A cultural history of utopian writing in early modern England, Founding Fictions traces the development of the genre from the publication of Thomas More's Utopia (1516) through Aphra Behn's Oroonoko (1688). Amy Boesky sees utopian literature rising alongside new social institutions that helped shape the modern English nation. While utopian fiction explicitly advocates a reorganization of human activity, which appears liberal or progressive, utopias represent reform in self-critical or qualitative ways. Early modern utopias, Boesky demonstrates, are less blueprints for reform than they are challenges to the very possibility of improvement.
After an initial discussion of More's Utopia, Boesky devotes subsequent chapters to Francis Bacon's New Atlantis, the Civil War Utopias of Gabriel Plattes, Samuel Gott, and Gerrard Winstanley, Margaret Cavendish's Blazing-world, and Henry Neville's Isle of Pines. Relating the English public school to More's Utopia, and early modern laboratories to Bacon's New Atlantis, Boesky shows how utopists explored the formation of cultural identity through new institutional models. Utopias of the 1640s and 1650s are read against new emphasis on work as the panacea for social ills; Cavendish's Blazing-world is seen as reproducing and reassessing restoration centers of authority in the court and theater; and finally, Neville's Isle of Pines and Behn's Oroonoko are read as interrogating the authorities of the English colony.
Despite widely divergent backgrounds, says Boesky, these utopists shared a sense that national identity was shaped less by individuals than by institutions, which they praise for producing trained and trainable citizens instilled with the values of the modern state: obedience, discipline, and order. While the utopia tells its story partly to justify the goals of colonialism and to enforce differences in class, gender, and race, it also tells a concurrent and less stable story that criticizes these ventures and exposes their limitations.