Closing with Constantius: Teaching Utopia in the Atlantic World

 Len von Morze

University of Massachusetts Boston

I chose Constantius and Pulchera as the last text in a seminar for M.A. students in English at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Since the experience of teaching any given text in a grad-seminar discussion will be different from the expectations the instructor has set for it, I’ll first describe how I situated the story within the course topic, and then summarize the insights that my students brought to the text.

The topic of the seminar was “Literature of the Atlantic World: Utopia and the World-System” (course website here: My basic question for the course was this: could we read literary utopias, beginning with More but especially in the eighteenth century, as a reaction-formation to the creation of an Atlantic economy? As I was thinking about how to frame this course — our first graduate offering on the Atlantic world — it occurred to me that some of the most prominent features of these fantastical voyages to utopia (planned societies, a sense of remoteness or inaccessibility, an emphasis on economic justice and/or self-sufficiency) could be seen as modes of resistance and/or critique vis-a-vis the most prominent features of the Atlantic market (the failure of imperial control, a pervasive sense of the already-seen or already-mapped, price convergence across the ocean). If a historical utopia (Oceana) tries to formulate laws for all time, key players in the Atlantic world tend to recognize no laws but those of the market. The horrors of the Atlantic transformation of bodies into capital (Equiano’s narrative of paradise lost) are sublated in utopia; the European traveler learns of fantastical lands whose morally superior inhabitants treat procreation as the source of all wealth (the “utopian economics” — to borrow Wilda Anderson’s phrase — parodied in Diderot’s Supplement to Bougainville and earnestly espoused in Franklin’s “Speech of Miss Polly Baker”).[1] National and racial characteristics in utopia reflect similar inversions: rather than encountering savages, the English discoverer of these New Worlds is generally the one being civilized and converted (Utopia, Gulliver’s Travels); in comparison with other European powers, the English find themselves defeated or belated (Oroonoko, The Female American).

Before summarizing our discussion of the narrative, I should first acknowledge that my take on it had actually been formed by another graduate student long before the semester began. Without that student’s insights, I would probably have not recognized the text’s utopian elements. That student, Michael Turner (now a doctoral candidate at Northeastern), had chosen Constantius and Pulchera in response to the “Great American Novel Pitchfest” assignment I’d devised for a seminar on Colonial American Literature, in which I challenged students to “pitch” us a pre-1830 U.S. novel for which there was no modern edition, and then to write an interpretative paper on the work. Michael’s outstanding essay continues to inform my understanding of the narrative.[2] Focusing on the cross-dressing theme, Michael provocatively noted that Pulchera’s cross-dressing in the narrative paradoxically “erases gender as performance”; in other words, her stint as a man seems to ignore the otherwise troubling separation between gender and its bodily enactment. Unlike other cross-dressing heroines, Pulchera does not dress as a man to pursue the romantic adventures and prospects usually available only to men. Instead she follows her captain’s advice to protect herself, and perhaps to maintain her faithfulness to the man with whom she has already had sex. All that it takes for Pulchera to become, for all social purposes, a man is “a neat suit of red regimentals, a gold-laced hat, … a sword” (14) and (as Michael noted) a name, Valorus — and this total transformation elicits neither discomfort from Pulchera nor the slightest suspicion from her fellow sailors, ultimately not even from Constantius himself.

What allows readers to suspend their disbelief is the cosmic power of marriage, for the story is less about two lovers enduring separation than about, as Michael eloquently put it, the capacity of marriage “to order a disordered and chaotic universe.” Before we reach that wedding at the end, Michael perceptively wrote, the story “represents, via metaphor, all of the incidents that may befall a marriage which has been informally negotiated in the bedroom, but which lacks paper.” Consider how Michael’s interpretation might help us to understand the events on page 21, where the British captain dismisses Valorus’s account of himself as an American, for “anyone might make as good a story as that.” In the absence of “his papers,” the narrative tells us, “he had nothing to shew.” As Duncan and Ed’s helpful note suggests, the immediate referent of “paper” is the proof of Valorus’s acting as a commissioned privateer rather than an independent pirate, but the moment also reminds us that Pulchera remains unmarried. Lacking that piece of paper, a disguise and a story will have to do; she must continue to circulate as a man in pursuit of the formal contract which would entitle her to legal protection. Valorus’s valuation, as it were, remains unstable, subject to the fluctuations of the market; at the moment of arrest, that valuation is zero, and the lack of that critical piece of paper means that Valorus ceases to circulate, temporarily winding up in a Halifax dungeon before escaping and resuming his adventures. Maybe this continuous free circulation could be taken as the text’s idea of utopia, since the limits of the body seem hardly to be recognized. In the end, Valorus becomes Pulchera again, returning home to Philadelphia to be married and thus ceasing to circulate for good. The text’s version of the fantastical voyage thus plays out in the space between the private vow and the publicly visible contract of marriage, just as the tale’s handling of cross-dressing maintains the difference between the extravagant adventures given in the middle of the narrative and the completely conventional ending.

I began our seminar discussion by asking students how the narrative picked up on some of the topics we’d been discussing in weeks past. Pamela Worth made a very important point about the way that the Atlantic Ocean in this work seems already charted and known, very different from the utopian tales we’d read earlier in the semester. For all the terrors of shipwreck, the ocean seems reassuringly familiar. The place-names include no fantastical Swiftian locations, appealing instead to a certain kind of urbane, well-traveled reader (page 22, for instance: “those who are acquainted with Halifax know…”). The narrator accounts for every trip, to the day. As Pamela pointed out, the nautical elements in the story are closer to those in Equiano than the vague reckoning given in our seventeenth-century texts. The Atlantic world, the narrative seems to be saying to the reader, has been civilized to the extent that even a woman traveling alone could feel safe. Thus when Pulchera finds herself rescued from shipwreck, her rescuer turns out to be an old, trustworthy acquaintance who knows Constantius well (14). Despite the brief possibility of cannibalism, the narrative contains little that is fantastical. The kind of worldly concerns typically reported in newspapers shape the universe of the novel: war blocks free movement across the Atlantic, and the French seem allies rather than enemies.

Matt Morrison and Ryan Kennedy took the text in fruitful directions by adding to our sense that the story, despite its occasional oddities, played with a familiar set of topoi. Matt reminded us that the novel invoked a staple of late eighteenth-century romances: a quixotically romantic young woman approaches the world without a mother to guide her. Ryan’s attention was drawn to a small detail in Pulchera’s long speech at the beginning of the novel. Pulchera’s description of her memory of Constantius’s person — “his lov’d ideas” (5) — was odd enough that it led him to track down the origin of the phrase to Pope’s “Eloisa to Abelard.” Ryan pointed out the ways in which Pulchera’s entire monologue early in the novel echoes Eloisa’s memory of her lover as she speaks:

Dear fatal name! rest ever unreveal’d,

Nor pass these lips in holy silence seal’d.

Hide it, my heart, within that close disguise,

Where mix’d with God’s, his lov’d idea lies … (“Eloisa to Abelard,” lines 9-12)

Like Eloisa, Pulchera speaks from her present position of being “cloistered up” (5). Both Pope and the American story surprise us by making the eloquent lover female, the beloved object male. But the American story, however, does not endorse Eloisa’s radical refusal to marry the man she loves. While Eloisa famously casts a “curse on all laws but those which love has made” (line 74), Pulchera devotes all of her energy to ensuring that the law of marriage be recognized.

The ending drew the most interest from seminar participants. More than one expressed frustration at Pulchera’s waiting so long to reveal herself to Constantius. Perhaps, as I was beginning to suggest above, the text delays and resists closure because the marriage would put an end to free circulation. My students did not seem to like this suggestion, and quite rightly insisted on examining the gendered terms of the ending. Some argued that the narrative puts the male character into the position of making a decision because he is a man. Others argued that Pulchera seems to be the more constant one, her trials having been amply demonstrated to the reader. Casandra Sullivan noted the way that the homecoming at the end might suggest a longing for national community — at the opposite extreme, Matt Hebert added, from the end of Gulliver’s Travels. If Gulliver has in certain ways been civilized by the utopias through which he travels, Pulchera civilizes the place to which she returns, chastening her father through the story of the sufferings he has caused her.

Assigning Constantius and Pulchera as a closing work about the Atlantic world allowed us to put our other course texts into focus. In most other courses, we’d probably have had an American focus, and I’d have put the narrative near the beginning of a reading schedule, making it hard to avoid situating the work as a dress rehearsal for longer and more accomplished American fiction. In the case of the Atlantic utopias seminar, however, ending the course with Constantius and Pulchera had certain advantages: it tended to foreclose discussion of the work’s quality, its ties to nation-formation, or its status as novel; instead we attended to the work in light of our thematic interests in the Atlantic world and utopia. Closing with the narrative’s fantastical voyages meant that I could ask students for help interpreting the work in light of thirteen weeks of related readings.

In addition to the inherent interest of the narrative, the “Just Teach One” project itself became a useful pedagogical object, for which I thank Duncan and Ed. Explaining its aims to my students a week before our meeting on the novel lent a perceptible feeling of excitement and responsibility to the seminar room during the dreaded final week of the semester.




(1) Wilda Anderson, “Dismantling a Utopian Economics,” Chapter Four of Diderot’s Dream (JHU Press, 1990) 127-67.

(2) Michael Turner, “What Winter Cannot Reveal: Contractual Obligation and the Fixedness of Sex in The History of Constantius and Pulchera; or, Constancy Rewarded,” December 17, 2010, quoted with permission of the author.

(3) Though I have not been able to acknowledge all of their contributions here, I’d like to express my thanks to seminar participants Michelle Araújo, Katie Bates, Matt Hebert, Kevin Kehl, Ryan Kennedy, Alicia LeBlanc, Rena Mahajan, Megan Mitchell, Matt Morrison, Assadullah Sadiq, Casandra Sullivan, and Pamela Worth.


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