Sunday, August 16, 2015

Gayle K. Brunelle: “Renaissance Utopia”

Gayle K. Brunelle

Book Review

Chloë Houston, The Renaissance Utopia: Dialogue, Travel and the Ideal Society. Ashgate (Farnham, UK and Burlington, USA, 2014), Vii-190 pp. ISBN: 978147245034

1> The Renaissance Utopia is primarily a literary study, albeit strongly informed by historical context, and one that both historians and literary scholars will find interesting and informative.  Author Chloë Houston performs a close reading of English utopian literature from Thomas More’s Utopia (first published in 1516) through the 1640s, with works such as Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis (1627) and Gabriel Plattes’ A Description of the Famous Kingdom of Macaria (1641).  Her goal is to chart the development of the utopian literary form, and in particular the use of dialogue and of the Renaissance travel narrative, until its appropriation of multiple forms of writing in the mid-seventeenth century.  Form, Houston contends, is central to utopian writing, and changes to form in utopian literature since its foundational work, More’s Utopia, resulted from changes in how authors of utopias conceptualized the purpose of their works.  Moreover, those changes in both form and conceptualization resulted from shifts in English society and culture.  Societies create bodies of literature that serve their cultural and psychological needs, and the utopian literature of the mid-seventeenth century was the product of a society deeply preoccupied with reform, of theology, of morality, and of political and cultural institutions.  Mid-seventeenth-century utopian writers sought to shape those reforms and motivate their readers to undertake them.  As a result, in Houston’s view, their utopian works differ markedly in form, tone, and style from More.

2> “Open” dialogue characterized early utopian literature in the sixteenth century, according to Houston.  By “open” she is referring to the ways in which More’s form and dialogue are meant to signal to the reader multiple layers of meaning and a certain purposeful uncertainty regarding time, place, and truth.  More’s Utopia was a philosophical satire, ironic in tone, with place names (Utopia = nowhere) and dialogue that signaled to the reader that More himself was skeptical about the prospect that the ideal society that Hythloday, the “traveler” who has visited Utopia, describes could ever actually exist.  More and those who followed him also adopted the form of the travel narrative, but not with the goal of actually persuading his readers that Utopia was a real place.  Houston focuses on the intended irony of this form of utopian writing, and especially on More’s goal of prodding the reader to question the story itself, and in doing so to think more deeply about the nature of Utopia, and of ideal societies in relation to the one in which they lived.

3> There is another facet, I suspect, to this adoption of the travel narrative form in a work through which are woven many signs for the reader regarding the fictional nature of the work.  In the sixteenth century most readers, educated or otherwise, still believed that The Travels of Sir John Mandeville (c. 1357) more accurately described Asia than The Travels of Marco Polo (c. 1300).  Travel literature itself was by no means indistinguishable from fiction, and travel writers frequently described the strange new lands they had visited, or claimed to have visited, as “utopian” although they did not use that word.  The eliding of real and fictional utopias began with More himself, or even prior to that, perhaps, in medieval travel literature that frequently purported to describe “real” places but at the same time through these descriptions of wonders and marvels, led readers to question the nature of the society in which they actually lived.  More’s Utopia may therefore be the foundational work of the utopian genre, drawing upon dialogue and travel narrative forms, but travel narratives themselves even before More were ripe for the sort of satire that More wrote in part because their authors freely mingled fact and fabrication, or rather fabricated where they lacked information and embellished where it seemed useful to do so.

4> By the later sixteenth century, however, utopian literature was undergoing a major transition away from “open” dialogue, designed to stimulate an intellectual exchange between the reader and the book, toward a more didactic, pedagogical approach.  Utopian writers increasingly were interested in writing utopias to teach their readers how to reform society and their own lives, how to live well.  Religion loomed much larger in the motives and the works of later sixteenth century utopian writers, not surprising given the centrality of religious reform to European culture in this period, and to the conflicts that emerged within and between European states.  Utopian writers in England articulated their political ideals and offered religious prophecies in their works, and were less interested in drawing their readers into a dialogue about the nature of the ideal society than in using the examples of their utopias to persuade their readers of the need for social and moral reform, and of the proper direction reforms should take.  The playful irony of More’s Utopia gradually receded before the educational program of these later sixteenth-century writers.

5> The utopian works of this era also engaged more deeply with travel narratives, but with a different tone and less porous line between fiction and non-fiction.  Again, the growing incorporation of travel narrative forms in utopian literature isn’t surprising given the changes in travel writing during the same period.  As the sixteenth century progressed and especially in the seventeenth century, many more travel narratives were published, and the truth claims of these works increased.  There were more travelers writing about their journeys, and more checks on the most fantastical claims such writers could make precisely because men such as André Thévet and Jean de Léry, or Samuel de Champlain and Marc Lescarbot, had gone to the same places at about the same time, and subsequently debated each other in print regarding the nature of their experiences and observations.  The tone of travel writing became more didactic, and more “scientific,” especially in the seventeenth century.

6> Houston argues that the first four decades of the seventeenth century marked the peak in a type of utopian writing in England that focused on reform because these decades were also a period when it seemed eminently possible to English reformers that their utopian ideals could be realized at home.  Utopian writers dispensed with much of the dialogue and travel narrative forms that characterized sixteenth-century utopian works, and transparently preached to their readers.  Their utopias were blueprints to be copied, rather than alternative societies to be examined and questioned, and the growth of print allowed them to access a wider audience for their works.  This efflorescence of didactic, reformist utopian literature could not survive, however, the disappointments of the Restoration period, when it became clear that the utopias of writers such as Samuel Hartlib, John Dury, or Gabriel Plattes would not be realized in the England of Charles II.  After this “utopian moment,” as Houston calls it, in English history, utopian writing gravitated closer to fiction again, and to the forms and tropes we associate with it today.

Gayle K. Brunelle is Professor of History at California State University, Fullerton. Associate Editor of Terrae Incognitae: The Journal of the Society for the History of the Discoveries, Dr. Brunelle has published three monographs and numerous articles on early modern France. Her current book project is a study of French colonization in Guiana, 1605-1763.

Studies in Renaissance / Early Modern Literature and Culture,
Volume Eight (2015): Dialogues & Exchanges

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