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Edward Bellamy owes his entire literary reputation to a single work, Looking Backward (1888), one of the relatively few American books to have an indisputable effect on society and politics. The purpose of the book was to offer a blueprint of what Bellamy considered to be an ideal society. Along with Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) and Ben-Hur (1880), Looking Backward was one of the best-selling books of the nineteenth century, selling over one million copies after its initial publication.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Although it might be possible to discover hints of some of Bellamy’s mature thought in published and unpublished writings of his earlier years, there is little in either Bellamy’s life or work prior to 1888 to suggest his sudden emergence as an important social thinker. Bellamy was born in Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts, the son of a Baptist minister, Rufus King Bellamy, and Maria Putnam Bellamy. He was a descendant, on both sides of his family, from generations of solid, earnest, but otherwise unexceptional New Eng land clergymen, educators, and merchants. Edward inherited the family tradition of rectitude and responsibility, and more specifically, his father’s optimistic and benevolent view of mankind. However, there is nothing in his family background to suggest his eventual social and economic ideas.
In Search of an Identity
In 1867, after failing the physical examination for the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Bellamy entered Union College. However, his career there was cut short when his parents urged him to join his brother Packer in Europe. Bellamy spent about a year (1868-1869) in Germany and was moved by his observation of industrial conditions there. When he returned to America, he undertook the study of law with a Springfield, Massachusetts, attorney. After accepting a single case as a lawyer, Bellamy abandoned that profession in favor of journalism. He worked briefly on the New York Evening Post and for five years with the Springfield Union as an editorialist and book reviewer. Ill health caused him to give up that position in 1877, and in 1880, in partnership with his brother Charles, he began what became the Springfield Daily News. However, after less than a year as a publisher, Bellamy left newspaper journalism for good and devoted himself to the writing that would culminate in Looking Backward.
During his newspaper days Bellamy wrote a number of short stories (many of them later collected in The Blind-man’s World, 1898) and four novels. For the most part these early fictions are significant only as they anticipate ideas developed more importantly in Looking Backward.
A Half-formed Manifesto
In 1888, Bellamy finished his sweeping futuristic view of Utopia, Looking Backward. To make his presentation of Utopia more palatable to the general reader, he encased it in a roman tic plot: A young Bostonian after a hypnotic sleep of 113 years awakens in the year 2000 to discover a totally trans formed social and economic order. Falling in love with a girl descended from his fiancee of 1887, he learns from her father, a physician, the details of the state socialism that has replaced the unregulated capitalism that was in effect before his long sleep. Under the new order all commerce, industry, and other economic and professional activities have been nationalized into one vast inter locking enterprise. All men and women between the ages of twenty-one and forty-five are required to engage in work suitable to their abilities and, when possible, to their tastes; and all, no matter what occupation they may be in, receive the same wages. Superior ability and productivity are rewarded by social recognition and by assignment to positions of leadership. After the age of forty-five all are retired and are free to do what they wish.
Although that nostalgic vision probably accounts for the otherwise surprising popular acceptance of the book, the prescription for economic and political reform under standably provoked a more fully articulated response. However, while his outline of an egalitarian society had excited great public interest, Bellamy had in fact only sketchily developed his reformist ideas in Looking Back ward. As those ideas became part of the currency of contemporary political debate, Bellamy felt the need to fill in the programmatic chinks of Looking Backward and to answer his critics. In the preface to the follow-up volume entitled Equality he explains
Looking Backward was a small book, and I was not able to get into all I wished to say on the subject. Since it was published what was left out of it has loomed up as so much more important than what it contained that I have been constrained to write another book.
As such a statement suggests, the resultant book, Equality (1897), makes little pretense to being a novel, opting instead to attempt a message of economic education. Chapter titles such as ”Private Capital Stolen from the Social Fund,” ”Economic Suicide of the Profit System,” and ”Inequality of Wealth Destroys Liberty” suggest the more or less orthodox socialism espoused in Equality. Whereas Looking Backward had promised that through painless evolution technological progress would end in the recovery of idyllically pastoral culture, Equality, by contrast, seems only a relatively charming but essentially predictable recipe for a socialist economy. The sales of Equality were insignificant in comparison to those of Looking Backward, and while the book does clarify many of Bellamy’s ideas, it had little discoverable public impact.
The excitement generated by Looking Backward translated itself into the formation of clubs dedicated to the discussion and advancement of the book’s ideas. The first such Nationalist Club was founded in Boston in December 1888. Within a year there were enough clubs nationwide to justify speaking of a Nationalist movement. The primary goal of Nationalism was the transfer of corporate property—in the beginning utilities and other quasi monopolies—to public ownership. For Bellamy and his followers, Nationalism meant what would now be called nationalization; it had no overtones of devotion to a single state, and as it was concerned with world politics was distinctly internationalist. Nationalist ideas strongly influenced the Populist platform of 1892, and Bellamy himself became increasingly involved in political activism and in 1891 started his own magazine, the New Nation. As Nationalism became more and more identified with and influenced by other reform movements, it seemed to Bellamy to drift farther from what he considered the spiritual and religious foundations of his ideas. Inevitably the movement became fragmented, and Bellamy’s became increasingly a solitary voice. Nationalism as a political force had all but disappeared by 1895; in 1896 Bellamy abandoned the New Nation and devoted his dwindling energies to writing Equality. Bellamy had never been particularly robust. Since the 1870s he had suffered from recurrent pulmonary and digestive disorders; by the early 1890s he had contracted tuberculosis. He died in Chicopee Falls on May 22,1898.
Works in Literary Context
Probably more directly than any other American novel, except perhaps Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Looking Backward rendered in comprehensible terms its readers’ deepest social anxieties. Bellamy’s analysis of the dislocations of an increasingly industrialized America and his mixture of cultural and technological solutions to the most disturb ing social problems, at once confirmed and resolved doubts his generation had begun to express about the moral and material future of the nation. Bellamy clubs and publications advocating Bellamy’s reformism sprang up throughout the United States, and his ideas were translated into legislative acts and party platforms. Looking Backward inspired a host of utopian and dystopian novels, and within a few years of its publication was the most widely familiar “socialist” work of its time. It influenced a generation of American and European reformers, and its place as the most important American depiction of utopia remains secure and unchallenged.
Looking Backward, like many descriptions of utopias (including Sir Thomas More’s), ironically seeks through its futurism the recovery of a lost golden age—in Bellamy’s case one characterized by the myth of pastoral America and the dream of romantic selfhood. Looking Backward appeared at the end of two decades of rapid, unsettling change in American life. Industrialization, urbanization, immigration, the opening of the trans-Missouri West, the apparently uncontrollable power of trusts and political machines had radically altered society. Business panic followed expansionist boom in an ever-quickening cycle. Surrounded by what appeared to be social chaos, many Americans of Bellamy’s age and class sensed, sometimes vaguely, that while they had won a great Civil War to preserve their nation, they had somehow in the process been cheated and dispossessed of the America that was properly their heritage. Both the serious and popular literature of the period is suffused with nostalgic idealization of the pre-Civil War village.
At the same time, the middle-class Americans who felt deprived of their birthright were often participants in and beneficiaries of the very progress responsible for the cultural upheaval. In the flood of reformist writing of the period, Looking Backward is distinguished by its promise to restore the idealized culture of village America while retaining all the more attractive fruits of industrialization, technology, and economic centralization. It is probably that double, not to say contradictory, character of the book which accounted for both its vast popularity and its considerable influence upon the reform movement.
The double focus of Looking Backward makes it in a sense two books. More familiarly it appears to be a blue print for a more or less socialist utopia; but that blueprint is framed in a narrative of nineteenth-century cultural unrest. Bellamy often spoke of the latter aspect of the book, which is the personal story of his hero, Julian West, as a “sugar-coating” for his utopian message. Julian’s story conveys the cultural reassurance that is ultimately the justification for Bellamy’s social and economic reforms.
Works in Critical Context
Almost none of Bellamy’s fiction before Looking Backward has much intrinsic appeal or value. He seldom created compelling or even convincing actions. His characters lack dimension or, except for the ideas put into their mouths, interest. His style is at best serviceable, and in the more specifically romantic novels that William Dean Howells admired somewhat, it is not always appropriate to Bellamy’s “spiritual” subjects. In all of the earlier novels, as in Looking Backward, ideological dialogue or debates predominate over plot and character development. Nevertheless, several of his novels, among them Dr. Heidenhoff’s Process and Miss Ludington’s Sister, received favorable notice in their day; his The Duke of Stockbridge has been called, perhaps extravagantly, ”one of the greatest historical novels.”
Looking Backward was never considered seriously as literature; its appeal lay in its message. The Nation, writing in 1897, was typical of the critical reaction the book:
Looking Backward was a clever piece of literary work, which had some of the interest of a novel, besides the fascination of all ingenious speculation about the future of the world. … [In] reality, although a great deal is said about work, we find, in the end, that there is little or none [accomplished in Bellamy’s proposed society], and that, strange as it may seem, after all, what our Utopian guide has had in mind all along, though he has cleverly concealed it, is the old dream of a paradise of sloth and ease.
- Bowman, Sylvia E. The Year 2000: A Critical Biography of Edward Bellamy. New York: Bookman Associates, 1958.
- Morgan, Arthur. Edward Bellamy. New York: Columbia University Press, 1944.
- Roemer, Kenneth. The Obsolete Necessity: America in Utopian Writings. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1976.
- Becker, George. ”Edward Bellamy: Utopia, American Plan.” Antioch Review 14 (June 1954): 181-194.
- Bleich, David. Eros and Bellamy.” American Quarterly 16 (Fall 1964): 445-459.
- Sanford, Charles. Classics of American Reform Literature.” American Quarterly 10 (Fall 1958):295-311.
- Towers, Tom H. ”The Insomnia of Julian West.” American Literature 47 (March 1975): 52-63.
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