America represented a massive intellectual challenge. Thomas More's Utopia and Francis Bacon's New Atlantis initiated the discussion about the ideal Republic, the ideal Commonwealth, with America as the background. However, Utopia meant not only a good place or an ideal state but, in an ironic inversion, a place that did not exist, a no-man's-land, a cloud-cuckoo-land.
The construct "America" in European imagination all too often denoted something that America never was and never could be – Asia, Utopia, paradise on earth with gold lining the streets. When America failed to fulfil these European dreams, the disillusionment became even more intense. Instead of correcting them, instead of admitting that the European dream of the American dream had always been unreal, the disillusioned now accused America of fraud.
The dialectical tension of America as Utopia and as Dystopia runs through all literary discussions. The image of the young, innocent, and mythical New World of Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Spenser soon found its counterpart in accusations of barbarism, degeneration, immaturity, soulless materialism, and cultural inferiority. Georges Leclerc Comte de Buffon`s outrageous accusations about the absolute degeneration of all life in America remained influential until well into the twentieth century.
Although the contours of European images of America became more precise after 1776, they still maintained the character of magical reflections fluctuating between total hope and complete rejection. While liberals and republicans, socialists and even communists, directed many of their hopes toward the land of freedom, virtue, and prosperity, for the representatives of the ancien regime, many conservatives, and the 20th century extreme right, the US became the horrific example for the insurrection of the mob and barbaric excesses of democracy, whose influence on the European order must be hindered at all cost.
Even in the nineteenth century, most European authors perceived America as a continent untouched by culture, as natural wilderness. The United States remained outside of history and the most important opposition read soulless uprooted techno-civilization versus traditional culture. Now alienation became the major theme. Americans became especially suspect with regard to their outward appearance, tastelessness, pluralistic conformity, superficiality, naive optimism, and infantilism. The European accusation against US culture as being uniquely based on a denial of any limitation of human existence is quite absurd, especially when such an accusation was made by the inhabitants of a continent, whose people Europeanized large parts of the world, including North, Central and South America.