In 1935, American scholars Charles Beard and John Dewey were asked separately to compile lists of the most important books of the preceding 50 years. Independently, both men ranked Edward Bellamy's "Looking Backward," the most influential work by an American in that period.
As sensational in its day as Harriet Beecher Stow's "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and, in its own way, as enduring a revelation of American character as Franklin's "Autobiography," or Henry Adams' "Education," Bellamy's novel is one of the most significant books in American history. Unlike the other volumes, however, Bellamy's work is more than indictment or testament, it is an exploration and speculation on the political future of the United States.
Written during the Gilded Age of reckless industrialization, the Haymarket riots and the beginnings of the union movement, the novel projects the America of the politically harmonious year 2000. Published in January, 1888, this year marks the 100th anniversary of the book.
In the century since its publication, "Looking Backward" has been nothing if not popular. Millions of copies have been sold worldwide, and it has been translated into more than 20 languages. It is arguably the most internationally known of American books and has never gone out of print.
Bellamy, the son of a minister, was born in 1850 in the textile town of Chicopee Falls, Mass. Reared in an atmosphere of Christian austerity and New England progressive politics, he was intended for a career in the law but resisted that course, finding work as a journalist and editor. A precocious writer on social themes, Bellamy was also the author of popular romantic fiction, publishing often in the magazines of the period. These two diverging tastes came together in "Looking Backward," with his capacity for light-touch storytelling and editorial insight.
The tale itself is a fantastic sort of socialist Rip Van Winkle. The protagonist, Julian West, is a 19th-Century bluestocking Bostonian. An insomniac, he has a sleeping vault built underneath his home. When the house burns to the ground one night and he can't be found, he's assumed to be dead. More than a century later, the vault is discovered and Julian, improbably in a state of suspended animation, is awakened.
He becomes the guest of Doctor Leete and his daughter, Edith, and without so much as a shave or a trip to the bathroom, they begin his education in the superior civilization in which he has emerged. For contrast, there is an occasional backward glance at the injustice and laissez-faire barbarism he's left behind.
Aside from the stated or implied health care, housing and full employment benefits of the society, the principle feature of this reconstructed Republic is the "industrial army" and the 24-year tour of service it entails. Doctor Leete explains at length the process of induction, initial labor at menial chores before transfering to a trade of one's choice or attending a university. The possibility of changing jobs is explained and the system of elevating some workers to managerial positions is sketched briefly. Generally, though, the whole planning or bureaucratic level of society is rather thinly described. There is an underlying reassurance of the fundamental democracy of Bellamy's America, but its mechanics, the forces that necessitate and protect this democracy, are only briefly outlined.
The military model for society that Bellamy envisioned has often been criticized. In fact, it was derived from his boyhood vantage on the Civil War and the perception of a society made cohesive and ordered through purpose. It is this sensibility, not especially a love of the military, that inspired Bellamy. His social ideal has sometimes been called "the religion of solidarity."
Virtually all major industry in Bellamy's America is government controlled, or, as any generic socialist would see it, is in the hands of the citizenry at large. The scope of curtailment of private ownership is not gone into very deeply. Wages are equalized at all levels of society, and personal interest and pursuit of prestige or profound devotion to the larger welfare of society motivate individuals into differing careers. Shorter work hours or early retirement make some types of labor attractive to some people: This is the case with the physically arduous or dangerous occupations.
Roughly, these are Bellamy's notions, but the specifics of his social order are secondary to the broad philosophic importance of the book. Although within a few years after its publication more than 100 Bellamy or Nationalist (as the movement was called) Clubs sprang up, by the time of the author's death in 1898 they had disbanded and his followers and influence been incorporated within the populist and socialist movements and parties of the turn of the century and after. By the 1930s the left generally thought of the work as terribly simplistic, but many attributed their initial interest in socialist ideas to "Looking Backward." The book had become a kind of pamphlet and popular vehicle for suggesting political ideas of enormous scope. In our time, and especially on the anniversary of the book, "Looking Backward" still points an accusing finger at injustice and deprivation in the United States and continues to ask one of the oldest questions in Western civilization, the possibility of utopia.
Notwithstanding, one man's utopia is another's social nightmare. And if Plato was the first author of a utopia, then Aristotle was the first critic of utopia and Aristophanes the first satirist of utopia. Bellamy has been attacked from every conceivable angle. One of the swiftest retorts came from English socialist William Morris. He called the book a "Cockney paradise" and wrote in reply his rural vision, "News From Nowhere." While Morris, unlike Bellamy, thought of himself as a Marxist, Marx himself castigated nostalgic, rural utopianism like Morris'. Marx thought that any scheme for reorganizing society must take account of industry. That much he and Bellamy had in common. But Bellamy was no revolutionary; he honestly believed--and in this many have found him naive--that, presented with an egalitarian blueprint, society would intentionally and peacefully change.
"Utopia," of course, is the title of Thomas More's novel of the 1500s. He invented the expression from some Greek word play (it literally means no place) and created the genre in modern times. His book remains the paradigm of utopian tracts, comparing in dialogue between fictional characters given social conditions with ideal possibilities.
The literature of utopia is vast and polemical. Is it a question of economics? Or education? Or as B. F. Skinner's oracular voice Frazier says in the novel, "Walden Two": "The real problems are all psychological." And in Skinner's chilling formula for utopia, his critics have seen a masterpiece of tyranny.
The controversy among utopians has contributed to devaluing the whole subject. And over the years there have been writers who have discounted utopian thinking as rooted in a Judeo-Christian myth of paradise. Or in a Hellenic preoccupation with the ideal city. Or in the obvious fallacy of the perfectibility of humans or human institutions. Or in something merely infantile in humans.
In literature, the inverted utopia or dystopian novel has eclipsed the form it derived from. Beginning with Zamyatkin's "We," Huxley's "Brave New World" and Orwell's "1984," the vision of decline and disorder is pervasive. What may have been intended as satire, criticism or warning in these and other such books has contributed to a sort of casual despair and acquiescence to the notion that civilization is in decline.
The label utopian has always carried with it the connotation of Pollyanna and promoter of impossibilities. This would include such starry notions as representative democracy, universal education and plumbing. At one time or another all of these have been labeled utopian, delusional, incredible and unrealistic.
"It has justly been said," Martin Buber once wrote, "that in a positive sense every planning intellect is utopian." And surely as long as we persevere in trying to resolve our problems we are in pursuit of ever greater social equilibrium.
It's very apt that the Bellamy centenary should fall in an election year. And reading him again is tonic and enjoyable. If the year 2000 seems much too near for the attainment of utopia, well, that's OK. After all, some of the reviewers of the book in 1888 said they thought it could take much longer.