Mirriam-Webster Online, a reputable dictionary, defines a utopia as a "place of ideal perfection especially in laws, government and social conditions." A "utopia" is essentially the perfect place: it is the society that everyone seeks to live in, to create.
Literature has long been fascinated with this ideal society, beginning with Plato's Republic in ancient Greece, then popping up again with Sir Thomas More in 1516 and continuing with major literary works such as George Orwell's Animal Farm, parts of the Star Trek franchise, Lois Lowry's The Giver, the recent novel-turned-film Never Let Me Go (starring Keira Knightly and that guy from the newer Spiderman) as well as the recent literary and cinematic hit, The Hunger Games.
But what does a utopian society really look like? What constitutes the opposite, a dystopian society? Are we in either one? And, perhaps more importantly, why should we as pre-Civil War historians, care?
Let's take a more in-depth look at what a utopia is and determine which of these ideals would have appealed to nineteenth century Americans and why they would have done so.