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Edward Bellamy: Looking Backward 2000-1887

July 17, 2011

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on the pseudo self-interest of selfishness, and appealed solely to the anti-social and brutal side of human nature, has been replaced by institutions based on the true self-interest of a rational unselfishness, and appealing to the social and generous instincts of men’ (P.162).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).

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