Published online by Cambridge University Press: 13 July 2019
‘Utopia’ is one of the rare literary neologisms of the Renaissance that can be traced to a clear and confirmed source. It was the English humanist Thomas More who created the term 500 years ago to describe an ideal imaginary society in his Latin text De optimo reipublicae deque nova insula Utopia, first published in Leuven in 1516. At a time when European expeditions to the ‘New World’ were bringing back news of peoples, places and politics so different from those of Europe, the discovery of Utopia – an island community whose inhabitants enjoyed a peaceful, plentiful, egalitarian and ordered existence – seemed within the realms of possibility. Juxtaposing a tale of Raphaël Hythloday's fictional travels to Utopia against a historically accurate framing narrative of Amerigo Vespucci's voyages around the world, More managed to perform a realistic critique of contemporary England while projecting his dream of a better way of being in the world. The inherent ambiguity of utopia as both unreal and ideal is encoded in More's pun on the Greek roots of his neologism, not differentiating between ou-topos (no place) and eu-topos (good place).
Definitions of utopia are almost as varied as the societies that are imagined. Eminent scholar in the field Lyman Tower Sargent (1994, 9) explains the term as ‘a non-existent society described in considerable detail and normally located in time and space’. The connections between utopia and travel writing have inspired considerable scholarly study, especially focused on the early modern period (Campbell 1988; Houston 2010; Greenblatt 1991; Pohl 2010). As each genre has evolved, so too have the links between them. Bill Ashcroft (2015, 255) offers a contemporary theorization of this relationship:
The link between travel writing and utopian fiction has generally been effected in two ways: the idea of travel to exotic places which might offer a glimpse of Paradise, or at least an alternative to one's present life; and travelling to far-flung places to create utopias. But there is a third and gradually more frequent reality in which the phenomenon Bloch calls the ‘anticipatory consciousness’ identifies travel writing as itself a form of utopianism.
In this way, Ashcroft enumerates the critical, colonial (see colonialism) and transformational functions of both utopian and travel writing, as observed in More's defining text, which permeate both genres to different degrees, depending upon the political and social contexts in which they are situated.