Visions of Paradise

English's Boesky traces development of utopian genre from its roots in early modern England

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

Long before James Hilton introduced the earthly paradise Shangri-La in his famous 1933 novel Lost Horizon , the utopian ideal had taken hold in English letters, according to Assoc. Prof. Amy Boesky (English).

In her recent book, Founding Fictions: Utopias in Early Modern England , Boesky traces the development of the utopian literary genre in England from its earliest expression in 1516 - the year Thomas More published his book Utopia - through the civil war-torn 17th century.

Boesky sees a similarity between utopian writers of the age and social reformers who founded new institutions such as grammar schools, workhouses and colonial governments intended to establish "new visions of order." She maintains that utopian works, authored by political or literary reformers or "by actual radicals who really wanted to see utopias established," offered literary trials or experiments in reform. But while advocating social improvement, Boesky says, utopian literature also reflected the costs of these attempts at progress.

Assoc. Prof. Amy Boesky (English) sees similarities between utopian writers and social reformers of the 17th century. (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

"The ironies and paradoxes of reformists," she said, "are shown in the utopians."

Besides tracking the genre's evolution from Utopia to Aphra Behn's Oroonoko in 1688, Boesky's book encompasses such prominent works as Francis Bacon's New Atlantis , the civil war utopias of Gabriel Plattes, Samuel Gott and Gerrard Winstanley, proto-feminist Margaret Cavendish's Blazing-world , and Henry Neville's Isle of Pines .

The period between 1624 and 1688 was a time of crisis in English history, Boesky says, marked by civil war, the rise and fall of the dictator Oliver Cromwell and the restoration of the monarchy. New ways of ordering society were constantly being devised by writers, scientists, political reformers and social thinkers of the day.

One such visionary who figures in Boesky's book is Winstanley, leader of a colony of "Diggers" who encamped as squatters on a piece of land in England in 1649 in the spirit of agrarian communitarianism, lasting through one harvest before their eviction. After the failure of his Diggers experiment, Winstanley authored The Law of Freedom (1652), which Boesky said offered "advice to Cromwell on how to order the republic."

Cromwell's notion of order is still recalled with bitterness by the descendants of the Irish he massacred. Then, as now, the imposition of utopian visions involved "an element of brutality," said Boesky. "It's order that comes at a cost - a cost that is almost always worth it to the utopian."

Workhouses, for example, were meant by their 17th century London creators to serve as "beneficent enterprises to reform the poor," Boesky noted, but would become familiar to readers of Dickens as vile penitentiaries for the poverty-stricken.

Relating the English public school to More's Utopia , and early modern laboratories to Bacon's New Atlantis , Boesky shows how "utopists" explored the formation of cultural identity through new institutional models. Literary utopias of the 1640s and '50s are read against new emphasis on work as the panacea for social ills. Blazing-world , for example, is seen as reproducing and reassessing Restoration centers of authority in the court and theater.

Hundreds of years after utopians put their dreams on paper, their visions of the perfect society are compelling topics of study, said Boesky, who examines the utopian concept of community in a literature-and-philosophy course she teaches in the PULSE program.

"When I teach it and talk about it with students," she said, "they are struck by the relevance. At what cost control? To a liberal American reader, More's Utopia seems a powerful abridgement of human liberty. I ask, 'Under what conditions might that seem a dream?'"

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