Why you should care
Because times of great struggle and economic inequality require compelling literary escapes.
When Julian West awakens to learn that it is September 2000, and not 1887 (the year in which he went to sleep), one of his initial thoughts is similar to what any of us might think in such a bizarre circumstance. “Then it occurred to me to question,” he observes, “if I might not be the butt of some elaborate practical joke on the part of friends.”
It was no joke, just some supremely engaging historical science fiction. Today the premise of the utopian novel Looking Backward might be an episode of Black Mirror. Or maybe a rejected script for the Back to the Future movie series. But when it was first published in 1888, Edward Bellamy’s masterwork — about an enlightened social utopia of the future in which everything is collectively owned — sent shock waves of delight through an American society riddled with corruption and inequality.
West learns of a new American utopia … that would make Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez proud.
Looking Backward takes place in Boston in 2000, a city in which, as the Rip Van Winkle-like West soon discovers, the evils of his 19th-century world have been swept away — a world where poverty, injustice and corruption do not exist (but presumably one where the Red Sox have still not won a World Series for decades). As he tours the city and talks with his host, Dr. Leete, West learns of a new American utopia founded on collectivist principles that would make Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez proud: equal access to education and health care, full employment and early retirement (at age 45!), among other things.
West is informed that there is no more war, no political parties, no public corruption, no labor unions, no jails and no money. A benevolent state composed of dutiful public servants manages all aspects of business and commerce. And Bellamy does not just describe this new social order in words or political theories, he illustrates it in concrete examples. When a downpour starts, for example, West looks around the street and to his shock sees that no one carries an umbrella because a single “continuous waterproof covering” has been let down to enclose the sidewalk and keep all pedestrians dry. As Bellamy explains the symbolism, the difference between his time and the utopian future was that “in the nineteenth century, when it rained, the people of Boston put up 300,000 umbrellas over as many heads, and in the 20th century they put up one umbrella over all the heads.”
Bellamy, a journalist, editor and novelist from Massachusetts who came from a long line of New England Baptist ministers, was writing during the volatile Gilded Age in America — a time in which monopolies were fixing prices, laborers were forced to work long hours in horrendous conditions, big-city crime bosses were buying off law enforcement and economic inequality was skyrocketing. Bellamy likens his own society to a prodigious carriage laboring up a hill in which a small number of passengers enjoy the scenery and view from the top while the vast majority of humanity slave to pull the coach up the hill — a sight, he writes, “I am well aware … will appear to the men and women of the 20th century an incredible inhumanity.” (If only that were the case.)
Bellamy’s uplifting message about future prosperity immediately resonated with readers. It sold over a million copies in two years, becoming the biggest best-seller of its time. Part of what made it such a compelling work, says Nick Montfort, a digital media professor at MIT and author of The Future, is the way it’s presented from such a human and highly personal perspective. “It was richly imaginative while also being connected to individual experience and to the novel’s own era,” Montfort explains.
Bellamy had set out to write a “literary fantasy,” not a socialist propaganda tract, but the book inspired followers, or “Bellamyites,” to establish clubs to discuss his ideas, and at least 162 so-called Nationalist Clubs were in existence by 1891. Though at least one Wisconsin club ran candidates for state office under the Nationalist banner, it was unsuccessful, and the clubs and the new populist movement swiftly waned. By Bellamy’s death from tuberculosis in 1898, they were gone (and have not returned). And, of course, the 21st-century future did not turn out at all like Bellamy had envisioned: War, crime and capitalism remain as destructive as ever; the gap between rich and poor continues to widen; and socialism is badly in need of a rebranding in the wake of 20th-century Communism.
But Bellamy’s vision did manage to stimulate the American public’s civic imagination in a manner that few writers ever have — to compel them to think seriously about what a more equitable society would look like. “It wasn’t that he had any one particular answer,” says Montfort. “It was more that he showed how we could think 100 years out from now, in detail, personally and politically, and aim to make our country and our cities better.”