1.2: Publication and Reception
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Introduction: Publication and Reception of Utopia
Thomas More began work on Utopia in 1515. More was staying with Peter Gilles in Antwerp when he began working on the text and finished it a year later in 1516 while in London. More then sent his manuscript to Erasmus -- whose work More had and would continue to defend -- in September of 1516, and by December the completed Utopia was published in Latin by Thierry Martens in Louvain (Baker-Smith xiii). More, and specifically Utopia, are working within the humanist tradition. This is most directly exemplified in the first book of Utopia where a series of letters appear between More and various friends and scholars of the humanist tradition itself. Because the humanist tradition is actively looking back to the classical period, coupled with the fact that Latin is the language of academia at this time, More’s choice to publish Utopia in Latin is one that is reflective of both the literary tradition he is a part of and the historical moment he is writing in. The second book of Utopia, while still working within the humanist tradition, is more reflective of socio-political satire. The narrative centers on the newly-discovered island of Utopos, and it is through this narrative that More is able to critique the society of Early Modern England and offer up his own version of the ideal society.
A year after its first publication, a second edition was published in Paris along with the editions of a second letter to Peter Giles and a letter to the French humanist Guillaume Bude. The third and fourth editions were published in Basel in 1518. It wasn’t until 1551 that an English translation was printed in England by Ralph Robinson under the title, A fruitful and pleasaunt work of the newe yle called Utopia (Baker-Smith x). As More was tried and condemned as a traitor under Henry VIII, it makes sense that it would take sixteen years after his death for the work to be published in England and be published in English. More deliberately sent his manuscript to Erasmus for publication, and deliberately chose for it to be published in Latin, since it was following a specific literary tradition. However in the 35 years immediately following Utopia’s publication, it becomes clear that through these various early editions of Utopia, the work was popular and was well circulated even within More’s lifetime. As the result of the printing press and vernacular translations, Utopia spread across Europe. These translations started with German, Italian, French, English, and Dutch, but now Utopia has been translated into many other languages (McCutcheon). Utopia has remained one of the great humanist texts of its time, even into the modern moment Utopia serves as the basis -- even if it is wildly misunderstood -- for ideas around perfect, utopian societies.
Narrative Structure & Reception
The popularity of the work is demonstrated in the letter Peter Giles wrote to Jerome Busleyden that is featured at the beginning of the work. In his letter Giles writes about Utopia, “thus far it’s only known to a few, but it deserves to be known to all as surpassing Plato’s Republic”. Plato’s Republic would have been known and widely regarded during this time, so the fact that Giles is claiming More’s work to be better shows Utopia’s popularity at the time it was released. Today Utopia is a popular work to study in high school and undergraduate institutions because of its significance during the Renaissance and also because of More’s significance to the reign of Henry VIII. Today’s readers have the added benefit of understanding Thomas More’s life as it relates to Utopia and his other works. Understanding the background of his life gives more insight into his works and why he wrote what he did. Knowing that More grew up as a page in the household to Cardinal Morton, provides insight into his strict defense of the Church for the rest of his life. Beyond just helping King Henry VIII with the Defense of the Seven Sacraments, More continued to defend the Church when Henry wouldn’t. Because of his defense, he was canonized a saint in 1535. Additionally, More’s friendship with Erasmus--the so called Prince of the Northern Renaissance--makes it easier to understand why More sent Erasmus a copy of Utopia to look over.
The structure of Utopia contributes to its continued fame and inclusion in the contemporary classroom. More wrote Utopia in two different books: one a series of letters and dialogue between More and several other humanists, and the second book describes the world of Utopos that More created. The construction of these two books contributes to some of the controversy surrounding the genre of this work. There are arguments made that this book belongs in the genre of travel writing, since the second book describes the traveling to and observing Utopos. However, there are also arguments that Utopia qualifies as a narrative or more specifically long form narrative, and even arguments made that the first book qualifies for a separate genre entirely as it fits the humanist letters genre. By separating Utopia into two books, More is able to lay groundwork for the rules and societal functions he lays out in Utopos. The first book and letters allow More to introduce important humanists and their ways of thinking and place himself in the work to remind readers these are conversations that actually happened. While the splitting of the work into two books may seem confusing or unnecessary, it allows readers the ability to process separately the important concepts of humanist thought and how they could be applied to a society like Utopos (should a society like this ever be able to exist).
While it may seem strange to some to read a work written in the 1500s that details a utopian world far from anything that actually exists, the application of humanist ideas and popularity of this work has retained value over time. In fact, the concept of creating a perfect world as a means of commenting on current society and its failing has generated a new genre of work more familiar to 21st century students. The dystopia genre emerged as a response of sorts to the development of “utopias” to escape from the failings of society. Famous dystopian works include The Hunger Games, Divergent, 1984, and Fahrenheit 451. Each of these novels takes what is seen as a failing of society and imagines what the world would be like should societal shortcomings become accepted as normal. Just as More wrote Utopia to respond to flaws in his society, the authors of dystopian novels find themselves responding to similar flaws; the difference lies in their acceptance or rejection of identified flaws. More chose to imagine and craft a world without the missteps of society observed, while dystopian authors choose to assign more significance to these flaws and imagine a world where they often serve as foundational to society.
By Grace Maher