Looking Backward: 2000-1887 Edward Bellamy
The following entry provides critical commentary on Bellamy's novel Looking Backward: 2000-1887 (1888). For information on Bellamy's entire career, see NCLC, Vols. 4 and 86.
A response to the industrialization and social inequality that characterized late nineteenth-century American culture, Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward: 2000-1887 (1888) established him as the prophet of a new order advocating an American brand of socialism. His views, which promoted state capitalism as a way to achieve state socialism, were based on those of the National party and were eventually absorbed into the Populist movement. Bellamy is remembered as an early proponent for equality and social justice and as a pioneer in the development of the American utopian novel.
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 that is manifest throughout his work. 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 as both 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 the 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. The harsh urban poverty he saw during his travels in Europe further incited his commitment to social reform. Although Bellamy's family hoped that he would follow his father and grandfather and become a minister, he chose to study law. He was admitted to the Massachusetts bar in 1871 and although he was offered a position in a prestigious law firm, he opened his own law practice. He closed his practice after one case involving the eviction of a widow for non-payment of rent. He worked briefly as an editor with the New York Evening Post and then 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. After the success of Looking Backward Bellamy spent the last ten years of his life traveling on lecture tours and working to establish the New Nation as a vehicle for the dissemination of his Nationalist ideas. As Bellamy's movement became associated with various related reform movements of the last decade of the nineteenth century, it was fractured by internal conflicts and eventually faded from the political scene by 1895. Equality was published in 1897 as a sequel to Looking Backward, although it focused more on economic reform and less on plot and literary conventions. Bellamy died in Chicopee Falls in 1898 after successive bouts with tuberculosis and with pulmonary and digestive disorders.
Plot and Major Characters
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. In the beginning of the novel, West, a typical nineteenth-century example of the idle rich, suffers from insomnia, and so he builds a soundproof cellar and hires a mesmerist to put him to sleep. While asleep, his house burns down and it is assumed that he perished in the fire. West's underground retreat is uncovered during excavations in the backyard of the Leete family in the year 2000. West has been asleep for 113 years. Dr. Leete becomes his host and guide as West discovers the social and economic changes that have taken place since 1887. West realizes that this new nationalized social order guarantees the basic needs of all men and has eliminated the unequal economic and social class structure of his time. Citizens are free from materialism and work toward the equal benefit of all society while the nation's wealth and industrial administration are in the hands of a single national trust. While Julian is being educated by Dr. Leete, he falls in love with Dr. Leete's daughter, Edith, who is the great-granddaughter of his 1887 love interest, Edith Bartlett. Shortly after Edith accepts his marriage proposal, Julian awakens in his old world and disastrously attempts to convince his former contemporaries of the error of their ways. Ultimately, Julian wakes again to discover that his return to 1887 was only a dream and that he is a permanent citizen in the year 2000.
Bellamy's 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 claimed he had not read Karl Marx prior to writing Looking Backward, Bellamy's ideas echoed the Marxist conviction that political structures are inextricably intertwined with economic forces and that any political revolution that would return the American nation to its original values would require economic reform. The economic and political vision in Looking Backward is one of state-managed capitalism that is organized along military lines. In the year 2000, 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.
Looking Backward was published to both popular acclaim and critical uproar. In response to his ideas, the public formed numerous Bellamy societies and Nationalist clubs. As a work of literary fiction, Looking Backward has been faulted for what critics have assessed as its didactic tone and underdeveloped characters. Many critics have addressed Bellamy's perceived failure to accommodate human nature as a factor in the new socialist America. 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. 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. Its popularity stemmed from its literary form—a romance novel—and from the fact that it portrayed an ideal world desired by many members of the agrarian society and lower socioeconomic class. Bellamy's socialist vision was particularly attractive to Americans who believed that the industrialization of their country, while responsible in part for the United States' status as a global power, was also a contributor to the economic inequality from which they suffered. Looking Backward has been derided for what have been characterized as its unrealistic goals and for anti-democratic tendencies, given the authoritarian economic hierarchies and hegemonic culture it advocates. Critics have particularly questioned Bellamy's redemptive vision of a transformation of the individual will into a collective unity that emphasized stability and conservatism. Many scholars have identified Bellamy's utopia as an attempt to transcend the economic, moral, psychological, and social horrors of the late nineteenth century by harmonizing his religious views of sacrifice, self-discipline, and righteousness with his economic ideals of order, equality, and material abundance. While 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, he was has been disparaged for his subtle assertion of gender hierarchy on the basis that women's physical differences constrained their economic roles in a technologically advanced society. Although Looking Backward is marked by its specific historical context, Bellamy's ideas continue to influence utopian literature and social reform movements.