restricted access Dreams and Visions: A Study of American Utopias, 1865-1917, and: The Utopian Novel in America, 1886-1896: The Politics of Form (review)
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Reviewed by
Charles J. Rooney, Jr. Dreams and Visions: A Study of American Utopias, 1865-1917. Westport: Greenwood, 1985. 209 pp. $29.95.
Jean Pfaelzer. The Utopian Novel in America, 1886-1896: The Politics of Form. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1985. 211 pp. $21.95.

The publication of Bellamy's Looking Backward in 1888 stimulated an unprecedented outpouring of utopian—and dystopian—fiction in America. In his authoritative survey of that literature, The Obsolete Necessity (1976), Kenneth Roemer lists 162 titles published between 1888 and 1900; Charles J. Rooney, Jr. lists 120; Jean Pfaelzer lists nearly 200. (The disparities stem from marginally differing ideas about exactly what constitutes a utopian fiction.) The utopian flood receded as quickly as it had risen, and by World War One it had slowed to a trickle. Such a sudden bursting forth and equally sudden falling away have caused cultural critics to seek in late nineteenth-century utopian fiction special insights into the troubled age that has come increasingly to be seen as the seedbed of modern American society. Moreover, structuralist and poststructuralist theories have expanded the traditional literary canon and have simultaneously legitimized the serious study of popular literature and provided strategies for that study.

Charles J. Rooney's book reflects exclusively the first of those impulses. His interest in utopian writing is confessedly nonliterary, and he is wholly concerned with a rather simplistic inventorying of utopian ideas—Utopian fiction as economic or political pamphlet. Thus, his three principal chapters deal with "specific problems and solutions," "types of utopia" (not types of utopian fictions, but models of utopian states), and "utopian values." His approach throughout is to classify his 120 titles as they, for example in his first major chapter, treat politics, labor, the environment, and so on. Next, he reclassifies them as they prescribe an individualist, constitutional, socialist, or totalitarian society. Finally, he reclassifies them yet again as they express one or another attitude toward equality, work, progress, and so forth.

Rooney restricts himself to categorizing ideas, and his classifications are in the simplest sense merely a rhetorical tool, not a critical strategy—merely a way to organize a large body of material. He does not, for example, attempt the kind of "gridding," familiar to readers of Northrop Frye or Hayden White, which discovers necessary and significant links among values, ideology, and literary form. [End Page 245] For that matter, Rooney does not even suggest that the identification of crucial social problems (the matter of his first major chapter) might imply a predeliction for a particular style of social organization (his next chapter) and reliance on a particular system of values (his last major chapter). Especially in the first and third of those chapters, his categories seem quite arbitrary and opportunistic and do not reveal any coherent or ultimately useful approach to the literature. His overt insistence that the utopian novels are subliterary, even nonliterary, allows him to treat them simply as collections of apposite quotations. He addresses the novels fragmentarily and generates no comprehensive readings—not even of Looking Backward.

Despite its breadth of coverage, Rooney's book will not be helpful to students of American utopianism. Roemer's Obsolete Necessity does all that Rooney's book attempts, does it more fully and infinitely more intelligently. Those who wish to understand the ideas of the utopian writers and especially the relevance of utopian thought to the issues of the 1890s should turn to Roemer and spare themselves the frustration of slogging through Rooney's often pointless lists.

A final, perhaps mean-spirited, criticism of Dreams and Visions is that not even the bibliography is useful. The book began as a 1968 doctoral thesis. The secondary bibliography contains only eleven items dated 1975 or later, and only two of those are referred to in the text. By contrast, Pfaelzer's book, also derived from a doctoral thesis (1975), lists over fifty post-1975 entries, and her theoretical sections, especially, show the influence of the considerable recent scholarship in the field. For Rooney to neglect recent theories of utopian writing is arrogant; for his editors to allow him to do so is irresponsible.

Jean Pfaelzer's Utopian Novel in America...