- Forms in Early Modern Utopia: The Ethnography of Perfection by Nina Chordas
In her book Forms in Early Modern Utopia: The Ethnography of Perfection, Nina Chordas challenges the idea that early modern utopia literature is a fictional literary genre. She argues that utopia literature should be considered a conglomeration of genres with a hybrid life, that is, as both fiction and real-life phenomenon in the early modern period. Her aim is to show that the development of [End Page 373] utopia as a genre in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was a response to the convergence of specific social and historical forces and as such may be considered a social as well as a literary phenomenon. Chordas accomplishes this aim by considering prose texts written between 1516 and 1666. Her study begins with Thomas More’s Utopia and ends with Margaret Cavendish’s Blazing World. Other English texts that she considers are Edmund Spenser’s A View of the Present State of Ireland and Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis, and she looks further into mainland Europe to include Tommaso Campanella’s City of the Sun and Johann Valentin Andreae’s Christianopolis. The significance of the merging of genres or forms is illustrated throughout the book, as each text is discussed in some way in at least one of the chapters. The texts are not discussed in chronological order, but there is a trajectory of utopia literature over the period. This serves to demonstrate that More and his successors were able to draw on specific forms available to them at the time of composition. These forms were selected because of their suitability for the kind of work a utopian text is expected to be by its author and subsequently by its audience. The forms discussed include dialogue (chapter 1); ethnography, travel writing, and pastoral (chapter 2); and homiletic discourse, which includes a Puritan typology (chapter 4). The main crux of the argument is how these forms, most of which are labeled today as “nonfiction” or perhaps “creative nonfiction,” were deployed in the creation of what is now labeled “fiction.” Chordas contrasts the imaginary texts with real-life accounts of utopian experiments in the material world (chapter 3).
Through an examination of the various subgenres employed by the writers, Chordas argues that the almost uncanny ability of early modern utopia to exceed the bounds of fiction and walk the normal world is illustrated. This ability is due to the use of forms that, even if fundamentally fictional, have a heavy investment in passing themselves off as the opposite of fiction. These forms Chordas calls “quasi-fiction,” in that they are clearly fictional but masquerade as the truth. The quasi-fictional forms such as dialogue, travel writing, pastoral, and sermons are able to straddle both fictional and nonfictional worlds. The dialogue form is a clear example of fiction as nonfiction, as many dialogues are presented as transcribed actual conversations, even when imagined. The dialogue form has its uses in the establishment of real-world utopian agendas despite its quasi-fictional status. Chordas acknowledges that dialogue and utopia have not been traditionally discussed together despite the fact that the two great utopias of the period were written as dialogue. One of these is More’s Utopia, which serves as the archetypical utopia text in this study book. The other is Tommaso [End Page 374] Campanella’s City of the Sun (written 1602 but published 1623). The treatment of the dialogue form in these two texts demonstrates the change in its use. More used dialogue as a form to present his ideal utopia; later texts moved away from the traditional use of the form and relied on reported speech rather than the direct speech associated with the dialogue form.
The common thread between the texts explored and the forms employed by the writers is the representation of a seemingly realistic human culture. Chordas examines the ethnographic content of the texts in order to demonstrate that they are a conglomerate of forms, not all of them considered fictional...