Romance,” compare and contrast some aspect of their approach to critiquing gender ideology or treating expectations associated with sexuality.  How do they characterize the problem(s)? What solutions do they offer?  How does discussion of gender and/or sexuality fit with other aims of the text? (These questions are just suggestions—you don’t need to answer all of them.)  Be sure to introduce your focused, arguable thesis at the beginning of your essay and remember to use close textual analysis to support your argument.
  3. “Equality—A Political Romance” describes a visit to a utopia that echoes earlier discovery and contact narratives we read this semester while also reflecting on Lithconia’s own relationship to nationalism and colonization. Choosing two texts in addition to “Equality—A Political Romance,” explore some aspect of how “Equality” builds on and diverges from these earlier models of writing about discovery and contact and imagining more innocent cultures. Be sure to introduce your focused, arguable thesis at the beginning of your essay and remember to use close textual analysis to support your argument.


Most students chose the third option, comparing “Equality” to earlier models of discovery.  Only one student wrote about gender and sexuality while two chose to write about the idea of equality.  Perhaps because I wasn’t able to provide the scaffolding for our discussion of deism, socialism, or utopian writing, the most unlikely of the comparisons—“Equality” compared with mostly Spanish conquest and contact literature—was the most successful as well as the most popular.

I also suspect that this questions best suited the long and broad survey format of the class.  Students were particularly insightful as they considered the investments of the first-person narrator.  Whereas Columbus and Cabeza de Vaca’s narratives displayed ideological contradictions and complicated personal investments, the narrative style of “Equality—A Political Romance” was, they felt, “distant” and “passive.”  One student developed a very strong argument about how natives are treated as simpler and idealized in the earlier texts as well as in “Equality.”  Another found that the relative humility of the traveler in “Equality” upon encountering the utopia was a striking divergence from the model developed by Cortés and Columbus.  Still others considered the ways in which “Equality” was directly engaging and critiquing discourses of conquest and imperialism through its rejection of private property and a single religion or echoing cultural biases about others, as when the narrator reports that the “host of shopkeepers which seem so necessary in barbarous countries, is here unknown” (12).  Generally speaking, this assignment helped bring into sharper focus what was happening in the earlier texts; for “Equality” itself, students were more intrigued than enlightened.

In looking back, I regret that I could treat the context of “Equality—A Political Romance” only minimally.  Directing students’ time and attention to the age of discovery came at the expense of greater attention to the text in its own time.  But just as “Equality” offers a glimpse of other political possibilities being entertained during the early republic, the comparison with much earlier texts helps further unsettle both the celebratory and damning interpretations of early contact that so often shape our readings of these texts.  I don’t think we did justice to “Equality—A Political Romance” at all, but its presence in the class helped keep the stories of the Americas unsettled both in looking back to “discovery” discourses and anticipating the unfolding of national narratives with which they were more familiar.