Date of Graduation
Eberly College of Arts and Sciences
John R Ernest
Through an analysis of the popularity, didacticism, and rhetoric of literary utopias and world's fairs, Spectacular Struggles argues that during the latter half of the nineteenth century our national narrative makes use of an inherently and uncritically white utopian form to forge an exclusionary, white national identity as an anxious response to a tumultuous era of social change. The first chapter traces the origins of this "white (male) utopian complex" from More's sui generis Utopia to the white utopian frameworks governing our self-representation at the fair, national narratives, and even our histories. From this grounding, I turn to Edgar Allen Poe's quirky, yet poignant "Mellonta Tauta" (1850) and Hawthorne's The Blithedale Romance (1852), before focusing on Edward Bellamy's oft-centralized Looking Backward (1889). Through this comparison, I map the rise of the white male utopian complex within our historiography in contrast to a paralleled and metacritical utopian voice excluded from this historiography. To further highlight the canon's white utopian complex, chapter two turns to America's premier, most nationalistic, and most overtly-racialized fairscape, the World's Columbian Exposition (1893). While chapter one looks to the way in which the Philadelphia's Centennial International Exhibition (1876) informs Bellamy's architectural imagining of the future and helps to establish the fairscape's relationship to the literary utopia, chapter two looks at the role the Columbian Exposition plays in institutionalizing and nationalizing a neoclassical white aesthetic not merely for architecture or art or literature, but for national identity. I focus here on the fair's "White City" as a racialized articulation of the "City Beautiful" movement in literature, architecture, and ultimately urban planning. I argue that the salience of the "race question" at these spectacular nationalized utopias highlights utopian scholarship's avoidance of race history and how such an omission skews the historiography of the period. With an eye toward recasting race history as central to this historiography, chapters three and four take up two under-discussed bodies of utopian literature: the Southern utopia and the African America utopia. Chapter three argues that we've long overlooked utopias set in the South or written by Southerners precisely because they, like the fairs held therein, aggressively and openly reassert whites' proprietary claims over the South's history and its future. These oft-excluded white supremacist utopias not only advance a more militant Anglo-Saxon national identity, but they inform a Southern fairscape that sentimentally rewrites the Old South by forcibly whitewashing the New. In contrast to the previous chapter's focus on white supremacist works, chapter four argues that a nascent black nationalism begins to emerge in black spectacular fictions that appear at the century's end and that these fictions collectively reclaim an American past, present, and future in which black Americans play an integral role. I argue that these black utopists use the hybridity of the utopian form to articulate a black philosophy, history, and critical study of whiteness that simultaneously exposes how the inherent whiteness of the utopian form has long-advanced within the national imaginary an American utopia contingent upon its whiteness. Spectacular Struggles offers a starting point for recovering a previously-evaded race history and significant body of utopian works long pushed to the margins of the contemporary canon. It offers a starting point for acknowledging how the racially-unmarked historiography presently defining the scope of utopian study distorts a nineteenth-century reality.
Novosat, Courtney L., "Spectacular Struggles: Utopian Whiteness, Black Resistance, and the National Imaginary in Nineteenth-Century America" (2016). Graduate Theses, Dissertations, and Problem Reports. 6331.