Looking Backward was a huge success in America when it was first published in 1887, and was the second book in America to sell a million copies after Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It inspired thousands to join Bellamy clubs to discuss the realisation of Bellamy’s Utopia, provoked debate throughout the world, and is father to many literary imitations and responses.
Looking Backward consists of the reflections of a citizen of Boston, Julian West, who is coaxed into a deep sleep in 1887 and wakes up in the year 2000 in a completely restructured society. Bellamy’s utopian vision is a strange fusion of socialism and capitalism, the pretext being that the capitalist monopolies expanded so much that one company eventually ran the entire country. Consequently the need of the worker became of paramount importance, and emphasis was shifted from competition to efficiency. Everyone is part of a vast industrial army and has equal share in its produce. Money is non-existent and instead citizens are each allocated the same amount of credit which they can use to buy whatever they choose.
What marks Looking Backward out from other utopian visions is Bellamy’s engagement with the one fatal flaw unavoidable in many utopias; the idea that, whilst you can change a society, you can’t change human nature which will inevitably destroy utopia or render it unobtainable. Bellamy does not shy away from human failings: through West’s observances, the nineteenth century is shown to be dominated by individual self-interest which ultimately demands that personal success be at the expense of everyone else. West reduces nineteenth century advertising to the desperate cry: “Help John Jones. Never mind the rest. They are frauds. I, John Jones, am the right one. Buy of me. Employ me. Visit me. Hear me, John Jones. Look at me. Make no mistake. John Jones is the man and nobody else. Let the rest starve, but for God’s sake remember John Jones!” (p.183)
By removing the competition of one man with his neighbour and ensuring all men are paid equally, Bellamy sees an end to the destructive selfishness of the nineteenth century: ‘a form of society which was founded on the pseudo self-interest of selfishness, and appealed solely to the anti-social and brutal side of human nature, has been replaced by institutions based on the true self-interest of a rational unselfishness, and appealing to the social and generous instincts of men’ (P.162). The radical restructuring of society is seen to eliminate the human failings that constituted the unstable foundations of nineteenth century capitalism.
Over the course of the novel, Bellamy addresses a multitude of contemporary problems with this fundamental idea of equality; crime is reduced as there is no need, education is offered to everyone for the benefit of society, and the law is simplified and understood by the masses. Interestingly, one observation of Bellamy’s, that ‘to educate some to the highest degree, and leave the mass wholly uncultivated, as you did, made the gap between them almost like that between natural species, which have no means of communication’ (p.130), is seen to resurface several years later in H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine in which the human race has evolved into two distinct species through the division of the working and upper classes.
Bellamy exemplifies the change in attitude between the society of the present and future by his simple remark in reference to the canopies that are erected over the 21st century city pavements when it rains: ‘the difference between the age of individualism and that of concert was well characterized by the fact that, in the nineteenth century, when it rained, the people of Boston put up three hundred thousand umbrellas over as many heads, and in the twentieth century they put up one umbrella over all the heads’ (p.89).
Quotes taken from: Bellamy, Edward, Looking Backward 2000-1887 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).
The British Library has been holding science fiction themed lectures in conjunction with its Out of this World exhibition, and having recently read The Time Machine and The Island of Doctor Moreau and being, currently, half way through The War of the Worlds, I’ve been looking forward to the H.G. Wells talk for some time. From first reading The Time Machine, and consequently learning a little about Wells himself, I have found his prolific and varied literary output incredibly intriguing, particularly his scientific fiction.
The lecture consisted of a discussion and question and answer session with David Lodge (who has recently written a novel A Man of Parts about the life of Wells), Steven Baxter (who has written a sequel to The Time Machine), and Adam Roberts (who writes Science fiction and teaches literatures at Royal Holloway), about the author’s life and works.
Whilst the talk moved between discussion of Wells’ life (particularly his many relations with women) and his various works, I was specifically interested in discussions of Wells’ Utopian and Dystopian visions, and how he grappled with both throughout his career.
The two (and a half) scientific fiction works by Wells that I have read to date are all written in the early period of his career where he was poor and in ill-health, and these novels depict gloomy prospects of devolution, monstrous vivisection, and alien attack. The panelists explained that, as Wells made a name for himself and his health improved, he began to write utopian fiction which presented a positive attitude towards the progress of mankind. I am sure there is more depth to this U-turn than my brief surmising, but it is very interesting and I therefore intend to return to this aspect of Wells in my blog when I have read his later Utopias and learned more about him from biographies and literary criticism.
Stephen Baxter focused his attentions to Wells’ opinion on War and Darwinism, which seemed to address the fluctuation in Wells’ outlook. He explained that Wells at first embraced war from patriotic standing and was involved in the war effort. However he later became disillusioned after it became clear to him that the First World War had wiped out a generation of young men. After living through two World Wars Wells, unsurprisingly, returned to dystopia to express his frustration at a species too flawed to progress to a utopian ideal.
David Lodge addressed Well’s utopian and dystopian works in comparison to Modernism as it developed in the early twentieth century. Modernist literature used the society depicted in the novel as a frame within which to represent the individual consciousness, the subject of Utopian and Dystopian literature is the frame itself. I think it will be interesting to consider the utopian and dystopian literature I read from this point in regards to this ‘frame’ (especially as it seems a good justification for the somewhat lacking plots or characters of a couple I have read so far).
I find H.G. Wells most interesting primarily as a man of great and numerous ideas. He seems to have written a novel or short story for every one of those ideas (Stephen Baxter explained that this is the reason that the H.G. Wells Society continues to have a wealth of material to write about), and he took this ideas to their logical end, depicting the progression, or destruction, of society as he knew it. No other utopian or dystopian writer I have had read of has had such an output (most only wrote one or two) and I find it immensely impressive that Wells considered and depicted so many contradictory possibilities for mankind.