Literary & Historical Utopias: Homepage & Syllabus

LITR 5439 Genre, Movement, Style


Summer 2009   *1st 5-wks session *   M-T-Th 3-6pm
Research  Readings Prof. White's homepage


Instructor: Craig White   Office: Bayou 2529-8     Phone: 281 283 3380.       Email:

Office Hours: Mondays & Thursdays, 12-1, 6-6:30, and by appointment

Course texts

Thomas More, Utopia (1516)

Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward (1888)

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Herland (1915)

Ayn Rand, Anthem (1938)

Genesis, Revelation, & Book of Acts (BCE > 1st century AD/CE)

Plato's Republic & Golden Age myths

selections from other classical, multicultural, & postmodern texts  

Ernest Callenbach, Ecotopia (1975)

Student Assignments

Midterm 25 June (in-class or email) (app. 30-40%)

Research Postings (2 installments + review in final exam) (20-30%)

Final exam 9 July (30-40%)

Transmitting your passages electronically:

note on grading

final grade report

Seminar leadership, participation, attendance, etc.

Informal presentations:

Class participation

Course policies


Terms & Objectives


“Utopia” has either historical or literary significance, or both:

Utopia = an experimental community intended to reform or escape from normal human society, often by substituting planning, cooperation, or collective values and practices in place of laissez-faire, competition, and individualism.


Utopia = a novel describing life in such a community or world.

The word “utopia” comes from the title of Sir Thomas More’s utopian novel / tract of 1516, Utopia. The word is made up of Greek parts, formed either from

ou (no) + topos (place, as in “topography”) to mean “no place,”


eu (good, as in “euphoria”) + topos (place) to mean “good place.”

The term “utopia” has been varied, especially in two ways:

Dystopia = a society that is opposite from a utopia, or a utopia that’s gone dysfunctional. “Any utopia is someone else's dystopia.”

Ecotopia = Ecological Utopia, a community whose collective health is based on a close imitation of nature’s interconnectivity. Term comes from our final text, Ecotopia, a utopian novel from 1975 by Ernest Callenbach.

Millennium is usually a synonym or euphemism for apocalypse, but often with a softer or more metaphorical tone.

List of Utopian Communities and Texts

Counter-Utopian Tradition

Standard features of utopian / dystopian literature



Objective 1. the Utopian Genre

1a. How to define the literary genre of “utopias?” What are the genre's standard conventions or features? What attractions and repulsions? What audiences are involved or excluded?

1b. What different genres join with or branch from utopia? Examples: dystopia, ecotopia, Socratic dialogue, journalism / tract / propaganda, satire, science fiction, fantasy, novel / romance, adventure / travel narrative. Others?

1c. Can utopias join science fiction, speculative fiction, and allied genres in a “literature of ideas?”

1d. To identify the utopian author both within and beyond traditional literary categories--e.g., as activist, agitator, reformer, prophet / visionary?

1e. Utopian Rhetoric: Utopia as persuasive literature--If literature should entertain and educate, what about fiction written to change the world?

Objective 2. Utopian Narratives

2a. What kinds of stories rise from or fit the description of an ideal or dystopian community?--e. g., journey, learning, conversion, liberation?

2b. What problems rise from a utopian story that minimizes conflict and maximizes equality and harmony? What genre variations derive from these problems with plot?

2c. What tensions between the author’s description of a social theory and the reader’s demand for a story?

2d. How essential is “millennialism” (apocalyptic or end-time event) to the utopian narrative?

Objective 3. Historical / Cultural Objectives

Obj. 3 Not to regard utopias as “never happened” or “castles in the sky” but as literary and historical experiments essential to Western Civilization. Utopian forms may mirror or oppose social norms.

3a.To investigate historical, nonfiction attempts by “communes,” “intentional communities,” nations or cults to institutionalize or practice utopian ideals.

3b.Are utopian impulses limited to socialism and communism, or may freemarket capitalism also express itself in utopian terms and visions? Is utopia “progressive / liberal” or “reactionary / conservative?” What relations between “self and other” are modeled?

3c. In postmodern history, is the utopian impulse extinct? Can utopian ideals survive the postmodern universal of irony?

3d. What relations are there between fictional and actual utopian communities? What has been the historical impact of utopian fictions?


3e. How seriously to evaluate gender roles and standards of sexual and love relationships in utopian communities? How do these differ from or resemble traditional norms? How essential are such changes to their intended transformation of society?

  • What changes result in child-rearing, feeding, marriage, aging, sexuality, etc.?

3f. What social structures, units, or identities does utopia expose or frustrate?

  • Social units or structures: person/individual/self, gender, sex, family [nuclear or extended], community, village/town/city, class, ethnicity, farm, region, tribe, clan, union, nation, ecosystem, planet, etc.

  • How may utopian studies shift the usual American arguments over race, sex, faith, and gender to cultural and socio-economic class?

3g. What is utopia’s relation to time and history?

  • Does the utopian society model itself on a past, present, or future model?

  • Does a utopia stop time, as with the millennial rapture or an idea of perfection?

  • Or can utopias change, evolve, and adapt to the changes of history?

3h. Since our major texts are all set in North America, how do Americans regard utopias? What problems does the USA’s culture present for discussing utopian issues? Contexts:

  • the Cold War

  • the collapse of Marxist-Stalinist Communism

  • ascendance of religious and freemarket fundamentalism

  • stressing the family?)

3i. How may utopias exemplify multiculturalism or monoculturalism?

  • Does defending utopian studies as "Western Civilization" simply muscle out multiculturalism?

  • Is the utopian impulse universal or specific only to Western culture or civilization?

  • If utopias or millennia are detected in non-Western texts or traditions, are such terms appropriate, or do we simply project our identities and values on cultures that are in fact doing something else altogether?

Objective 4. Interdisciplinary Objectives

4a. What academic subjects or disciplines are involved with utopian studies? Examples: literature, history, sociology, economics, architecture, urban planning?

4b. How may utopian or millennial studies serve as an interdisciplinary subject of study? What strengths and weaknesses result from this status? (Comparable interdisciplinary subjects include women’s studies, gender studies, ethnic studies [e. g., African American studies, whiteness studies], future studies, millennialism.)

4c. Do some interdisciplinary subjects underprivilege multiculturalism? Do utopian studies privilege western civilization?

4c. Is “utopia” too simple and singular a word or concept for the variety of phenomena it describes? Conversely, what does utopia reveal about an author’s or culture’s cosmology or worldview, as well as cosmogonies or origin / creation stories?

4d. How do literature and literacy appear in utopian or dystopian cultures? Include computer literacy: What is a “virtual utopia” in science fiction and technology? How has utopian speculation, communication, and organization adapted to the Web? How does the Web itself assume utopian or millennial attributes?

Objective 5. Instructional Objectives

5a. How may a seminar classroom serve as a microcosm, model, or alternative for American culture? How does use of web instruction alter social dynamics?

5b. What does utopian / dystopian literature instruct us about education?

5c. What difficulties does utopian instruction typically present? 

  • Preventing discussions from stalling on "Utopias don't work" or "Why are we talking about this?" (Utopian communities fail, but some people keep attempting or learning from utopias.)

  • Why do American curricula emphasize dystopias?

  • Since utopian studies offers so many non-literary subjects, how much to limit the discussion to literature or expand to interdisciplinary or social / political concerns?

5d. To evaluate teaching and learning methods for special course content

  • Instructor and students exchange standard knowledge and new contexts or applications; students offer reactions to first-time readings and to critical and classic backgrounds of history and genre, while instructor looks for fresh extensions of accomplished knowledge.
  • Exams require comprehension and expression of instructional contents, but excellence is achieved by students extending or refreshing what they learn with new examples, insights, and expression.
  • Can new sections of courses build on previous sections' accomplishments?


Reading, meeting, and presentation schedule

Monday, 8 June: introduction: preview objectives, assignments, & presentations 

Readings: Genesis & Revelation; The Golden Age; Plato's Republic

Tuesday, 9 June: continue course introduction; begin Utopia

Readings: Thomas More, Utopia (1516)--read through book 1 & start book 2

Discussion starter for Book 1: Felicia Byrd

Web review: Thomas More sites on course webpage: Katie Breaux

Thursday, 11 June: conclude Utopia; begin Looking Backward 

Readings: complete Thomas More, Utopia (1516); Walter Bellamy, Looking Backward through chapter 6

Discussion starter for Book Two of Utopia: Cana Hauerland

Web review: Edward Bellamy sites on course webpage: instructor

Roundtable: Students ask questions, propose possible topics for Historical Presentations

Monday, 15 June:  complete Looking Backward

Readings: Looking Backward (complete)

Discussion-starter: Mary K. Boudreaux

Web review: 19th-Century American Utopias: Julie Bollich

Tuesday, 16 June: begin Herland (through chapter 6)

Readings: Herland

Discussion-starter: Bridget Yvette Brantley

Web review: Charlotte Perkins Gilman sites: Amy Sidle

Web review: Ayn Rand biography, institutes, ideology: Kathryn Vitek

Thursday, 18 June: conclude Herland

Readings: Herland

Discussion-starter: Courtney Heintzelman

Web review: Celebration USA: Felicia Byrd

Instructor's review: Marge Piercy, Woman on the Edge of Time

First research posting due weekend of 19-21 June

Monday, 22 June: begin Anthem

Readings: Anthem, through chapter VII

Discussion-starter: Amy Sidle

Web review: Twin Oaks & Los Horcones: Mallory Rogers

Instructor reviews behaviorist utopias: B.F. Skinner, Walden Two (1948) + Thaler & Sunstein, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness (2008)

Tuesday, 23 June: conclude Anthem

Readings: Anthem (complete)

Discussion-starter: Mary Boudreaux: Do American curricula emphasize dystopias? + other topics

Web review: Suburbs as Utopia: LaKisha Jones

Instructor reviews Francis Bacon, The New Atlantis (1623, 1627)

Thursday, 25 June: midterm

Monday, 29 June: Founding Utopias

Readings: selections from

Genesis, the Book of Acts, and Revelation

"The Golden Age"

Plato’s Republic & USA founding documents

Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations

Discussion-starter: Kathryn Vitek (2-3 texts?)

Web review: Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-Day Adventists: Bridget Yvette Brantley

Tuesday, 30 June: Multicultural utopias & millennia?

Readings: selections from

selections from African American slave narratives

Dr. King’s Dream Speech: Discussion-starter: Katie Breaux

Speech by Chief Seattle Discussion-starter: Mallory Rogers

"Messiah Letter" of Wovoka / Jack Wilson

Web review: Kibbutzim of Israel: Joshua Schuetz

Thursday, 2 July: begin Ecotopia

Readings: Ernest Callenbach, Ecotopia (1976), at least through p. 66 (up to "Decline without Fall? The Ecotopian Population Challenge")

Discussion-starter: LaKisha Jones

Web review: Ernest Callenbach sites on course webpage

Second research posting due by Friday, 3 July, 9pm

Monday, 6 July: alternative utopias

Readings: handout pages from Toni Morrison’s Paradise (1999); Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash (1992); Dennis Danvers's Circuit of Heaven (1998)

Discussion-starter: Joshua Schuetz (Paradise)

Web review: Jonestown: Mary Boudreaux

Tuesday, 7 July:  conclude Ecotopia

Readings: Ernest Callenbach, Ecotopia (1976), complete

Discussion-starter: Julie Bollich

Web review: Auroville: Cana Hauerland

Thursday, 9 July: final exam due by Friday, 10 July

syllabus from 2007

syllabus from 2005

syllabus from LITR 5733 Seminar in American Culture: Utopias (1995)