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  • The Cambridge Companion to Utopian Literature
  • Michael Griffin
Gregory Claeys, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Utopian Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010. 316 pp. £18.99, ISBN: 9780521886659.

As university library resources thin, and the emphasis switches to more affordable, transferable, electronic or paperback academic publications, the usefulness and the centrality of the excellent Cambridge Companion series to students’ experiences of authors, genres, and periods grow ever clearer. This work will be an essential secondary work for any student, or indeed teacher, tackling, at undergraduate or graduate level, utopian theory and texts. It is important that the collection be representative of the topic in its various dimensions but also of the fullest array of scholarship by luminaries in the field. This collection is impressive in both regards, and while specialists may have reservations about contentions here and there, the authors generally make their own arguments secondary to giving as comprehensive an account of the subfield they are charged with as the shorter essay format will allow. The collection is in two parts: part 1 is “History”; the second part is “Literature.” The rationale is that the second part is “more contemporary and thematic” (xii). This division seems a little arbitrary, given the abidingly dialectical qualities of utopian writing. It is to the collection’s credit that the categories don’t quite hold.

Fátima Vieira’s essay provides an ideal opening. Vieira provides a fascinating account of the history of utopia as a literary genre and proposes [End Page 373] a useful distinction between lexical and semantic neologisms: the former being the new word that is created to account for a new concept; the latter being the new usage of an old word in a different context. In drawing this distinction she takes us through the history of utopia as word and concept. There are reservations, however. The accusatory singling out of the British Augustan age for its supposedly anti-utopian scorn doesn’t quite do justice either to Jonathan Swift’s massive admiration for Thomas More or indeed to the classical arcadian traditions at work in much of the period’s utopian writing. There may be a whiggishness at work here, evidenced in such images as that of France “preparing its revolution.” This image is linked, in turn, to the statement that, in the eighteenth-century, “euchronias were exclusively French” and that Louis-Sebastien Mercier’s L’An 2440 (1771) was the first euchronia; this occludes Samuel Madden’s Memoirs of the Twentieth Century (1733), the subversive, satirical, and often baffling work of a Swiftian Anglo-Irish patriot. Tory authors of the eighteenth century may have been suspicious of some utopias, but they are writing from perspectives wherein the perfect future has been envisioned for them by others of a more Whiggish perspective in fraught colonial and confessional predicaments. Quibbles about its treatment of the eighteenth century to one side, this chapter gives a stimulating survey of the survival of utopia to the present day and discusses the concept of utopia as strategy, as program for change and creativity.

In the second chapter, another leading scholar in the field tackles a foundational topic. J. C. Davis’s study of the “sources, legacy and interpretation” of Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) is absorbing, though there is, perhaps, a slight overlap with Vieira’s treatment of etymological issues. As one might expect of the author of a major study on early modern utopias, Davis’s essay is broadly but elegantly conceived. He sees Utopia as a collective endeavor of the sixteenth-century European intellectual elite. He also takes its ambiguity seriously: “It is at once jocular and serious, seeking both to profit and delight the reader.” There is a profound “interpretative complexity” at work in More’s text, and Davis is right to raise the possibility and the occasional perception of Utopia as “a profoundly anti-utopian work” (29). He argues that Utopia is “an enormously eclectic work, a bravura display of humanist learning and wit” (32). Davis is particularly convincing and comprehensive on the importance of Plato in More’s work. But while Plato’s dialectic produced “limited fictions veiling an engagement with ideas on the level of...


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pp. 373-377
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