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The Shape of Utopia

Studies in a Literary Genre


Phillip E. Wegner

Upon its original publication in 1970, Robert C. Elliott’s The Shape of Utopia influenced both some of the major scholars of an emerging utopian and science fiction studies, including Darko Suvin, Louis Marin and Fredric Jameson, and authors of new utopian fiction ranging from Ursula K. Le Guin to Kim Stanley Robinson. The book establishes a deep genetic link between utopia and satire, and offers scintillating readings of classic works by Thomas More, Jonathan Swift, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Aldous Huxley and others. It charts the rise of an insidious «fear of utopia» that comes to characterize the first half of the twentieth century and investigates some of the aesthetic problems raised by the efforts to portray a utopian society, before concluding with brilliant speculations on the emerging practice of «anti-anti-utopia» – the reinvention of utopia for contemporary times. This Ralahine Classics edition also includes a new introduction by Phillip E. Wegner which situates the book in its context and argues for its continued significance today; a 1971 review of the book by the late author of utopian science fiction, Joanna Russ; and an opening tribute by one of Elliott’s former students, Kim Stanley Robinson.


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CHAPTER 2 The Shape of Utopia


More’s Utopians are a peace-loving people, but their land was born to con- troversy. Many claim it: Catholics and Protestants, medievalists and mod- erns, socialists and communists; and a well-known historian has recently turned it over to the Nazis. Methods of legitimating claims vary widely, although most are necessarily based upon ideological interpretations of More’s book. Over the past generation, however, in all the welter of claim and counter-claim, one single interpretation has emerged to dominate the field. H.W. Donner calls it “the Roman Catholic interpretation” of Utopia.xxxvi Its most trenchant, certainly most inf luential, statement is by R.W. Chambers; the interpretation, in brief, amounts to this: “When a Sixteenth-Century Catholic depicts a pagan state founded on Reason and Philosophy, he is not depicting his ultimate ideal … The underlying thought of Utopia always is, With nothing save Reason to guide them, the Utopians do this; and yet we Christian Englishmen, we Christian Europeans …! ”xxxvii This statement cuts cleanly through murky tangles of critical debate. It is founded upon awareness of the relation between reason and revelation in Catholic doctrine, and the importance of that relation in making judgments about Utopia; it is consonant with everything we know of More and his life. Most recently this interpretation has received powerful support from Edward L. Surtz, S.J., in a number of articles and in two books he has written on More’s Utopia: The Praise of Pleasure (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1957) and The Praise of Wisdom (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1957). Father...

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