Utopias and Dystopias

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Just like social protest novels in turn-of-the-century North America, utopian literature is tied to a specific historical context, or so it would appear from countless scholars who have written about the political, social, and economic conditions that seemed to set the stage for the large outpouring of this new genre that followed in the wake of Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward, published in 1888. Utopian literature in late-nineteenth-century and early-twentieth-century North America provides contemporary readers with both a view of American history through a literary lens and a view of American literature through a historical lens. Both lenses are, of course, skewed in innumerable ways. Perhaps the most prevalent skewing has been many literary historians' belief that the function of utopian literature has been to serve as literary escape from severe economic problems in the late-nineteenth-century United States and, in doing so, to act as a fertile ground for attempts at self definition as a nation with problems, surely, but with the spunk and ingenuity to overcome them. But when one looks through both lenses at the same time, one can see how powerful literary conventions shaped the fashioning of both plot and character in myriad ways that allowed both readers and writers to ignore the very real historical fact that women and nonwhite peoples were not equal to white men under the law. Thus a rereading of these utopian (and dystopian) novels from this period gives a clear picture of a nation that prefers to close its eyes to serious problems, a nation that overcomes its problems by pretending they do not exist.


Edward Bellamy's (1850–1898) Looking Backward (1888) was certainly not the first utopian novel published in America, but it acts as both the forerunner and definer of a genre as it flowered over the next thirty years. From the nationwide railroad strike in 1877 to the Haymarket riot in Chicago in 1886, the years leading up to the publication of Looking Backward were marked by turbulence, and the years after its publication were marked by a severe economic recession in which a few people made great fortunes while the working class felt the effects of these great fortunes. The prevalent interpretation of Looking Backward and of much of the genre of utopian literature that followed it has been to view it as a palliative to readers who, upset by a severe economic recession and the excesses of the Gilded Age, turned to literature for both escape and for a new way of thinking about the economic problems besieging the country.

A reading of Looking Backward seems to give evidence to that interpretation. In Bellamy's Boston of 2000, the protagonist Julian West awakens to a new egalitarian world full of technological advances. A new economic system called "Nationalism"—a gentle socialism—has eliminated the need for strikes and violence. Merchants and bankers have disappeared, as has money (and private property). Meals are served in central dining rooms or appear miraculously on a dumb-waiter in individual homes. Umbrellas cover the sidewalks automatically when it rains. Without much effort at all, the rich have turned over their fortunes to the state, and everyone shares equally.

No wonder that such a fantasy spawned over two hundred novels like it, published between 1888 and 1920—the largest single body of utopian writing in history. Though some well-known authors wrote utopian novels during this time (William Dean Howells, Mark Twain, Frank Norris), the bulk of these books were written by unknown, middle-aged male writers who were Protestant, middle class, and white. They promoted, according to the scholar Kenneth Roemer, the virtues of a rural America while lambasting the evils of rampant capitalism. In these books the plot structure was relatively simple: either, as in Looking Backward, a traveler from "here and now" ventures into a utopian (or dystopian) future, or a traveler from another world visits late-nineteenth-century America, as in William Dean Howells's A Traveler from Altruria (1894). What the American saw in the utopian world or what the visitor revealed to Americans about his utopian world provided a platform for these writers to propound their own pathways to perfection.

These two hundred–plus books, of course, reflect more than just the turbulent economic and political era in which they were written. They also reflect, through their plot structures and language, the ambivalences inherent in an American culture that has promised to the world—as a city on a hill—that it is founded in egalitarianism, when in fact it is not. Thus, what is perhaps most interesting about this genre is that the novels reflect their particular historical time most strikingly by what they lack, by what is absent in the books: any utopian vision for correcting gender or racial inequalities.

Like Looking Backward, most of these books promote some sort of de facto egalitarian "nationalism" as a sort of counterpoint to the obvious lack of economic equality in the United States at the turn of the century. Perhaps economic inequality is a safe inequality to take on; after all, well-run capitalism is predicated upon inequalities. But no matter how these stories are told—whether it is the Altrurian in Howells's novel who describes in abstract terms how his utopian "evolution" was accomplished "without a drop of bloodshed" (p. 181) or whether it is Charlotte Perkins Gilman in her utopian fantasy Herland (1915) describing how a war and revolt killed all the men, leaving only women who grow "stronger and wiser and more and more mutually attached" (p. 56)—a collaborative, sharing, collective economy comes easily and without pain in these books.


What seldom happens in the wake of that egalitarian economy is anyone imagining a truly egalitarian gender system. Whether the writers of utopia (primarily those white, middle-class, rural men) did not care much about gender systems or whether such changes simply did not seem as pressing (or as much fun to write about) as the economic ones, one cannot know. One can know that with few exceptions, the male utopian writers accepted their culture's gender ideology and reflected it in the content and structure of their novels. Men imagined improved economic systems, more spiritual religious systems, and vastly superior educational systems, but most retained their own world's gender relationships and their concomitant cultural priorities. As Roemer first brought to our attention in The Obsolete Necessity (1976), although these writers certainly might have proclaimed "equal rights" for women, they nevertheless defined women through their relations to their fathers, husbands, and children (p. 130).

In Looking Backward, for example, the protagonist Julian West awakens in the year 2000 to a new egalitarian world full of advances. Yet when one looks at women in the book, they are still rooted firmly in the center of a family structure. The book's egalitarian reform simply reinforces a father's or a husband's generosity. Dr. Leete, Julian's guide, describes how their new system "permits" women to work because "it is fully understood that a certain regular requirement of labor of a sort adapted to their powers, is well for body and mind" (p. 210). One of the benefits of this "generous" male attitude is that women, Leete says, now have "more power of giving happiness to men" (p. 210).

Like Bellamy, most of the other writers of utopian fiction glorified a patriarchy with the "male" priorities and privileges that replicated the culture in which they lived. Even most of the women writing utopian literature during this time—and there were at least thirty of them writing between 1890 and 1920—also replicated the culture in which they lived. The best known of the women utopian writers, Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860–1935), could not imagine her utopias without placing her female characters firmly within a turn-of-the-century family structure, despite her own personal dislike of that structure. In Herland (1915), one of the narrative highlights is a marriage of the three visiting men with three Herland women, thus affirming the women's fulfillment by conventional standards, despite the fact that the sexual instinct has been bred out of the Herland women over the centuries without men and despite the fact that the very existence of these three men threatens the welfare of the community.

Perhaps the stereotypical family roles of women characters in utopian literature is more linked to literary history than to historical events: most utopian authors latched onto the wildly popular sentimental novel as a vehicle for telling their stories. From Bellamy on, the authors of utopian novels often shaped their narratives in patterns similar to the sentimental novel, quite possibly to compel readers to continue reading through page after page of treatises on the glories of a new economic system. The popular sentimental novel was, of course, a useful way of familiarizing readers with an unfamiliar world. But the sentimental novel, as Jean Pfaelzer (1989) has written, also organized social obligations through idealized gender lines ("The Sentimental Promise and the Utopian Myth," p. 86). Thus the sentimental novel only affirmed the mainstream culture's view of women and family.

The central literary technique, used by countless utopian writers, was to create pairs of characters that embodied opposing traits: most authors created a "good" heroine, who behaved according to prevailing gender codes, and her foil, a "bad" woman, who did not. The sentimental structure often pitted these women against each other, with the winner marrying and, if she had been particularly "good," perhaps having a male child. What constituted "good" and "bad," of course, was linked directly to codes of gender: good women were angels in the house who sacrificed themselves for the men and children in their lives; bad women were those who threatened men for a myriad of reasons, including the women's superior intelligence or (especially) their sexuality.

The conventions associated with the sentimental novel constricted the writers' plots into a certain shape: the novels had to end in a prescribed way, usually with the marriage of the heroine. Few writers of sentimental-utopian novels were able to escape their audience's love of a "happy" ending, even when (in the case of Gilman's novels, for example) the ending subverted and contradicted the utopian message presented.

But sentimental conventions also constricted the imaginations of utopian writers in ways that limited their visions of utopia to an abstract, vaguely religious sphere that, at best, was the last place anyone would really want to live and, at worst, contradicted any utopian qualities. In Howells's Traveler from Altruria, for example, a markedly dull book is made even duller when the visiting Altrurian begins describing his homeland. The spark in the book comes from Howells's satire of the Society Woman, the Professor, and other types. But when the satire is over and the visitor begins describing his world, the book becomes unreadable: "The truth itself must perish to our senses before it can live in our souls; the Son of Man must suffer upon the cross before we can know the Son of God" (p. 171). Howells couches his imagery in Social Gospel rhetoric, a rhetoric infused with underlying evangelical and spiritual responses to the evils of modern living.

Unveiling a Parallel, by Alice Ilgenfritz Jones (1846–1906) and Ella Merchant (1857–1916) was published in 1893, a year before A Traveler from Altruria. Theirs is perhaps the cleverest of the late-nineteenth-century utopian novels and the one that goes the furthest in lampooning gender systems, yet it too is affected by the same Social Gospel rhetoric and imagery as is Altruria. Presented by an unreliable male narrator, the story depicts two worlds on Mars—one where traditional "male" values have proliferated and one where "female" values dominate. In the first part of the book, one thinks one sees a utopia where women are equal to men. The main female character, Elodia, is both a banker and the president of the local school board. Wearing white, eating primarily nuts and grains, the people of the city of Thursia look to be utopian. Yet the more one sees of Elodia, the more one sees that she has adopted all of the appropriate characteristics necessary to be a successful male in nineteenth-century America. First one learns that Elodia drinks, often to excess; then one learns that she "vaporizes," or uses the terrible-smelling valerian root mixed with alcohol, a habit that gives momentary pleasure but can be fatal. Then one learns that she meets lovers at Cupid's Gardens, a place where male prostitutes meet their powerful woman lovers. Finally one learns that Elodia has a six-year-old illegitimate child, with whom she does not live.

One of the greatest pleasures of Parallel is that Jones and Merchant have indeed escaped some of the limitations of the sentimental novel. They do not end the book with Elodia's almost certain death (imagine another late-nineteenth-century book published in the United States in which a main female character smokes, drinks, enjoys sex and power, and is smarter than any man around her but does not die at the end). Instead, they point out through Elodia's dialogue just how natural it is for her to want the power and pleasures afforded to her as an adult member of society that values material things and sensuous pleasures.

Parallel does not end with Elodia, though; the entire last quarter of the novel is a description of a second city on Mars, Lunismar, where people have attained a more perfect state of development than in Thursia (or, by inference, in the United States). In Lunismar the narrator finds another woman with whom to fall in love, Ariadne, a nondescript character who does not even get to speak. It is in this final section of the book, when the "true" utopia is described, that Jones and Merchant fall back on the language of the Social Gospel movement (a softened Christianity) and the social hygiene movement (which emphasized chastity) to describe this new world, and their language suddenly becomes abstract and vaguely spiritual. As in so many turn-of-the-century utopian novels, the depiction of an ideal world is a sexless one, where passions of all sort are simply eliminated.


The conventions of the sentimental novel also helped obfuscate racial problems in the United States at the turn of the century. Perhaps the white, middle-class, midwestern authors lived lives such that race and racial inequalities simply did not register. But Toni Morrison, of course, questions such apparent absences in Playing in the Dark (1992) when she writes that the "tacit agreement" among literary scholars that white, male authors are removed from the presence of black people is simply not true. She posits that an "Africanist presence" is central to the understanding of American national literature (p. 5). Just as the sentimental novel insisted upon opposing characteristics for its "good" and "bad" women, so the national fiction, writes Morrison, is based on an "Africanist other"—a marker for that which is Not White, Not Normal.

When these utopian authors did include African American characters (which was not often), the characters almost always reflected what Morrison calls racial "shorthand" (p. x) by using dark-skinned people only as taken-for-granted stereotypes: docile, lazy figures who could improve themselves by becoming "more white." In Perfection City (1897) by Adela Orpen, for example, the female protagonist has a young male African American servant who loves to sleep and to talk about lynchings. The woman's response to his quite real fear is to call him a "black savage . . . rejoicing in the vivid details of horrors" (Roemer, p. 74). In Alcanoan O. Grigsby's Nequa (1900), missionaries, living in some part of Africa, teach the natives "white ways," and as a result the dark-skinned babies get lighter and lighter until they are finally white (p. 364).

The following excerpt is from the utopian creation story Unveiling a Parallel (1893), written by Alice I. Jones and Ella Merchant. Told by a male narrator, the story presents two worlds on Mars, one in which male values dominate and the other in which female values dominate.

"What, [asked Severnius] is your theory of Man's creation?"

"God made Man, and from one of his ribs fashioned woman," I replied catechetically.

"Ours is different," said he. "It is this: 'A pair of creatures, male and female, sprang simultaneously from an enchanted lake in the mountain region of a country called Caskia, in the northern part of this continent. They were only animals, but they were beautiful and innocent. God breathed a Soul into them and they were Man and Woman, equals in all things.'"

Jones and Merchant, Unveiling a Parallel, 1991, p. 32.

The two known African American authors of utopian novels in this period—Dr. Sutton Griggs and Lillian B. Jones—both propose a safe mass migration of blacks to another place: to Texas in Griggs's Imperium in Imperio (1899) and from Texas to Africa in Jones's Five Generations Hence (1916). In fact, Jones's utopian novel is illustrative of the insidious ways that literary conventions barred even African American writers from dealing with race or gender directly in their utopian fiction. Jones's main character, Grace Noble, is a respectable light-skinned schoolteacher as the novel opens in 1899. When the man she loves marries another, she devotes herself to writing her life's work: a treatise convincing African Americans who are living in Texas (dystopia for African Americans) that they should emigrate to Africa where, five generations hence, they can live a utopian existence. Rewarded for her years of sacrifice in typical sentimental style, she meets a respectable black man at the end of her narrative and marries him. Ironically, as a married woman she cannot join the other characters emigrating to Africa because her place is now in her (husband's) home, raising their children. Thus the novel ends with Grace's personal freedom eliminated and with her advising her daughters to emulate her unmarried best friend, Violet, who is in Africa.

Perhaps the most striking example of the period's utopian literature in terms of race is a novel that, ironically, has rarely been included in the utopian-dystopian genre at all, The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man (1912) by James Weldon Johnson (1871–1938). The novel, which is anything but an autobiography of Johnson, an African American musician, diplomat, and longtime executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), is the story of an African American man who improves himself by becoming not just "more white" but "white." At the end of his story the narrator has become rich, has married the whitest of white women (though she does conveniently die), and has fathered two (white) children. He is living the Gilded Age capitalistic dream. The catch is that the narrator can only live this life if he passes for white. In the last line of the book, much debated over the twentieth century, he laments that he has sold his birthright for a "mess of pottage" (p. 211). Indeed, most contemporary literature critics have taken the narrator at his word, missing the irony that under-girds this most dystopian of "utopian" novels.

Like Unveiling a Parallel, Autobiography works both as a utopia and as a dystopian satire: as utopias, both function by imagining what true equality would be like in worlds where race and gender barriers are eliminated (black can be white; female can be male). As a satire, the narrator of Autobiography can only succeed (at least in terms of achieving the American dream) if he is "white"—just as Elodia could only succeed by being "male." What does that say about equality in a so-called egalitarian world? And what is being satirized? The dream itself? The means of getting it? The fact that a black man would want to participate in this world, where all riches are supposedly possible for anyone who just "pulls himself up by his bootstraps"? How can that be satire?

The dilemma is furthered by the fact that the narrator of Autobiography is not in the least sorry that he has "turned white"—despite his lamentations in the last line of the book that he has sold his birthright for a "mess of pottage." His every step in the novel has been a movement toward that "mess of pottage"—that "pottage" is, of course, the American Dream. When his (white) father gives him a coin on a string, he wishes that his father could have found some way of attaching it without ruining its monetary value; when he receives a piano as a gift, he has a "momentary" feeling of disappointment that the piano was not a grand (p. 40). He is content to be treated like a servant-slave to his millionaire "benefactor" until the moment when he realizes that the "new American music" he was playing in Paris for the amusement of his benefactor's friends might well make him famous and rich in the United States.

Returning to the United States, the narrator takes up travels throughout the southern states to appropriate this music. But what keeps him from pursuing this utopian dream of collecting African American sorrow songs is a pivotal event: he witnesses a lynching. After viewing this lynching, the narrator decides not to spend his life "with a label of inferiority pasted across my forehead" (p. 190). His response is telling: he feels only shame—instead of outrage—at being identified with "a people who could be treated worse than animals" (p. 191). He is in effect a "white" man, with "white" sentiments. He will continue to become richer and richer as he lives an enviable "white" life, with his racial heritage now invisible to everyone, including to him.


Autobiography (like Parallel before it) illustrates the great contradictions of the Gilded Age that reading utopian literature through history and reading history through utopian literature make one face: for women and blacks, the American dream is a false one. In "utopian" terms, it appears more appropriate for African Americans to make music (just as it had appeared more appropriate for women to be the passive angels in the house). Johnson makes his point by satirizing his readers' unquestioning reliance on utopian-sentimental conventions: Despite the fact that the narrator in Autobiography is a money-grubbing twit, one cannot blame him for seeking the American Dream. One is, in effect, by the end of the novel, pulling for him—a man who has become a slum landlord and who earlier had expressed his admiration for a "nigger"-hating white bigot—to "succeed" and to commit miscegenation. It is these tensions, these ambiguities, these gaps where history and literary conventions meet that Johnson makes readers confront. They illustrate quite clearly what could not be said in turn-of-the-century America. Utopia, it turns out, is "nowhere" for African Americans and women. Just where it had always been.

See alsoThe Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man; A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court; Reform; Socialism


Primary Works

Arnold, Birch [Alice E. Bartlett]. A New Aristocracy. New York: Bartlett Publishing, 1891.

Bellamy, Edward. Looking Backward. 1888. New York: Modern Library, 1951.

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. Herland. 1915. New York: Pantheon, 1979.

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. Moving the Mountain. 1908. In The Charlotte Perkins Gilman Reader, edited by Ann J. Lane. New York: Pantheon, 1980.

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. With Her in Ourland. 1916. Edited by Mary Jo Deegan and Michael R. Hill. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1997.

Griggs, Sutton E. Imperium in Imperio: A Study of the Negro Race Problem; A Novel. 1899. New York: Modern Library, 2003.

Grigsby, Alcanoan O. [Jack Adams]. Nequa. Topeka, Kans.: Equity Press, 1900.

Howells, William Dean. A Traveler from Altruria. 1894. New York: Hill and Wang, 1957.

Johnson, James Weldon. The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man. 1912. New York: Hill and Wang, 1960.

Jones, Alice Ilgenfritz, and Ella Merchant. Unveiling a Parallel. 1893. Introduction by Carol Kolmerten. Syracuse N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1991.

Jones, Lillian B. Five Generations Hence. Fort Worth, Tex.: Dotson Jones, 1916.

Secondary Works

Kolmerten, Carol A. "Texts and Contexts: American Women Envision Utopia, 1890–1920." In Utopian and Science Fiction by Women, edited by Jane L. Donawerth and Carol Kolmerten, pp. 107–125. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1994.

Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. New York: Vintage, 1993.

Pfaelzer, Jean. "The Sentimental Promise and the Utopian Myth." ATQ 3 (March 1989): 85–101.

Pfaelzer, Jean. The Utopian Novel in America, 1886–1896: The Politics of Form. Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1984.

Roemer, Kenneth M. The Obsolete Necessity: America in Utopian Writings, 1888–1900. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1976.

Carol A. Kolmerten