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America as Utopia: A Preface

Remarkably soon after its discovery, in fact, America became the locus for a variety of imaginary [...] utopian constructions.

Jack P. Greene, The Intellectual Construction of America

Amerika, Du hast es besser als unser Kontinent, der alte.

Johann Wolfgang v. Goethe, Xenien

In the so-called age of discovery and exploration, Europeans often imagined the Americas as a site of utopian communities by coupling the “emerging expectations about America” with “the subsequent development of the utopian tradition;” this is paradigmatically done in Thomas More’s Utopia (1516), in which the author “located Utopia in the Atlantic and used the experienced traveler just returned from a voyage with Vespucci from the ‘unkown peoples and lands’ of the New World” as his central literary device (Greene, Intellectual Construction 26). In the early 16th century, a number of other writers also located their visions of utopian societies in America or its vicinity: Tommaso Cam- panella in City of the Sun (1602), Johann Valentin Andreae in Christianopolis (1619), and Francis Bacon in New Atlantis (1624). Most of them have a strong religious dimension: Campanella envisions, for instance, a theocracy, Andreae a Protestant (Lutheran) utopia; Bacon’s is the only one among the canonical utopian texts of that time which gives priority to science over religion.

Those geographies of the imagination however were not empirically corroborated; European explorers and travelers did not come across any marvelous utopias in the Americas. The indigenous communities they actually encountered in their eyes did not constitute extraordinary alternative ways of life worthy of emulation; constructed by their Eurocentric gaze as radical alterity rather than viable alternatives, the indigenous cultures of North America seemed worthless and inferior in comparison to those of Europe. Native Americans were considered to be barely human - as ‘heathens’ not readily open to Christianization, they could be forcefully removed in order to make room for the newcomers. Europeans thus increasingly replaced their hopes of discovering a utopia in the Americas with reflections on how to build one there themselves: Even before the Pilgrims and Puritans settled in the ‘new world,’ prospective English settlers no longer “thought in terms of finding an existing utopia but of founding one in the relatively ‘empty’ and inviting spaces of North America” (Greene, Intellectual Construction 51).

Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries many religious separatist groups existed in England and in Europe as a whole, many of which migrated to the Americas. As Mark Holloway points out, “[s]eventeenth-century Europe was full of [...] sects. Persecution, however severe, did nothing to diminish their fervor. And when America had been colonised, vast numbers of them emigrated in search of religious liberty” (Heavens 18). The Pilgrims and the Puritans thus were the earliest and certainly the most prominent of these groups yet by no means the only ones. Other religious groups which aspired to create their own “heavens on earth” (cf. ibid.) in North America were e.g. William Penn (16441718) and the Quakers, Johannes Kelpius’ (1673-1708) Society of Woman in the Wilderness, and Johann Conrad Beissel’s (1691-1768) “Dunkers,” who all settled in Pennsylvania; Mother Ann Lee (1736-1784) and the Shakers, who settled in upstate New York; and the Moravians, who came to North America in 1735 as pietistic and reformist missionaries and founded Winston-Salem in North Carolina. None of these groups - many of which still are part of the rich array of denominations in the United States today - ever came close to being as symbolically powerful as the Pilgrims and the Puritans, who are the only religious groups to form the cornerstone of a foundational narrative of the ‘new world.’ None of the great many utopian communities, whose number reached its historical climax in the 1840s and ‘50s and dwindled toward the end of the 19th century, ever elicited the same fascination as did the early settlers of New England. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the notion of America as utopia has remained highly attractive for a variety of groups and newcomers, and has been modified and appropriated according to their respective agendas; these more recent visions of America as the Promised Land are still shaped and propelled by the religious rhetoric of the Pilgrims and the Puritans.

 
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