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).