Both utopianism and postmodernism have been seen as quintessentially or characteristically American phenomena. 1 This essay will investigate some interrelations between the two. I will begin (appropriately, I hope, for an essay on “historiographic” fiction) 2 by telling a historical story in order to provide the necessary groundwork for my arguments.
The heyday of American utopianism, in the nineteenth-century antebellum period, saw the blossoming of hundreds of communities, the names of some of them at the heart of our cultural history (Brook Farm, the Shakers, the Icarians, Oneida, Amana, to mention a few of the best known). Socialist and, in the case of the Owenite communities, feminist egalitarianism were crucial to these utopian communities. 3 This historical utopian cornucopia also coincided, of course, with the heyday of slavery. The utopian movements overlapped with and sometimes embraced (fostered, were committed to) Abolitionism, with Brook Farm a prime instance. It is clear that utopianism and Abolitionism shared the universalist, Enlightenment ideals of human equality and freedom. I would argue that Radical Reconstruction, including most notably the Freedmen’s Bureau (1865–1872), hoped and even attempted to realize the goals of utopianism and Abolition, and that the destruction of Reconstruction [End Page 75] marked the defeat, at least for that historical moment, of the social goals and visions of both. 4 The period in the 1870s and 1880s following the dissolution of the Freedmen’s Bureau, and the ultimate defeat of Reconstruction, was a post-utopian historical moment. It witnessed the break-up and disappearance of most of the antebellum utopian communities, contemporaneous with the institution of slavery by other means in the sharecropping Black Belt South, and of systemic, often murderous racism throughout the country. At the same time, this period encompassed the stunning growth of industrial capitalism in the urban North, with its rampant social miseries as yet unchecked by subsequent radical and reformist movements.
American utopianism had another renaissance in the 1960s, with, again, hundreds of communities (none of them as famous or successful as their nineteenth-century predecessors) springing up all over the country. Like their predecessors, these communities were committed to egalitarianism and crucially linked to a resurgence of socialism, though there were many differences: 1960s communities were generally marked by an anarcho-syndicalist version of socialism, emphasizing personal, individual freedom, pleasure and fulfillment at the expense of group unity or coherence (“the common good”). 5 They were therefore much more ephemeral and fragile than the generally more group-oriented, and sometimes rigidly rule-governed, nineteenth-century communities. 6 Despite this difference of emphasis, however, the 60s communes were varyingly, loosely, but consistently committed to ideals of common ownership, equitably shared labor, and an egalitarian power structure based on the New Left ideal of participatory democracy (the hierarchical, guru-governed religious communes were an exception). 7 The antagonisms between the political New Left and the countercultural hippie utopian communes are well documented, but they should not obscure the fact that the New Left and the counterculture were two facets of a broad, general movement that had at its core a commitment to socialist egalitarianism—liberty, equality, community—including racial, class, and, sometimes, gender equality. These issues were highly complex and troubled: most hippies, and therefore most hippie communes, were white and middle-class. Further, because both radicalism and the counterculture were exaggeratedly macho and male dominated until the emergence of second-wave feminism in the final phase of (out of the ashes [End Page 76] of) the 60s, they usually reproduced dominant gender inequalities, often in exaggerated versions, despite their egalitarian ideologies.
Like the post-Reconstruction period, the period following the demise and defeat of the 60s—a period I would argue continues into the present—is also a post-utopian moment. 8 This post-utopian moment is the period we now call postmodernism, or postmodernity. Many studies mark the decline or end of egalitarian, socialist-based or -inspired utopianism in postmodernism. 9 In this essay, I want to discuss the status of utopianism in two postmodernist works of fiction, both of them set in the post-utopian early 1870s. I have chosen these two seemingly unrelated novels because they are both set just...