Edward Bellamy Essay - Critical Essays

Bellamy, Edward


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.

Principal Works

Six to One: A Nantucket Idyl (novel) 1878

The Duke of Stockbridge: A Romance of Shays’ Rebellion (novel) 1900

Dr. Heidenhoff’s Process (novel) 1880

Miss Ludington’s Sister: A Romance of Immortality (novel) 1884

Looking Backward: 2000-1887 (novel) 1888

Equality (novel) 1897

The Blindman's World and Other Stories (short stories) 1898

The Religion of Solidarity (essay) 1940


John Dewey (essay date 1934)

SOURCE: “A Great American Prophet,” in Common Sense Vol. III, No. 4, April, 1934, pp. 6-7.

[In the following essay, Dewey examines Bellamy's evocation of “the terrible gulf between what is possible and what is actual” with regard to human freedom and equality.]

In his Equality, Bellamy states, through the mouth of Dr. Leete as exponent, the device that marks off his picture of a social Utopia from all other literary Utopias. Explaining why men of our day do not see the meaning of facts that stare them constantly in the face, he says: “It was precisely because they stared you and your contemporaries so constantly in the face that you lost the faculty...

(The entire section is 1804 words.)

Thomas A. Sancton (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: “Looking Inward: Edward Bellamy's Spiritual Crisis,” in American Quarterly, Vol. XXV, No. 5, December, 1973, pp. 538-57.

[In the essay that follows, Sancton examines Bellamy's religious and philosophical views as they are expressed in Looking Backward.]

It is a mistake to say of Edward Bellamy, as many have done, that he lived by the religious philosophy expressed in his essay, The Religion of Solidarity; that this was the definitive expression of his faith; and that his utopian novel Looking Backward was the logical working out of those beliefs in a social context. Such a generalization assumes that at the age of 24 Bellamy solved the eternal...

(The entire section is 9607 words.)

Michael Fellman (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: “The Evolution of Order: Edward Bellamy's Nationalist Utopia” in The Unbounded Frame: Freedom and Community in Nineteenth Century American Utopianism, Greenwood Press, 1973, pp. 104-23.

[In the following essay, Fellman argues that Bellamy's desire for social and economic renewal led him to a vision of authoritarian unity.]

With a tear for the dark past, turn we then to the dazzling future, and, veiling our eyes, press forward. The long and weary winter of the race is ended. Its summer has begun. Humanity has burst the chrysalis. The heavens are before it.

—Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward,...

(The entire section is 7351 words.)

Elisabeth Hansot (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: “Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward and Equality” in Perfection and Progress: Two Modes of Utopian Thought, MIT Press, 1974, pp. 113-44.

[In the essay that follows, Hansot places Bellamy's fiction in the larger context of utopian thought from Plato to H. G. Wells, and argues that Bellamy imagines a fundamentally conservative ideal.]

Edward Bellamy wrote Looking Backward: 2000-1887 in 1884 and Equality in 1897. The latter was Bellamy's last book, part of which was written during illness.1Equality is a much longer and more detailed account of the utopia presented in Looking Backward, but, apart from the...

(The entire section is 13389 words.)

William Leach (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: “Looking Forward Together: Feminists and Edward Bellamy,” in Democracy, Vol. 2, No. 1, January, 1981, pp. 120-34.

[In the following essay, Leach discusses the role of nineteenth-century feminists in the egalitarian Nationalist movement inspired by Bellamy's writings.]

Since the late nineteenth century a majority of American feminists have been drawn to the state to achieve greater equality. At the same time, however, by relying on the power of the state and especially on the power of the modern technocratic, welfare state, feminists have often found themselves supporting practices that threaten to subvert the democratic-egalitarian core of feminism. No...

(The entire section is 6522 words.)

Lee Cullen Khanna (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: “The Reader and Looking Backward,” in The Journal of General Education, Vol. XXXIII, No. 1, Spring, 1981, pp. 69-79.

[In the following essay, Khanna contends that the popularity of Looking Backward is founded on the text's sophisticated projection of an ideal reader, a process that mirrors the narrator's journey to a utopian society.]

Looking Backward, 2000-1887 (1888) is one of the classics of American fiction and was, in its own time, a best-seller. It sparked innumerable imitations in fiction (some 154 utopian novels were published between 1888 and 1900) and exerted an enormous influence on such disparate thinkers as John Dewey,...

(The entire section is 4979 words.)

Arthur Lipow (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: “Organization for the Unorganizable: Looking Backward and the Crisis of the Middle Class,” in Authoritarian Socialism in America: Edward Bellamy and the Nationalist Movement, University of California Press, 1982, pp. 96-118.

[In the essay that follows, Lipow locates the popularity of Bellamy's anti-democratic ideas in more general political trends among the middle class of the late nineteenth-century, particularly in the desire for economic reform of “big capital.”]

The response to Looking Backward, Edward Bellamy testified, was “most general and enthusiastic” in the trans-Mississippi states, the newly admitted states, the territories...

(The entire section is 9528 words.)

Sylvia Strauss (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: “Gender, Class, and Race in Utopia” in “Looking Backward,” 1988-1888: Essays on Edward Bellamy, edited by Daphne Patai, University of Massachusetts Press, 1988, pp. 68-90.

[In the following essay, Strauss claims that Bellamy's feminist leanings were limited by his nationalist and bourgeois presuppositions.]

In 1888, when Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward was published, the woman question was seen as the key to whether the progress of the nineteenth century could be sustained in the twentieth. The woman question preoccupied scientists, philosophers, essayists, novelists, and politicians. Women's voices were being heard on a scale heretofore...

(The entire section is 9844 words.)

Jeffrey A. Hammond (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: “‘Swept away by One Breath’: Selfhood and Kenosis in Edward Bellamy's ‘A Love Story Reversed’,” in Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Vol. 32, No. 2, Summer, 1990, pp. 329-44.

[In the essay that follows, Hammond studies Bellamy's redemptive vision of an “internalized utopia” that would free both men and women from the restrictions of social convention.]

Edward Bellamy, writing amid the political and economic corruption of the Gilded Age, forged in Looking Backward, 2000-1887 a prophecy with the “power to make the reader feel,” as his friend William Dean Howells claimed, a utopian society “like something he has known...

(The entire section is 7028 words.)

Wilfred M. McClay (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: “Edward Bellamy and the Politics of Meaning,” in American Scholar, Vol. 64, No. 2, Spring, 1995, pp. 264-71.

[In the following essay, McClay discusses the significance of the Civil War as an impetus to Bellamy's authoritarian vision of a “great community.”]

Since time immemorial, college survey courses in American history have been packaged as two-semester sequences, breaking at the Civil War. Although academic inertia probably has much to do with this pattern, its intellectual justification remains sound. The Civil War represents the single most dramatic watershed in American history, one full of consequence for the nation's subsequent forms of...

(The entire section is 5827 words.)

Further Reading


Bowman, Sylvia E. Edward Bellamy. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1986. 157 p.

A biography that explores the significance of Bellamy's writing in the context of the American literary scene.

Morgan, Arthur E. Edward Bellamy. New York: Columbia University Press, 1944, 498 p.

A standard biography of Bellamy.


Berneri, Marie Louise. “Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward,” in her Journey through Utopia, pp. 243-55. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., 1950.

A general introduction to Looking Backward that emphasizes the...

(The entire section is 446 words.)