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.