I was never supposed to teach a course on utopian and dystopian literature, especially not one in modern and contemporary American lit. I’m a nineteenth-century Americanist specializing in the classics (Hawthorne, Whitman, Melville, Stowe, Alcott)—all the stuff people hate reading in high school and then find mildly more digestible in college.

But as a postdoc a few years ago, I was assigned to team-teach a course with a historian. Our scholarly interests varied wildly, but our literary fandom overlapped within the utopian and dystopian genre. So we stitched together a course and taught some of our favorite literary texts: Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland, Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale—plus a handful of relevant films (Children of Men, Snowpiercer, Mad Max: Fury Road). Somehow it all worked, and the subject had more philosophical punch than I ever fathomed.

Each spring when I teach “Utopias and Dystopias in American Literature,” I tell students that the material can be terribly depressing. Utopias are often built to fail, or at least disenchant; one character’s utopia is often another’s dystopia. I always expect some sort of disappointment. But students swiftly tell me that they’re enrolling for the dystopias, not the utopias. They’re here for the post-apocalyptic landscapes, the totalitarian regimes, the starving heroes and heroines. No one wants stories about communes of happy, smiling people; in fact, they’re suspicious whenever those sunny narratives appear. There must be something more sinister underneath, students say—and they’re almost always right.

So why is utopian and dystopian literature all the rage these days? Some pop critics believe the appeal can be traced to a crude sensationalism popular among the masses; others theorize that hopeless despair is the millennial generation’s calling card. My students often gravitate toward the subject because they recognize our own society as increasingly on the verge of disaster. Conveniently, there is a flavor of this narrative for every student. Biology majors are attracted to the works about genetic mutations run amok, sociology students find fascinating the narratives about failed communal planning, and engineering students inform me that dastardly robots actually are going to overtake the human race. But everyone agrees: The future is utterly terrifying.

Before we look at the future, I direct students to the past. Antipatriarchal utopias and ecological terrors, as two examples, stretch decades if not centuries backward. I structure one unit around America’s postwar suburban dream (with works like Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives, and David Lynch’s Blue Velvet). Selfishly, I also use these materials to confirm my suspicions that beyond the perfectly manicured lawns and phony smiles of my childhood neighbors, there was an epic desperation at play. As I say, the friendly milkman can be just as frightening as the murderous android.

Rest assured, I save enough airtime for the latter. Readings by authors like Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov—who tell tales about electric grandmothers and cyborg-human hybrids—exhibit a fictional future creeping closer to our present reality.

My favorite class each semester takes us to Duke’s Glenn Negley Collection of Utopian Literature and the newly acquired Locus Science Fiction Collection. Parsing through Thomas More’s original 1516 map of his fictional Utopia island or dissecting Russian cover illustrations of George Orwell’s 1984, students can understand how wide-ranging—chronologically and geographically— the genre reaches. As imminent as so many of our fears appear, there are almost always precedents or analogs. These discoveries don’t make the course themes any less urgent. Rather, the archive initiates students into a fraternity of intellectuals who have wrestled with an uncertain tomorrow.

This urgency is finally what drives the course. Sure, students are attracted to dystopias first. But as an intellectual collective, we can still devise ways to thwart the forces behind them. As I finally try to bestow, the future isn’t here yet—and we all might be secret utopists at heart.

D’Alessandro is an assistant professor of English whose teaching at Duke has included “Modern American Drama” and “Classics of American Literature,” along with “Utopias and Dystopias in American Literature.”

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