As the popularity of The Hunger Games and The Walking Dead suggests, contemporary American readers and viewers are fascinated by the imagination of other worlds. While these recent bestsellers feature dystopian narratives of worlds falling apart, readers five centuries ago were similarly captivated by the idea of utopia, a non-existent perfect world. In this seminar, we will explore the worlds they imagined—worlds that, while unreal, reflected and often critiqued the society in which readers and writers actually lived. We begin by reading Thomas More’s Utopia (1516), the text that introduced the utopian ideal to early modern European readers. In the wake of the initial European voyages to the New World, More’s rendering of a perfect island society that was yet to be discovered captured the imaginations of his readers and provided a model for other writers’ own utopian imaginings. Against the background of More’s text, we will discuss other early modern examples of utopian literature, and through them, we will consider how these texts reflected questions and problems in society at the time.
Throughout the semester, we will focus on developing the skills of the historian, especially the analysis of primary sources. Students will have a choice of two options for the final project, in which these skills will be put into practice: a traditional research paper based on primary sources, or a critical edition of a fictional utopian narrative that reflects or critiques a real aspect of early modern society.