American Utopian Expressions (Kenneth Roemer)

Nature/Goals of the Course:

The primary goal of the course is to offer a chronological introduction to various forms of expressing American utopian ideals.   (For a definition of a literary utopia, see below.  The emphasis in this course is on eutopian  [the good place], rather than dystopian [the bad place] literature, though in many of the texts selected there are strong dystopian elements.)  Since this is an “American literature” course,  most of the texts we study can be classified as “utopian,” “American,” and “literary.” The works selected suggest the great diversity of American utopian literature,  a diversity I have emphasized by consciously including works by well-known authors (e.g., Hawthorne, Twain), authors who write in popular genres (e.g. utopian science fiction), and authors of different genders, races, classes, and regions.    Nonetheless, to understand more fully the contexts and meanings of the fictions, indeed to begin to grasp the crucial importance of utopianism in America, we must move beyond conventional notions of “literary” utopias to examine expressions of utopianism found in sacred texts, travel accounts, autobiographies, manifestos and declarations, intentional communities, world’s fairs,  entertainment parks, and the Internet.  Including these types of utopian expressions helps to raise essential questions about American utopianism.   How does the “form” of
a utopia effect the conception and communication of its “message”?  Why do certain forms of utopian expression become popular during specific historical eras? To what degree do gender, race, class, and geography shape utopian projections and responses to those projections?  These will be the types of questions that will direct class discussions, exam essay questions, the paper, and the Internet report.

A secondary goal is self-analysis, especially in the reader-response paper.  The paper will give students the opportunity to examine the value and importance of what they bring to the experience of reading utopias, to examine the aspects of their values, attitudes, and memories that enable them to interpret the texts before them — to co-create the utopias.

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