The Utopian States of America: The People, The Republic, and Rock and Roll in Thomas Pynchon's Vineland
- Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture, and Theory
- Johns Hopkins University Press
- Volume 51, Number 3, Autumn 1995
- pp. 149-175
- View Citation
- Additional Information
E. SHASKAN BUMAS The Utopian States of America: The People, The Republic, and Rock and Roll in Thomas Pynchon's Vineland Although the concept of Utopia involves a vision of society safely removed from the ravages of history, the history of the New World has paradoxically been triggered by the oscillating sequence of the founding of utopias, followed by the betrayal of those utopias bringing about a return to history. Utopia has been a perennial conception of the New World in European thought, possibly before Europeans had even learned of its existence but imagined Atlantis, a wonderful island to the West. Amerigo Vespucci, the continent's namesake , described the natives of the New World as participants in the golden age of Greek mythology and philosophy. Sir Thomas More, inventor of the almost five-hundred-year-old neologism Utopia, related a fictitious side trip, a parallel journey, by one of Vespucci's crew, and quantified that idyllic society with mathematical precision, all the while admitting that such a land existed no place. While the conquistadors ' rhetorical strategy was to discount the first term in the natives' noble savagery, Vasco de Quiroga, the Bishop of Utopia, was soon busy petitioning the crown for, and eventually founding, slave-free zones in New Spain based explicitly on Thomas More's book as though it were a blueprint for constructing a just society. These Utopian communities, or Hospices, would last for centuries, attracting Indians from far and wide, though conquistadors, while trying to enslave the rest of the territory, Arizona Quarterly Volume 52, Number 3, Autumn 1995 Copyright © 1995 by Arizona Board of Regents ISSN 0004- 1 61 o 150E. Shaskan Bumas often picked off those who fled to Utopia, and later hacienda owners tried to annul these communities' rights. A parallel history of Utopia and its betrayal was initiated in seventeenth-century Massachusetts where the seekers of religious freedom, the Pilgrims, overturned the attempts of some of their fellow colonists to live an idyll of Bacchanal games and coexistence with Indians. Two and a half centuries later, Utopian communities there would implode under the pressure of their own contradictions. All these varieties of Utopian experience inform Thomas Pynchon's novel Vinehnd, which includes, in its portrait of the United States in the age of Reagan, a palimpsest of Utopias and their betrayers throughout the Americas, the dreams of a continent in the portrait of what may be the only country with a dream named after it. Vinehnd's several communities are inhabited by people with Utopian impulses, which might be provisionally explained as various types of desires to live more happily, in a more just social system than the one that exists in their nation at large. The two main Utopian spaces described in Vinehnd are both in California, which is perhaps to be considered both as the final outpost of European westward movement and, because of its ongoing experimental communities, the final outpost of Utopia. California is also, in a sense, a synechdoche for the U.S.A. in that two of its most prominent politicians, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, became the presidents that most interest Pynchon in his novels . A southern California college occupied by its students and teachers bears a striking resemblance to several imaginary places found in texts that participate in Utopian discourses. After that idyll comes to a violent end, Pynchon introduces the eponymous, secluded woods ofNorthern California, as a haven of refuge from persecution. The name ofthat place, Vineland, evokes Vinland, the name that the Norse or Viking explorers under Leif Ericson or Leif the Lucky gave to the land they discovered a millennium earlier when they arrived in what is now called Newfoundland. Vineland's name connects its story to the present and the past of the whole continent that the name once indicated, as well as the country that borrowed its later name, America.' Although in Pynchon, as in Faulkner, the present moment began thousands of years ago, when the first people immigrated from Asia to the Americas, the most significant events of the main characters' lives in Vinehnd's 1984 setting take place in the late 1960s. The idea of The Utopian States ofAmerica151...