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.