University of Houston
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.