Looking Backward: 2000-1887, Edward Bellamy - Essay

Edward Bellamy


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.

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 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.

Major Themes

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Six to One: A Nantucket Idyll (novel) 1878

Dr. Heidenhoff's Process (novel) 1880

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

Looking Backward: 2000-1887 (novel) 1888

How to Employ the Unemployed in Mutual Maintenance (essay) 1893

Equality (novel) 1897

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

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

*The Religion of Solidarity (essay) 1940

*This is a posthumously published edition of an essay written by Bellamy in 1874.

Atlantic Monthly (review date June 1888)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Recent American Fiction.” Atlantic Monthly 61, no. 368 (June 1888): 845-48.

[In the following excerpt, the critic discusses the perceived inadequacies of Bellamy's comparison of the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries through an analysis of the characters and plot, suggesting that the main flaw in the socialist utopia is that Bellamy ignores the factor of human nature.]

In a strict classification, we should hesitate to place Mr. Bellamy's Looking Backward1 under the head of Fiction. The story element is more subordinate, even, than it need be, and the reader who is in search of entertainment soon discovers that the author is too much in...

(The entire section is 1107 words.)

Edward Bellamy (essay date May 1890)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Bellamy, Edward. “Why I Wrote Looking Backward.” In Edward Bellamy Speaks Again! Articles—Public Addresses—Lectures, pp. 199-203. Kansas City, Mo.: The Peerage Press, 1937.

[In the following essay, originally published in The Nationalist in May 1890, Bellamy describes how Looking Backward evolved from his original writings of an ideal fantasy place with a social system maintained by an industrialized army to that of a utopian romance novel.]

I accept more readily the invitation to tell in The Nationalist how I came to write Looking Backward for the reason that it will afford an opportunity to clear up certain points on...

(The entire section is 1420 words.)

Edward Bellamy (essay date April 1894)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Bellamy, Edward. “How I Wrote Looking Backward.” In Edward Bellamy Speaks Again! Articles—Public Addresses—Lectures, pp. 217-28. Kansas City, Mo: The Peerage Press, 1937.

[In the following essay, originally published in the Ladies Home Journal in April 1894, Bellamy explains how he formulated his ideas about social reform and why he chose the novel form to express these ideas.]

Up to the age of eighteen I had lived almost continually in a thriving village of New England, where there were no very rich and very few poor, and everybody who was willing to work was sure of a fair living. At that time I visited Europe and spent a year there in...

(The entire section is 3235 words.)

Allyn B. Forbes (review date October 1931)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Forbes, Allyn B. Review of Looking Backward, 2000-1887, by Edward Bellamy, with an introduction by Heywood Broun. New England Quarterly 4, no. 4 (October 1931): 804-06.

[In the following review of the 1931 edition of Looking Backward, Forbes disagrees with the ideas expressed in Heywood Broun's introduction to the edition, and states that the importance of Looking Backward should not be found in its accurate predictions, but in the fact that the utopian idealist novel, a form of escapist literature at the time, was part of a large movement resulting from the social and economic problems of the last two decades of the 1800s.]

It is perhaps...

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Frederic R. White (essay date 1946)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: White, Frederic R. Introduction to Looking Backward: 2000-1887, by Edward Bellamy, pp. v-xxviii. Chicago, Ill.: Packard and Co., 1946.

[In the following essay, White asserts that Looking Backward is an important and unique novel in American literature and explores the three main elements that he believes contribute to its popularity: namely, that it is a romantic novel, that it portrays a realistic criticism of society, and that it dramatizes the concept of equality.]

Edward Bellamy, the author of Looking Backward, was the product of two parental extremes. His father, a jovial and well-beloved Baptist minister, was “so fat he could not lean...

(The entire section is 7945 words.)

Louis Filler (essay date April 1949)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Filler, Louis. “Edward Bellamy and the Spiritual Unrest.” The American Journal of Economics and Sociology 8, no. 3 (April 1949): 239-49.

[In the following essay, Filler examines the social and religious unrest in the late 1800s and maintains that Looking Backward may have been a catalyst of political reform by which a unification of the social and economic classes was achieved.]

Edward Bellamy's name almost inevitably conjures up memory of his utopian novel, Looking Backward, 2000-1887; it rarely suggests more, and this is a pity. For Bellamy wrote other tales, and essays, too, which are worth the attention of the student of post-Civil War...

(The entire section is 4751 words.)

George J. Becker (essay date June 1954)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Becker, George J. “Edward Bellamy: Utopia, American Plan.” The Antioch Review 14, no. 2 (June 1954): 181-94.

[In the following essay, Becker traces the relationship between materialism and social equality in Looking Backward and presents some of the opposing arguments to Bellamy's ideas.]

To us today Edward Bellamy (1850-1898) is the author of one novel and a tract. All his other work has lost interest for us, but Looking Backward (1888), supported by the elaborated arguments contained in Equality a decade later, remains to please, to challenge, or to dismay. Though that book has meant many things to different readers, its enduring...

(The entire section is 5696 words.)

Christine McHugh (essay date fall 1978)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: McHugh, Christine. “Midwestern Populist Leadership and Edward Bellamy: 'Looking Backward' into the Future.” American Studies 19, no. 2 (fall 1978): 57-74.

[In the following essay, McHugh demonstrates the connection between Looking Backward and the Populist party and avers that Edward Bellamy's novel contained the ideal world the agrarians sought while the Populist party was the means to fight for this new world.]

At the founding convention of the People's party in 1891, Minnesota Populist Ignatius Donnelly remarked that Edward Bellamy was an author “whom not to know is to argue one's self unknown.”1 Donnelly's compliment was typical of...

(The entire section is 8713 words.)

Warren J. Samuels (essay date April 1984)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Samuels, Warren J. “A Centenary Reconsideration of Bellamy's Looking Backward.The American Journal of Economics and Sociology 43, no. 2 (April 1984): 129-48.

[In the following essay, Samuels analyzes some of the main concepts in Looking Backward and concludes that they are still relevant 100 years later because society continues to face the same systemic economic and social problems and beliefs.]

If, therefore, I nevertheless conclude that I believe that the Welfare State, like Old Siwash, is really worth fighting for and even dying for as compared to any rival system, it is because, despite its imperfections in theory and...

(The entire section is 8073 words.)

Max H. James (essay date fall 1985)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: James, Max H. “The Polarity of Individualism and Conformity, a Dynamic of the Dream of Freedom, Examined in Looking Backward.Christianity & Literature: An Interdisciplinary Journal 35, no. 1 (fall 1985): 17-59.

[In the following essay, James analyzes the polarity of individualism versus conformity. He compares Looking Backward to other utopian novels, gives an overview of the philosophies of progress and individualism over the centuries, illustrates this polarity in Looking Backward in comparison to Karl Marx's ideas, and asserts that there must be a balance of this polarity to prevent a “short-circuiting of the dynamic of freedom.”]


(The entire section is 17817 words.)

Jane Gardiner (essay date March 1988)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Gardiner, Jane. “Form and Reform in Looking Backward.American Transcendental Quarterly New Series 2, no. 1 (March 1988): 69-82.

[In the following essay, Gardiner contends that the form and structure of Looking Backward were perhaps more instrumental in generating a movement toward social reform than was the implied comparison between nineteenth-century Boston and Boston in the year 2000.]

Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward (2000-1887), published in 1888, sold more copies during the nineteenth century than any previous American book with the sole exception of Uncle Tom's Cabin, a circumstance surely attributable, in some measure,...

(The entire section is 6211 words.)

Susan M. Matarese (essay date March 1989)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Matarese, Susan M. “Foreign Policy and the American Self Image: Looking Back at Looking Backward.American Transcendental Quarterly New Series 3, no. 1 (March 1989): 45-54.

[In the following essay, Matarese proposes that Looking Backward was popular in part because it was consistent with the ideals inherent in America's unique national identity.]

I have always believed that this anointed land was set apart in an uncommon way, that a divine plan placed this great continent here between the oceans to be found by people from every corner of the earth who had a special love of faith and freedom.


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Richard Toby Widdicombe (essay date March 1989)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Widdicombe, Richard Toby. “‘Dynamite in Disguise’: A Deconstructive Reading of Bellamy's Utopian Novels.” American Transcendental Quarterly New Series 3, no. 1 (March 1989): 69-84.

[In the following essay, Widdicombe claims that the literary devices in Looking Backward and Equality undermine Edward Bellamy's message.]

Ever since its publication in 1888, Looking Backward has been read as a particolored text, an admixture of the doctrinaire and the romantic, and while contemporary approaches, which have offered Marxist, feminist, and reader-response analyses of Bellamy's best-known novel, have widened our understanding of it, they...

(The entire section is 6833 words.)

Kenneth M. Roemer (essay date March 1989)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Roemer, Kenneth M. “The Literary Domestication of Utopia: There's No Looking Backward Without Uncle Tom and Uncle True.” American Transcendental Quarterly New Series 3, no. 1 (March 1989): 101-22.

[In the following essay, Roemer alleges that Bellamy's use of the conventions of domestic fiction contributed to the popularity of Looking Backward among nineteenth-century readers.]

1988 was the centennial of Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward; that's no secret. What may be a secret to many students of American literature and culture is that Bellamy's “A Love Story Reversed” also appeared in 1888. Another little known fact: in the early...

(The entire section is 8865 words.)

W. H. Halewood (essay date spring 1994)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Halewood, W. H. “Catching Up with Edward Bellamy.” University of Toronto Quarterly 63, no. 3 (spring 1994): 451-61.

[In the following essay, Halewood charges that the same characteristics of Looking Backward that made it popular with nineteenth-century readers would render the novel unappealing to a twentieth-century audience.]

Looking Backward, 2000-1887 is a ‘canon’ problem only in its absence from the canon. It is an almost vanished work, interesting to consider as the date draws near that might have validated its prophecies only to take note of the different route we have come—not just our failure to achieve its utopia, but our...

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Matthew Hartman (essay date 1999)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Hartman, Matthew. “Utopian Evolution: The Sentimental Critique of Social Darwinism in Bellamy and Pierce.” Utopian Studies: Journal for the Society for Utopian Studies 10, no. 1 (1999): 26-41.

[In the following essay, Hartman traces the evolutionary views of Charles S. Peirce and Edward Bellamy through their various publications and declares that both shared the idea that love is the great agent in evolutionary progress.]

Writing in 1893, the American pragmatist Charles S. Peirce characterized the nineteenth century as “the Economical Century,” because of the way capitalist economic theory dominated all branches of thought. The effects of this...

(The entire section is 7643 words.)

George E. Connor (essay date 2000)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Connor, George E. “The Awakening of Edward Bellamy: Looking Backward at Religious Influence.” Utopian Studies: Journal for the Society for Utopian Studies 11, no. 1 (2000): 38-50.

[In the following essay, Connor correlates Bellamy's utopist ideas and some millenialist religious movements.]


Traditional scholarship has explored the connection between Edward Bellamy and the religious influence of the early American Puritans and the First and Third Great Awakenings. With respect to the Puritans and the First Great Awakening, this linkage is especially emphasized with reference to Bellamy's millennialism. The...

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Further Reading

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)


Widdicombe, Richard Toby. “Edward Bellamy's Utopian Vision: An Annotated Checklist of Reviews.” Extrapolation 29, no. 1 (spring 1988): 5-20.

A comprehensive, annotated list of reviews, primarily of Bellamy's Looking Backward.


Bowman, Sylvia. “The Reformer: Looking Backward, Nationalism, Equality.” In The Year 2000, A Critical Biography of Edward Bellamy. pp. 9-152. New York: Bookman Associates, 1958.

Contains biographical information and discusses Nationalism as well as major themes of Bellamy's Looking Backward and Equality.


(The entire section is 541 words.)