(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Edward Bellamy 1850-1898

American novelist, essayist, editor and short story writer. For additional information on Bellamy's life and works, see NCLC, Volume 4.

A response to the industrialization and inequality that characterized late nineteenth-century American culture, Bellamy's Looking Backward: 2000-1887 (1888) established him as the prophet of a new order advocating an American brand of socialism. His party, which promoted state capitalism as a way to achieve state socialism, was based on the National party and was eventually absorbed into the Populist movement. Although his utopian views are considered naive today, Bellamy is remembered as an early proponent for equality and social justice and as a pioneer in the development of the American utopian novel.

Biographical Information

Bellamy was the third son of a New England Baptist minister, Rufus King Bellamy, and a Calvinist mother, Maria Putnam Bellamy. Although in his later life he did not claim any religious faith, his early training impressed upon him a strong sense of Christian morality and humanism which is manifest throughout his work. The contrast between his parents' personalities also affected Bellamy's writing; his father's easy generosity and concern for his parish countered by his mother's staunch belief in the Protestant work ethic influenced Bellamy's conception of utopia, which is at once materialistically oriented toward human happiness and strictly regulated by ethical and practical norms.

Bellamy spent his childhood and most of his adult life in Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts. In this mill town, he observed the cruelties of child labor and the inhumanity of wealthy mill-owners. Outraged by what he saw, Bellamy began writing essays on social reform at the age of ten. After an unsuccessful attempt to enter West Point, Bellamy entered Union College for a year, after which he joined his brother in Europe. Bellamy's concern with economic exploitation was further galvanized by the harsh urban poverty he witnessed during his travels in Europe. His early essay The Religion of Solidarity, written in 1874, reflects these preoccupations. Although his family hoped that Bellamy would follow his father and grandfather and become a minister, he preferred to study law and was admitted to the Massachusetts bar in 1871. He never practiced, however, and instead took a brief editorial position with the New York Evening Post and subsequently with the Springfield Union and the Springfield Daily News. Bellamy left his editorial work in 1879 to spend his time writing essays, short stories, and novels. In 1882 he married Emma Sanderson, with whom he had two children. Looking Backward was published in 1888 to both popular acclaim and critical uproar and resulted in the formation of numerous Bellamy societies and Nationalist clubs. For the remaining ten years of his life Bellamy traveled on lecture tours and worked to establish the New Nation as a vehicle for the dissemination of his Nationalist ideas. As Bellamy's movement became associated with related reform movements of the last decade of the nineteenth century, it was fractured by internal conflicts and faded from the political scene by 1895. Bellamy died in Chicopee Falls in 1898 after successive bouts with tuberculosis and pulmonary and digestive disorders.

Major Works

Bellamy's first published works were airy and romantic novels, including Six to One: A Nantucket Idyl (1878) and The Duke of Stockbridge: A Romance of Shays' Rebellion (published serially in 1879). Despite the strongly sentimental character of these works, Bellamy's political and social ideas appear in nascent form. His principal concern was that American independence, rather than fulfilling its self-proclaimed ideals of democracy and equality, led to the creation of an economic plutocracy that instituted an oppressive class structure and smothered the freedom of the human individual. Although he had not at this point read Karl Marx, Bellamy echoed the Marxist conviction that political structures are inextricably intertwined with economic forces, and that any political revolution to return the American nation to its original values would require economic reform. These ideas are fully elaborated in Bellamy's most famous work, Looking Backward, and its less popular sequel, Equality (1897). Looking Backward describes the temporal journey of its protagonist, Julian West, from 1887 to 2000, when American society has been transformed by a socialist and technological order that supports human equality and freedom. This economic and political vision is one of state-managed capitalism that is organized along military lines. The injustices, disorder, and widespread unrest of the nineteenth-century have been overcome in order to achieve a national community working toward economic well-being and personal freedom in the form of universal education and equality of leisure. Bellamy is one of the first utopians to integrate early feminist concerns into his political program and to emphasize the equality of men and women, at least at an economic level, in his vision of the twenty-first century. Equality seeks to articulate a more detailed account of the viability of a socialist community, as does the nonfiction essay The Religion of Solidarity.

Critical Reception

As fiction, Bellamy's novels are criticized for their didactic tone and for the flatness of their characters, but as political tracts, they helped to spark a uniquely American breed of utopian writing. Selling over a million copies in the first years after its publication, Looking Backward appealed to the reformist trends of the American and European reading public, and the ideas expressed in this novel became major pillars of the political Nationalist movement. Although it has never been considered a literary masterpiece, Looking Backward is frequently praised for its presentation of socialism. John Dewey wrote that Bellamy's work, while deeply critical of the injustice of his age, “accords with American psychology in breathing the atmosphere of hope.” Because it suggests a way of incorporating technology into a utopian social structure, Bellamy's socialist vision was particularly attractive to the people of America, which had achieved the status of a global power in part through rapid industrialization. Looking Backward has drawn much criticism for its unrealistic goals and for anti-democratic tendencies, given the authoritarian economic hierarchies and hegemonic culture suggested in it. Critics have particularly questioned Bellamy's redemptive vision of a transformation of the individual will into a collective unity that emphasized stability and conservatism. Wilfred M. McClay comments, “To any apprehension that so monolithically centralized a state might be a formula for tyranny, Looking Backward seemed almost incredibly oblivious.” Many scholars have identified this utopia as an attempt to transcend the economic, moral, psychological, and social horrors of the late nineteenth-century by harmonizing Bellamy's religious views of sacrifice, self-discipline, and righteousness with his economic ideals of order, equality, and material abundance. Bellamy is also criticized for his essentialist views on women and his subtle reinscription of gender hierarchy on the basis that women's physical differences constrain their economic roles in a technologically advanced society. Sylvia Strauss comments that the most prominent female character of Looking Backward is “shown to do little work more strenuous than flower arranging.” Yet many of Bellamy's works are recognized to be significant explorations of a paradigmatically nineteenth-century American issue: the problem of the individual within society. Bellamy's utopian views present a “greater self,” in which the individual acts with reason and humanity within an orderly society. The appeal of this idea accounts for the popularity of Bellamy's writing, however short-lived. Although his work is marked by its specific historical context, Bellamy's ideas continue to influence utopian literature and social reform movements at the end of the twentieth-century.