Looking Backward: 2000–1887

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Looking Backward: 2000–1887
Edward Bellamy

Author Biography
Plot Summary
Historical Context
Critical Overview
Further Reading


Looking Backward: 2000–1887, published in the United States in 1888, created an international sensation associated with very few other books in history. The author, Edward Bellamy, although a prolific writer of short stories, essays, and novels, is remembered almost solely for this utopian novel. The premise of the story is that Julian West, a privileged citizen of 1887 Boston, awakes from a 113-year trance-induced sleep to discover that the majority of the world enjoys peace, prosperity, and equality.

Bellamy, a sensitive man keenly aware of the injustices and inequities of nineteenth-century culture, uses Looking Backward to espouse his views on social and economic reform. There is the barest of plots, little character development, and virtually no action. The book consists almost entirely of conversations between West and his hosts that reveal how the "perfect" society works. Despite the literary flaws, the strength of Bellamy's ideas attracted a worldwide audience. Not only his nationalized system of labor and commerce, but also his technological predictions and his attempt to treat women equally stirred great debate. Within a few years after its publication, there were over 160 "Bellamy Clubs" around the United States promoting the Nationalism that Bellamy proposed.

Aligned with the Populist party, the Nationalist movement affected legislation and labor relations until its demise during the Spanish-American War. By 1900, the book had been translated into more than twenty languages and had sold more copies than any other American book except Uncle Tom's Cabin. It was the second book to sell over a million copies. Dozens of other utopian novels followed in its wake, but social commentators continue to rank Looking Backward as second only to Karl Marx's Das Kapital in world influence.

Author Biography

Born on March 26, 1850, in Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts, Edward Bellamy was the third son of a Baptist minister and a Calvinist mother. He came from a long line of New England families going back two centuries. His outspoken father, Reverend Rufus King Bellamy, and his well-educated mother, Maria Putnam, taught him the morality, work ethic, and social justice that marked his works. Although Bellamy would espouse no religious beliefs in later life, he maintained the tenets of optimism, humanitarianism, and sense of commitment that he learned in childhood.

Bellamy's birthplace was a mill town where he observed the disparity between the harshness of life for the laborers and the decadence of the wealthy. By age ten, he had started writing essays on social reform. At the age of seventeen, after failing to pass the physical examination for entrance into West Point, Bellamy took up studies at Union College in Schenectady, New York. He also studied in Germany for a year and observed the desperation of urban life throughout his European travels. He passed the bar exam with distinction in 1871. However, Bellamy was so disillusioned when his first and only case required him to evict a widow, that he immediately abandoned the law to become a newspaper editor.

Bellamy married Emma Sanderson in 1882, and they had two children: a son, Paul, in 1884 and a daughter, Marion, in 1886. Forced by ill health to give up his editorial career, Bellamy devoted himself to writing. By 1888, he had published 30 short stories in prominent magazines and four novels. His sensitive awareness of the social problems of his times, including strikes, destitute tenement life, and exploitative greed, drove him to write Looking Backward in an effort to bring about reforms. This book, though not a skilled literary work, gained international fame and influence. "Bellamy Clubs" sprang up across the country as people engaged in debate over social issues. While the accompanying political movement did not last much beyond 1895, many attitudes and laws were changed forever in American life.

From that point on, Bellamy was primarily occupied by lecture tours and other speaking engagements. In 1891, he founded a Boston newspaper, the New Nation to be his mouthpiece, but increasing illness forced him to suspend publication before long. However, in response to criticism of Looking Backward, Bellamy published a sequel entitled Equality in 1897. This novel, with even less plot and more theory than its predecessor, was not well received and had little impact. By the end of his career, Bellamy had written over 500 articles and was recognized for his psychological and speculative short stories and novels. He died of complications of tuberculosis and digestive disorders on May 22, 1898.

Plot Summary

Chapters One-Two

The first two chapters of Looking Backward are used to introduce the main character and narrator, Julian West. Although he addresses the audience in the year 2000, he reveals that he was born in 1857. He follows that announcement with an explanation of the culture of the late nineteenth century, using an analogy in which he compares the social structure to that of a coach being pulled by the masses while certain people sit on top. He admits that, as a member of the privileged class of Boston society, he was one of those riding instead of pulling the coach. His story begins in 1887 when he is thirty years old and planning to marry a wealthy woman named Edith Bartlett. Their wedding is delayed because multiple labor strikes impede construction of their new house. A chronic insomniac distressed by these circumstances, West calls upon a mesmerist to induce sleep with a trance. Doctor Pillsbury instructs his servant to visit West's underground bed chamber, built to keep out disturbing noises, and wake him the next morning.

Chapters Three-Seven

West awakens 113 years later. His chamber is discovered by Dr. Leete and his daughter, Edith, while inspecting a construction site in their back yard. It seems that his house burned down, killing his servant, and leaving others to assume that he perished in the fire. West finds it hard to believe that it is the year 2000 until he goes up to the housetop and sees familiar landmarks in a Boston that has changed very much. Dr. Leete explains that there is no longer any private commerce, for all people work in the Industrial Army commanded by the government. The nation is the sole capitalist and there are no more states, political parties, or politicians. Leete claims that there is no motive to be corrupt and no profit or misuse of power possible. All citizens work three years in manual labor, then choose a career.

Chapters Eight-Twelve

On the second day, West awakens early, confused and distressed. He takes a walk through Boston and fears losing his mind. But Edith comforts and calms him. He begins asking questions again, based on the changes he saw in the streets. He learns that no money is used, for there is an entirely different system for the distribution of goods. Instead, people use credit cards for transactions, and each citizen is given the same amount of credit to spend. Edith takes him shopping at the neighborhood store, where all goods are samples and the same as that in every other ward. Orders are placed and the actual item is immediately sent to the buyer's house. Upon their return, Edith introduces him to their piped-in music. The conversation with Dr. Leete turns to matters of inheritance, housekeeping done by the public, and the practice of medicine. Then the system of apprenticeships, grades, and ranks in the Industrial Army are explained, as well as the care of those who, because of infirmity, cannot work.

Chapters Thirteen-Fifteen

Each day, West is introduced to new facets of contemporary culture. On the morning of the third day, he awakens to a musical alarm clock and has a strange dream about the Alhambra. His first conversation is about the trade system with other countries. Edith then takes him to their library where he reads Dickens. That evening, he takes his first trip to the community dining hall, using covered sidewalks in the rain. He discovers that, while home life is simple, public buildings are magnificent. Following dinner, the conversation is an explanation of the publishing system, the creation of periodicals by subscription, and the election of editors.

Chapters Sixteen-Eighteen

West pays a visit on the fourth day to the central warehouse with Dr. Leete. He is told that he will be given a position as a lecturer on the nineteenth century at the university. The conversation turns to the system of government and the election of the president and other officials. He also learns about the pursuits of retirement after the age of forty-five, and the fact that there are no professional sports.

Media Adaptations

  • Looking Backward has been recorded in unabridged form by Blackstone Audiobooks. It is available for both rental and purchase at http://www.blackstoneaudio.com

Chapters Nineteen-Twenty

On a morning walk on the fifth day, West notices that the state prison is gone. This discovery leads to a conversation that explains the legal system of the year 2000. There are no jails because the criminally inclined are treated in hospitals. There also is no lying, no lawyers or judges, no states, and no legislators. That afternoon, West visits his old chamber with Edith and tells her something about his former life.

Chapters Twenty-one-Twenty-three

For his tour on the sixth day, Dr. Leete takes West to the city's schools and colleges, and they discuss the free educational system available to citizens until they reach the age of twenty-one. West notices how healthy everyone appears in this improved world. The after-dinner conversation covers the state of business and the national wealth. That evening, West tries to no avail to extract from Edith a secret he knows she is keeping from him.

Chapters Twenty-four-Twenty-seven

After sharing papers from his own time with Dr. Leete, West learns that the labor parties gave way to a benevolent national party that supervises all activities. He then asks about the place of women in society and learns that they are also in the Industrial Army. However, they have segregated jobs and have no chance for the highest positions of leadership. Nonetheless, they are given the same credits as men, so they are in no way dependent upon a husband for support. Consequently, marriages are all "love matches," with the women being most attracted to the men with the highest work ethic and social conscience. The seventh day being a Sunday, West inquires about church services and learns that one can listen to a sermon broadcast to the homes. A lengthy sermon follows that praises the changes of the twentieth century and declares that society is on the verge of heaven itself. That afternoon, West confesses his love for Edith and is gratified to find that she returns his affections. He then learns that she is the great-granddaughter of his fiancée in 1887.

Chapter Twenty-eight

West awakens the next day to find himself back in his bedchamber in 1887. Stunned by the change, he wanders around the streets of Boston and is appalled by what he sees. Eventually, he makes his way to his fiancée's house, where he interrupts an elaborate dinner. When he tries to explain his revulsion to the 1887 state of affairs, the guests are angered and start to throw him out. At that point, he really wakes up to find himself back in the year 2000. The novel ends with an expression of his tremendous gratitude for his good fortune at being in the "golden century."


Edith Bartlett

Julian West's fiancée in the nineteenth century. She is from a wealthy family and becomes the great-grandmother of Edith Leete.

Mr. Barton

A "telephone" preacher, his lengthy sermon is the author's way of including a discourse on morality.

Doctor Leete

Julian West wakes up from his 113-year trance in the home of Doctor Leete and his family. Doctor Leete then becomes West's main source of information about society in the year 2000. This information is conveyed almost exclusively in long conversations. Conveniently, Dr. Leete is retired, so he has plenty of time to spend with West, and, as a physician, is critical to the plot in that he is able to bring West out of his trance. Critics wonder that Dr. Leete has such a thorough knowledge of all aspects of the workings of his culture.

Edith Leete

The daughter of Doctor Leete, Edith is named after her great-grandmother, Edith Bartlett, and has a great affinity for this ancestor. She keeps this information a secret from West because she wants to win his affection on her own and not as a replication of the nineteenth-century Edith. Nonetheless, she believes that she may be a reincarnation of her great-grandmother so that the first Edith can fulfill her commitment to West. Edith Leete instantly falls in love with West and is often his companion and guide.

Mrs. Leete

The wife of Doctor Leete and the mother of Edith, Mrs. Leete makes only a few brief appearances in the novel. Her major role is to tell West about the connection to Edith Bartlett.

Doctor Pillsbury

A mesmerist and "Professor of Animal Magnetism." Because Pillsbury leaves Boston permanently for New Orleans on the night he places West into a sleep-inducing trance, he is not available to tell anyone about West's subterranean chamber when West's house burns down. Consequently, West is assumed dead and not found for 113 years.


Described by West as his "faithful servant," Sawyer was taught how to awaken West from Dr. Pillsbury's trances. It is assumed that Sawyer perished in the fire that destroyed West's house. Since only Sawyer and Pillsbury knew about West's basement bedroom, and Pillsbury had left town, there was no one to tell rescuers where to find West.

Julian West

The narrator of the novel, Julian West is a thirty-year-old man of means in 1887 Boston. He has no family but is engaged to an upper-class woman named Edith Bartlett. Their marriage awaits the completion of their new house. A severe insomniac, West sleeps in an underground bedroom to keep out noise and often solicits the assistance of a mesmerist, Dr. Pillsbury, to put him to sleep. Only Pillsbury and West's servant, Sawyer, know of the existence of this chamber. By coincidence, Pillsbury leaves town the night he puts West into a deep trance, which is the same night that West's house burns down and Sawyer dies in the fire. Consequently, West remains in his trance for 113 years until he is discovered by the Leete family. Thus begins his new life in Boston in the year 2000. His description of what he sees and learns in the first week is the story of the novel. He finds himself in a socialist utopia that seemingly has solved all the problems of the world he knew in 1887. He also falls in love with Edith Leete, who turns out to be the great-granddaughter of his previous fiancée, Edith Bartlett.



Julian West experiences time travel, not space travel, so he does not awaken to a world of aliens. Nonetheless, he finds himself in a different world, for the Boston of 2000 is as foreign to him as another planet might have been. Nationalism has transformed America into a culture foreign to that which West knew in his own time. He feels alienated as all strangers do and asks Edith, "Has it never occurred to you that my position is so much more utterly alone than any human being's ever was before that a new word is really needed to describe it?" He then calls himself a "strange uncanny being, a stranded creature of an unknown sea." But in his dream that takes him back to the nineteenth century, he realizes that he has become estranged from that time, too. Knowing that Edith's love will cure his loneliness, he then gratefully embraces his new life in the better world of 2000.

Topics for Further Study

  • Although the dream structure was only an intermittent part of the novel, the reader is momentarily led to believe that what is happening in the year 2000 is a dream. What other novels or films use the dream structure throughout (Examples: The Wizard of Oz and The Family Man)?
  • Make a list of the developments, both technological and social, that Bellamy predicts. Note those that have come to pass in some form or another. Why did his other predictions fail to come true?
  • Compare Bellamy's proposed economic and governmental system to that of communism. What are the similarities? What are the differences?
  • How would you rewrite this story to make it a better and more interesting novel? What elements of composition (dialogue, action, characters, scenes, etc.) would you change or add to make this more a work of literature than a social commentary?
  • Research the labor situation of the late 1800s and compare it to that of today. What improvements have been made? Name some laws that have been passed to protect the workers.


Related to the discussion of industry, Bellamy details the exchange of goods and services. He describes the local stores in each ward, the district warehouse, the delivery system and so on. Bellamy's theory was that if business were nationalized, the lack of competition would eliminate greed and the procurement of goods would be much simpler and more convenient.

Gender Roles

When Bellamy advocated equality for all citizens in Looking Backward, he included women. At a time when Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were publishing The Revolution, the rights of women was certainly a topic that would concern a man like Bellamy. However, his forward thinking was cemented in nineteenth-century attitudes, and his attempt to be fair remains severely chauvinistic. Nonetheless, for a book written in 1888 to give women occupations outside the home and equal wages is truly striking.

Human Rights

Bellamy promotes the cause of human rights throughout his book. He summarizes his philosophy when Dr. Leete tells Julian West,

The title of every man, woman, and child to the means of existence rests on no basis less plain, broad, and simple than the fact that they are fellows of one race—members of one human family.

It is accepted in Bellamy's 2000 that if you are a human being, regardless of nationality, race, disability, or gender, then you are entitled to full citizen benefits, an education, and freedom from want.

Industry and Labor

The first inquiry that Julian West makes about the new century in which he finds himself is "What solution, if any, have you found for the labor question? It was the Sphinx's riddle of the nineteenth century." The Industrial Revolution brought great wealth to a few tycoons and misery to many laborers. A utopian novel not only pictures how things could be, but also, by contrast, points out how bad things actually are. Bellamy's intent in Looking Backward was not just to dream of a better future but to cause his contemporaries to think about solutions for the problems of the times. Consequently, most of the book is devoted to discussions of the industrial "evolution," the Industrial army, the assignment of labor, and the equal distribution of wealth.


Since Bellamy used a futuristic novel to promote his nationalistic ideals, he needed to make predictions about the year 2000 other than the social and economic state of affairs that were his primary concern. After all, nationalism would not appear successful if there were not also technological advances and other innovations resulting from the creative freedom his utopia allowed. Although Bellamy did not approach the accuracy or imagination of Aldous Huxley or Jules Verne, he made some amazing predictions, including credit cards, skyscrapers, piped-in music, speaker phones, and mass broadcasts.


While Looking Backward is undeniably a treatise on social reform, Bellamy makes his long lecture palatable to the reader by weaving in a love story. On one level, the book is a romantic novel about a young man who loses love when he is strangely transferred from one century to another, only to find love again in the person of his sweetheart's namesake and great-granddaughter. Besides romantic love, this book espouses the theme of love for humankind. Bellamy believed that people are capable of sincerely caring about each other's welfare, and so, in his utopia, people willingly sacrifice personal gain for the benefit of all.


Among the many superior facets of Bellamy's fictional twentieth century is the morality of its citizens. In addition to being from a long line of New England preachers, Bellamy was extraordinarily sensitive to social justice issues. Naturally, then, his utopia is a culture of honesty and compassion. All citizens are equal, the disabled and the criminal are treated with dignity and understanding, and there is no greed or envy. Bellamy's idealistic book advocates that humans are basically good and decent and will subjugate individual desires for the common good.


What distinguishes utopias from other imaginary places in literature is the supposed state of perfection achieved by government and society. Bellamy tries to sell his plan for perfection by repeatedly using phrases such as "perfect organization," "the system is certainly perfect," "a paradise of order, equity, and felicity," "heaven's vault," and "golden century." Furthermore, the question and answer dialogue device Bellamy uses allows West to present problems from the nineteenth century and always have them answered by the Leetes with the "simple" solutions that the superior twentieth century society has devised.

Relational Time

Julian West is not a time traveler in the sense of using a time machine or manipulating temporal physics to transport himself from age to age. Nor does he continue to age as he sleeps, as Rip Van Winkle did. He stays thirty years old during his 113-year trance. Bellamy wanted to write a book that described wonderful possibilities for the future, and West's trance was the means Bellamy devised to move him from 1887 to 2000. For its time, Looking Backward was a futuristic novel. Now that time has passed 2000, it is a study in the relationship of time, civilization, and social/technological evolution.

Social Classes

In the first chapter of Looking Backward, Bellamy provides the parable of the coach as a means of describing the differences among the social classes of his time. Thus the heart of Bellamy's concern for society is established and carried throughout the book as he explains how a nationalized system of commerce and a moral concern for each other could eliminate class divisions. He reiterates the abuses of the class system at the end of the book when he dreams of returning to the nineteenth century and once again observes the disparity of life between the squalor of poverty and the excesses of wealth.


Bellamy was very careful not to use the word "socialism" when espousing his philosophy of government. Nonetheless, the "Nationalist" movement he started with Looking Backward was very closely related to both socialism and communism because it gave the state control over commerce, espoused economic and social equality for all citizens, and featured centralized government.



One of the most famous elements of Looking Backward is the coach allegory in the first chapter. In an allegory, the writer tells a story, or parable, in which the people, things, or events described have a different meaning; that is, they are symbolic of the lesson or explanation the writer is giving. Bellamy compares the society of the nineteenth century to the image of a "prodigious coach" to which the masses are harnessed and driven by hunger, while the elite sit on top trying not to fall off and lose status.


Bellamy's diction—that is to say, his manner of writing and of the speech of his characters—is nineteenth-century prim and effusive. His book on the year 2000 might still be read as widely as George Orwell's 1984 if its language were easier for a modern audience to read. Other notable writers of Bellamy's time largely used ordinary language, but perhaps Bellamy's proper New England upbringing was too deeply imbedded in his manner of speaking for him to make the transition. It is ironic that a writer who wanted to save the masses could not write in the language they used.


Bellamy's style is didactic, in that Looking Backward was intended to be morally instructive. Although the reforms that led to his utopian society were in government and industry, it is obvious that Bellamy believed that the elimination of poverty and greed would result in a completely moral and humanitarian society. Dr. Leete tells Julian West, "The only coin current is the image of God, and that is good for all we have." In effect, then, Bellamy was telling people that they needed to live a morally sensitive life such as the one he described, and that his proposed reforms were a means to achieve this heaven on earth.


Looking Backward is a utopian novel. The first and perhaps greatest example of utopian literature is Plato's Republic. The term utopian, however, originated in 1516 with Sir Thomas More's book Utopia, which is about an imaginary place with an ideal political state and way of life. Since then, all such books have been called "utopian," and most use the structure of an adventurous traveler finding some remote country. The fact that there have been many different versions of utopia illustrates that one person's concept of paradise is not necessarily synonymous with that of another person. Further examples include: New Atlantis, Francis Bacon, 1627; News from Nowhere, William Morris, 1891; and Lost Horizon, James Hilton, 1934.

Point of View

Bellamy uses a first person point of view in Looking Backward so that the narration will seem more like a real story being told by someone who lived through the experience. Since Bellamy was espousing his own views on socio-economic issues, it was probably also easier for him to use "I" because the message of the story was coming from him, not the character.


Bellamy sets Looking Backward in Boston, but a Boston one would find hard to recognize because it is the city as Bellamy imagined it in the year 2000. Therefore, although the reader is given a recognizable name and a few familiar landmarks, the setting is a city of Bellamy's own creation. It includes magnificent public buildings, covered sidewalks during inclement weather, virtually no crime, and no chimneys. Material prosperity was evident because Bellamy needed to show the success that nationalism would bring.

Historical Context

Looking Backward was written in the late 1800s about the late 1800s. America had just been through two very difficult decades: the 1860s brought the War Between the States and Reconstruction; the 1870s saw an agricultural depression, a labor panic in 1873, and a major railroad strike in 1877. The power of corporate trusts and political machines seemed uncontrollable. Banks and railroads exploited western lands and the people who lived there. Coal smoke choked the air and gave miners black lung disease. Anarchists blew up buildings and threatened political stability. The Labor Movement and the Women's Movement gained momentum as labor problems continued to boil and female suffrage became a major issue. Militant political groups such as the Grangers and the Populists came into being.

The demand for labor brought many new immigrants to America and many farm families to the cities. The conditions of the urban tenements were horrific. People lived amid filth, noise, and danger. Several families might live in one small apartment with inadequate sanitation. Disease was rampant. With no laws to protect them, women and children, as well as men, worked very long hours under unsafe conditions. Children were sometimes beaten. Eventually, the poor rebelled. For example, in 1886, a rally for an eight-hour workday turned into the bloody Haymarket Riot in Chicago. Boston, the setting of the story, was virtually paralyzed by strikes by the mid-1880s. Bellamy brings this factor into play in the story when he mentions that West's marriage is delayed by the strikes that prevent workers from finishing his new house.

It was a time of social upheaval as the Industrial Revolution led to enormous wealth for a few while grossly exploiting the labor force. Working class violence and Gilded Age opulence greatly disturbed the middle class. Americans wanted a better world, and they were in love with utopian stories that gave them hope for a peaceful and prosperous future. Consequently, an eager audience rushed to read Bellamy's book denouncing capitalism and describing a system that he claimed would lead to equality and contentment.

The impact of Looking Backward has never been matched by another American publication. Like Uncle Tom's Cabin, it touched upon the issues that most deeply disturbed the American public. As a result, Bellamy Clubs organized around the country to discuss the potential of Nationalism. Political party platforms adopted some of Bellamy's ideas and translated them into legislation that still affects America today. The book was published in millions of copies and translated into all major languages. After Marx's Das Kapital, it became the most influential book on socialist systems in the world.

Bellamy's influence on American and world culture has been enormous. A list of those who have acknowledged a debt to Bellamy includes many notables: educator John Dewey, labor leader Eugene V. Debs, politician Clement Atlee, and writers Jack London, Carl Sandburg, Upton Sinclair, Erich Fromm, H. G. Wells, Leo Tolstoy, and Maxim Gorki. Bellamy's first biographer was Arthur E. Morgan, an engineer who became chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority under Franklin Roosevelt and later president of Antioch University. Morgan asserted that the creators of the New Deal in the 1940s were also influenced by ideas proposed in Looking Backward.

The popularity of Looking Backward led to a multitude of other utopian novels. Both notable writers such as William Dean Howells (A Traveler from Altruria) and previously unknown writers had their own ideas about what would constitute a utopian society. Dystopian novels also abounded as people began to suspect that the future could be worse instead of better. Even though several of these works are now much better known than Looking Backward, the phenomenal impact of this work on American thought is still given respectful credit.

Compare & Contrast

  • Late 1800s: Booming industrialization demands a large, cheap workforce. The numbers of women and children laborers increases dramatically, but living conditions for poor families often remain squalid. Demands for better pay and working conditions lead to strikes and violence. Between 1881 and 1905 there are approximately 37,000 strikes across the country.

    Today: Labor unions and laws protect worker interests. Children are prohibited from working until a certain age, and all workplaces have regulations about safety, hours, and wages.
  • Late 1800s: Monopolies and trusts control most of the industrial power in the country, and enormous wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few such as Rockefeller (oil), Vanderbilt (railroads), Morgan (banks), Carnegie (steel), and Duke (tobacco).

    Today: Antitrust laws prevent the use of unfair competition by conglomerates to drive small businesses out of the market. The most notable recent antitrust case involved Microsoft.
  • Late 1800s: Many new inventions appear, including the typewriter, the telephone, electric street lamps, electric streetcars, the first electric generating plant, the gasoline motor, and the transatlantic cable.

    Today: Patents continue to be issued at an astronomical rate. Computers, word processors, solar and nuclear energy, automobiles, airplanes, and cell phones have evolved from the industrial age, as well as thousands of new technologies that Bellamy could not have imagined.
  • Late 1800s: The Gilded Age is in its prime. Besides ruthless graft in business and government, the age is distinguished by the conspicuous consumption of America's wealthiest families. Notably, massive "summer cottages" are built in Newport, Rhode Island, at the cost of millions each.

    Today: Very few of the Newport mansions are still used as homes. The most extravagant are now historical museums that bring a large tourist industry to the seaside town, including the Duke estate and the various Vanderbilt mansions. The fortunes connected with these families are either dissipated or in foundations.
  • Late 1800s: The women's suffrage movement is active across the country. The National Woman Suffrage Association is founded in 1869, the same year the Wyoming Territory granted women the right to vote. In 1878, a constitutional amendment for female suffrage is in troduced in Congress but is not passed until 1920, the same year that the League of Women Voters is organized.

    Today: Women not only vote but also hold public office and are members of virtually every occupation. Nonetheless, salaries for women lag behind those of men, despite Bellamy's dream that by 2000 women would receive equal compensation. Women are still greatly outnumbered by men in government and corporate positions of power.
  • 1887: Edward Bellamy introduces the idea of the credit card to pay for goods and services in his book Looking Backward.

    Today: The first comprehensive credit card was introduced in 1950 by Diners Club. Credit cards are now readily available and can be used for almost any kind of transaction.
  • Late 1800s: Edward Bellamy proposes universal education to the age of twenty-one in his book Looking Backward, but in 1890 only four percent of young people ages fourteen to seventeen, mostly male, are enrolled in school.

    Today: All children must attend school until approximately the age of sixteen (varies by state). More women than men attend college.

Critical Overview

While Looking Backward may have sold millions of copies and had worldwide influence, its enthusiastic reception in 1888 was based on the ideas for social and economic reform Bellamy proposed, not the book's literary merit. As a treatise on social reform, the book is generally admired. However, negative criticism abounds concerning Bellamy's omissions and misinterpretations.

Gail Collins points out in her 1991 article for The Nation that, although Bellamy believed technology would make life easier in the year 2000, he fails to show anything but a few innovative gadgets, and the rest is much the same as it was in 1887. "We learn that factories are no longer dirty but we never see them in action…. The industrial army does the washing and the cooking, not washer-dryers and microwave ovens," says Collins. Collins also notices that, "Throughout the book, West manages to tour the city … without ever speaking to anyone except the Leetes, or encountering any blacks, Catholics or other descendants of the working class."

From the beginning, critics have also found Bellamy too idealistic about human nature. An 1889 article by Nicholas Gilman in the Quarterly Journal of Economics thought Bellamy's futuristic society impossible to achieve as long as human nature remains the same. It is naïvé to think that people will respond en masse to logic and reason or to an altruistic desire to share. While good may be able to overcome evil, greed and the desire to feel superior will live on. In addition, Bellamy underestimates the importance of incentives if he thinks that simple honors or increases in rank will motivate workers to improve their efforts. Furthermore, as Linda Simon asks in a 1999 profile on Bellamy for World and I, "If life became too easy, if one's needs were met by a paternalistic government, what would motivate men and women to achieve greatness?"

Martin Gardner says in an article for the New Criterion that, "though admirable in its indictment of unfettered capitalism and in its enthusiasm for building a better world, it projected a cure as bad as, if not worse than, the disease." Many critics agree. While Bellamy's ideas are intriguing and have had sufficient merit to affect the development of socialism, the bottom line is that his system is not voluntary. Everyone attends school until a certain age. Everyone must enter and leave the Industrial Army at a certain age on a certain day, and so on. There is apparently little room for diversity, a limited choice of music and goods, no variety of restaurants, and no change of atmosphere.

Another area that is stifling is the choices given to women. Bellamy's segregation of the sexes is the most controversial topic of his novel. It offends modern readers and was a source of consternation to feminists of his time. Still, his contemporaries hailed the relative freedom and equality that he foresaw for women as a definite improvement over the conditions of the times. They felt that they could work with the idea of economic equality and go from there.

In a 2000 article for Harper's Magazine, Russell Jacoby finds a multitude of faults in Bellamy's utopian novel: monopolies have merely been replaced by one "gargantuan state trust"; the idea of being mustered into the Industrial Army is not appealing, nor is the argument supporting it persuasive; the idea of marrying for love alone is fine, but not if it is celebrated as a step toward sexual selection to improve the species. Nonetheless, Jacoby forgives Bellamy because he is, like all of us, "a creature of his time, and his willingness to imagine a future radically different from his present did not absolve him of some typical nineteenth-century prejudices. The willingness is what makes him different from us."

Articles and books about Looking Backward have been produced in every decade since its publication. A number came out in the year 2000 to compare Bellamy's projections with the actuality of the landmark year. William Dean Howells panned the novel in 1888 in Harper's, then wrote his own utopian novel. Howells disliked the book because he thought socialism dangerous. William Morris wrote in Commonweal in 1889 that the book was dangerous because it might turn people away from socialism if they disliked Bellamy's personal version of it. These differences of opinion are typical of critics, especially concerning a work as controversial as Looking Backward.


Lois Kerschen

Kerschen is a writer and public school district administrator. In this essay, Kerschen concentrates on Bellamy's references to women in his novel and how his attempt to liberate women failed to understand the full extent to which women can participate in the world.

Of the twenty-eight chapters that comprise Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward, only one is devoted to the discussion of the role of women in the society of the year 2000, and that is not until the twenty-fifth chapter. This lack of attention to women is somewhat understandable, as the book was mainly intended to promote Bellamy's ideas on economic reforms. Nonetheless, the lack of inclusion of women in a more substantial manner and the paternalistic elements that Bellamy maintains in his new society indicate that he was limited in his ability to think beyond the tenets established by his breeding, social status, and gender.

Looking Backward is about rebuilding the structure of government and industry in a centralized, nationalized form such that all people would share equally in the nation's wealth. Bellamy believed that if privation could be eliminated, then the innate good nature of people would lead them to pursue endeavors that would benefit society as a whole instead of constantly pursuing money for personal survival. The connection to women's rights is that, once the motivation for greed and competition no longer existed, a more generous society would be inclined to treat each citizen equally, even women.

Bellamy supported women's suffrage, but he contended that, without economic equality, the vote would not have sufficient impact to give women full citizenship. According to Daphne Patai in her introduction to the book Looking Backward 1988–1888, Bellamy repeatedly emphasized in his writings that economic equality was an

indispensable prerequisite for any pursuit of justice and political equality. For all his lack of attention to the myriad ways in which women's subordinate status vis-à-vis men is articulated, Bellamy noted that this status rested first and foremost on an economic dependence that must be abolished.

An important benefit that results from economic independence is the freedom to marry for love instead of wealth and social position. Dr. Leete guesses correctly that the dependence of women "must always have remained humiliating" and resulted, in effect, in women having "to sell themselves to men to get their living." He questions why it did not occur to the people of West's time "that it was robbery as well as cruelty when men seized for themselves the whole product of the world and left women to beg and wheedle for their share."

In addition to being cognizant of the social pressures on upper-class women, Bellamy was aware of the misery suffered by working-class women in the nineteenth century. Thus, his intent was to eradicate all poverty, exorbitant wealth, and class distinctions. Bellamy felt that the new social order must arise from the middle class to combat the excesses of the very wealthy and, in turn, to take care of the poor who did not have the education or the means to effect their own liberation. The feminist movement in Bellamy's time was comprised mostly of literate, middle-class women, so Bellamy wanted to recruit these other social re-formers to his cause with Looking Backward. With that in mind, Sylvia Strauss concludes in her article "Gender, Class and Race in Utopia" that Bellamy cast his socialist program in the form of a conventional romance, to "further attract female readers who, more than men, were drawn to the novel as a source of entertainment and enlightenment."

What Do I Read Next?

  • A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889) is Mark Twain's time-travel novel. After being knocked unconscious in nineteenth-century Connecticut, Hank Morgan wakes up in the Camelot of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. What ensues is both an enjoyable comedy and a disturbing satire about human society.
  • The Time Machine, by H. G. Wells, is the ultimate time travel story. First published in 1895, it is still a popular publication. Wells paints a dark picture of the future of civilization as he transports his Time Traveler to the year 802,701 when there are only two races of human-like people left in a world of horror. The traveler's quest is to find his stolen time machine so that he can escape.
  • Equality is Edward Bellamy's sequel to Looking Backward. Published in 1897, this novel clarifies some of the theories that Bellamy proposed in the first work. However, the large buildings and mass services of the city are replaced by technologically connected small villages where the advantages of community are enhanced by more space and a closeness to nature.
  • Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth (1905) provides an excellent picture of society in the Gilded Age. This novel illustrates many of the class status problems outlined in Looking Backward, most specifically those of women who are forced to marry for social and economic security instead of love.
  • The rise of realism in American literature in the late nineteenth century resulted in Hamlin Garland's Main-Travelled Roads, a collection of short stories about Midwest farm families published in 1891. In these stories is a heartrending description of the desperation of the hardworking rural laborers alluded to in Looking Backward.
  • In 1932, Aldous Huxley published his predictions about the future of humanity in Brave New World. A dark portrayal of the effects of science on human nature, this dystopian novel is eerily accurate to a much greater extent than the few technological predictions that Edward Bellamy made.
  • George Orwell's Animal Farm (1946) uses animal characters to portray the tragedy of the human condition. Based on the Russian Revolution, this book is a satire on the utopian hopes of the people and the corruption of their communist leaders.
  • An example of the dystopian novel is 1984, published by George Orwell in 1949. A utopian novel such as Looking Backward promotes the belief that humans will rise to the greater good and achieve peace and prosperity. But Orwell's vision of the future was one of perpetual warfare and totalitarian control over the actions and thoughts of the people.
  • Published in 1982, Arthur Lipow's Authoritarian Socialism in America: Edward Bellamy and the Nationalist Movement traces the Nationalist movement from its background in post-Civil War reform movements to the democratic changes made in the 1890s. Lipow reminds readers that Bellamy, like Thomas Jefferson, felt that reform would come from the educated, not the working classes.

Nonetheless, a chauvinistic attitude is evident from the tone of the first mention of Mrs. Leete and Edith. The description is entirely about their at-tractive appearance and seems more generated by desire than detail. From that point on, Mrs. Leete is almost invisible, and Edith has a place only as the romantic interest. Almost all of the conversations discussing modern society take place with the other male, Dr. Leete. The only thing Edith gets to explain about their way of life is, stereotypically, shopping. Edith is described as an "indefatigable shopper" who prefers to spend her money on pretty clothes, and there is an assumption, on her part as well as his, that women, past and present, did the shopping.

Oddly enough, the clothes that she wears seem to be of the same style as that of the women of the late nineteenth century. Bellamy tells the reader in a note in chapter four that "the differences between the style of dress and furniture of the two epochs are not more marked than I have known fashion to make in the time of one generation." Why such little change after several generations? Bellamy knew that the feminists of his time wanted to change styles to allow for more comfortable activity. Some were already advocating, and wearing, pants and shorter skirts. Perhaps Bellamy did not want to expend the energy to think of a new style of dress for the year 2000 when his intent was to discuss government and economics. Perhaps he wanted his nineteenth century audience to be able to identify with the characters in his book. Either way, he merely avoided the issue by claiming that styles had not changed.

Another practice that seems not to have changed since the nineteenth century is that of men convening in a room separate from their women to smoke cigars and discuss weighty issues. One has to wonder why the women did not have sufficient intellectual curiosity to ask dozens of questions of a man who came from another century. Early in the novel, "Dr. Leete, as well as the ladies, seemed greatly interested in my account of the circumstances under which I had gone to sleep in the underground chamber. All had suggestions to offer to account for my having been forgotten there." Beyond the initial excitement of the mystery, however, the women in this novel are dismissed as having interest only in being good hostesses or in a romantic relationship.

Throughout the story, the ladies always retire earlier in the evening than the men. Not only did this traditional practice allow the men to stay up drinking and smoking without interference from the women folk, but it also stemmed from the belief that women, as more delicate creatures, needed more rest than the sturdy men. Consequently, when Dr. Leete explains the differences between the occupations of men and women, he says

Women being inferior in strength to men … the heavier sorts of work are everywhere reserved for men, the light occupations for women…. Moreover, the hours of women's work are considerably shorter than those of men, more frequent vacations are granted, and the most careful provision is made for rest when needed.

The continued existence of male dominance is revealed by Dr. Leete's explanation that women are "permitted" to work by the men of their day only because it has been found that a "healthful and inspiriting occupation" is "well for body and mind."

When Julian West inquires about housekeeping, the traditional occupation of women, he exhibits further sexist expectations, in that he turns from Dr. Leete to direct his question to Mrs. Leete. She replies that there is "none to do." Laundry, cooking, and sewing are all done by public workers. Mrs. Leete adds, "We choose houses no larger than we need, and furnish them so as to involve the minimum of trouble to keep them in order." Keeping the houses in order sounds like housekeeping. Bellamy does not appear to consider dusting, making beds, mopping floors, washing dishes or the myriad of other tasks that comprise housekeeping. But what would a man of Bellamy's time and social station know about such things? He's never done any housework. To him housekeeping is "woman's work" and a world with "none to do" must be "a paradise for womankind!"

After all, two of the feminist writers of Bellamy's time, Abby Morton Diaz and Marie Howland, had established freedom from housework as a goal of women's liberation in their books The Schoolmaster's Trunk and Papa's Own Girl, both published in 1874. Patai concludes that their influence caused Bellamy to incorporate their ideas into Looking Backward, believing that they articulated the dreams of all women.

But Bellamy did not give women much scope for the leisure time they had and which both Diaz and Howland provided for in their respective books. Dr. Leete, Bellamy's surrogate in the novel, does not have a high regard for women's intellect, capacity to govern, or ability to pull their weight equally with men in the labor force.

West assumes then that, if women do not have housework to do, they must have nothing else to do. He says, "I suppose that women nowadays, having been relieved of the burden of housework, have no employment other than the cultivation of their charms and graces." Dr. Leete replies, "So far as we men are concerned, we should consider that they amply paid their way … if they confined themselves to that occupation." Neither has any inkling that he is being insulting to women.

In fact, Bellamy departed radically from the others in the suffragist movement, for he believed strongly that the two genders have different talents. Dr. Leete, speaking for Bellamy, tells West that, "The lack of some such recognition of the distinct individuality of the sexes was one of the innumerable defects of your society." Child care is still the sole responsibility of women in the year 2000. Women in the industrial army are segregated into certain types of work, not only because of supposed physical limitations but also because of assumed differing inclinations. Furthermore, top leadership positions are available to men alone.

Through Dr. Leete, Bellamy advocates "giving full play to the differences of sex rather than in seeking to obliterate them." To avoid women seeking careers that would put them in an "unnatural rivalry with men," Bellamy created a society in which women have "a world of their own." Sadly, the declaration that "they are very happy with it" comes from Dr. Leete and not from one of the women whose testimony would have carried more credibility and less paternalism. To further confuse the situation, neither Edith nor Mrs. Leete ever seems to go to work or do anything more laborious than flower arranging or shopping.

It is to Bellamy's credit, however, that women are included in the industrial army at all, and that they do not leave upon marriage. The latter factor indicates that Bellamy understood that marriage is no more an occupation for women than it is for men. Nonetheless, what positions of leadership women do have in his 2000 society are reserved for wives and mothers "as they alone fully represent their sex." To state that a woman is somehow incomplete if she is not married or a mother is as insulting as implying that grace and charm are all a woman needs to succeed. There are many different ways to find fulfillment in life, and all people would have to have the freedom to choose their own path if there is ever to be a Utopia.

Since the beginning of time, there has been a belief among most cultures that it is a law of nature that women are responsible for maintaining morality. As a man, and one with strong moral convictions, Bellamy accepted the primordial notion that the favors of a woman are a reward for a man's good behavior. Therefore, he incorporates into his utopian society a sexual system of motivation for the laborers. "Our women sit aloft as judges of the race and reserve themselves to reward the winners." "Radiant faces" are averted to laggards. Celibates are "almost invariable men who have failed to acquit themselves creditably in the work of life." By this means of sexual selection, as in the animal kingdom, only the hardest working and those with the most admirable attributes become husbands and fathers. Thus, with "a sense of religious consecration," women serve as the "wardens of the world to come."

There are multiple flaws in Looking Backward. It is not great literature. It is, however, one of the most influential books in the world, which just goes to show the power of a good idea. Although Bellamy did not really understand women and failed to give them true equality in his book, he did give them an economic equality that has not been achieved to this day. He also caused the people of the late nineteenth century to give new consideration to the role of women in society.

Source: Lois Kerschen, Critical Essay on Looking Backward: 2000–1887, in Novels for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.

Wilfred M. McClay

In the following essay, McClay discusses the setting of Bellamy's utopian Boston, with an emphasis on martial and economic themes.

Given the connection Bellamy made between martial valor and solidarity, it is of considerable importance that the story of Looking Backward opens in Boston on Decoration Day, the holiday honoring the memory of Northerners who fell in the Civil War. Julian West, the protagonist-narrator, has paid his respects at the Mount Auburn grave of his fiancée's brother, who had been killed in the war, and has returned to dine that evening with his fiancée, Edith, and her upper-crust family, the Bartletts. We soon discern that Julian is a deeply troubled man. Some of his plaints stem from the disordered state of the times, which were marked by increasing class division, accelerating social tension, and labor agitation and strikes. Not that the well-insulated Mr. West Feels any sympathy for the insurgent laboring classes; indeed, at the height of his exasperation, he wishes (as Caligula wished of the Romans) that "they had but one neck that he might cut it off." He especially resents the strike-related work stoppages that have repeatedly delayed completion of his new house and have thereby postponed his marriage to the lovely Miss Edith Bartlett.

But there are clearly deeper sources for Julian's trepidation. He has been fighting a battle with chronic insomnia, regularly finding it impossible to sleep for two or more consecutive nights. To combat this problem, he built a secret sleeping chamber beneath his old house, a subterranean refuge into which "no murmur from the upper world ever penetrated," and which, because of its inaccessibility and secrecy, was also an ideal place for him to protect his valuables from theft or fire. But even with the help of this bunkerlike enclosure, wherein he found himself enveloped by "the silence of the tomb," secure in the knowledge that his hoarded wealth was safe nearby, he still often found himself unable to sleep and frequently had to call on the services of a mesmerist to lull him into slumber. Julian's unease, then, stems not from a disordered world but from a disordered soul. His dark, private sleeping chamber is a figuration of the deathly grotto of the purely individual life, which cuts itself off from the "upper" world in frantic pursuit of personal peace and worldly ease.

As night falls on Decoration Day in 1887, the agitated Julian finds he must once again go to his mesmerist for relief. But after he finally drifts off to sleep, a fire apparently sweeps through his house and consumes its contents—including, it was believed, Julian himself, in fact, however, Julian survives the inferno and continues to sleep undisturbed until the year 2000. At that time he is finally discovered and is taken into the household of a Dr. Leete, who proceeds to revive him, and then introduces him to the spectacle of a drastically transformed and perfected Boston. Thereafter the book alternates between long, highly didactic discussions between Julian and the Leetes about the operating principles of this radiant new world and the melodramatic episodes in the subplot of Julian's psychological development. The latter revolves around Julian's anguish over his now-riven identity and his growing romantic attraction to Dr. Leete's daughter, who is, like his nineteenth-century fiancée, named Edith.

From the beginning, the descriptions of utopian Boston offered by the Leete family touch characteristic Bellamy themes. He never missed an opportunity to contrast the sordid spectacle of nineteenth-century selfishness and wastefulness with the lustrous twentieth-century ideals of solidarity and efficiency. That contrast is prepared by Bellamy's justly celebrated comparison of nineteenth-century American society to a "prodigious coach" in which men and women scrambled and clawed at one another for the sake of a few privileged seats on top, where they could be pulled along in airy comfort by the tightly harnessed "masses of humanity," men and women reduced to beasts of burden. Dr. Leete's discourses develop that theme: the need to overcome competitive individualism through a spirit of cooperation and combination. When the disbelieving Julian is allowed to view the new city of Boston from Dr. Leete's rooftop, he finds himself especially astonished by the orderliness and opulence of the city's streets and buildings. Yes, responded Dr. Leete, he had heard of the squalor of nineteenth-century cities, a result of that era's "excessive individualism," which had prevented the sustenance of any meaningful "public spirit."

The utopia of Looking Backward did not set out to overthrow industrialism to humanize and purify it. Consider, for example, the labor problem that so bedeviled the world Julian had left behind. The great labor disturbances of the nineteenth century, Dr. Leete patiently explained, had merely been inevitable outgrowths of the increasing concentration of capital under a more and more consolidated industrial system. Although that system had resulted in enormous social inequities and degradation of labor, it was also productive of staggering economic efficiencies—efficiencies that made thinkable, for the first time in human history, the universal dispersion of a high level of material wealth. Thus, such a system was not to be abandoned.

The key to managing this problem lay in the very process of economic consolidation that "had been so desperately and vainly resisted" by those who yearned for preindustrial simplicity. Consoli-dation was not the enemy; it was, in fact, "a process which only needed to complete its logical evolution to open a golden future to humanity." In other words, the nineteenth century's enormous pains and dislocations should be attributed, not to the forces of consolidation, but to an unfinished consolidation.

By the early twentieth century, however, "the evolution was completed by the final consolidation of the entire capital of the nation," whereby the governance of the nation's industry and commerce was turned over to a single syndicate representing the people and therefore devoted to pursuit of "the common interests for the common profit." Indeed, the nations itself had become "the one great business corporation … the one capitalist … the sole employer … the final monopoly." Perhaps most remarkable of all, this colossal transformation had occurred without pressure of violence or coercion; indeed, it had been proposed by the great corporations themselves and was readily accepted by a people who had gradually become convinced of the virtues of large-scale enterprises. The epoch of industrial consolidation, the era of trusts, found its consummation in the establishment of "The Great Trust."

In this new order, the diffuse energies of solitary selves found a home where they fused with the new social order, coalescing from an aggregation of ordinary men, singly so feeble, into a single magnificent body, a coursing river of blue. And Bellamy could not adequately describe this new order without returning, again and again, to military imagery. Once the nation had come to assume proprietorship of all industrial enterprises, a citizen's service in "the industrial army" became a universal obligation, precisely analogous to the obligation of universal military service. The industrial army follows a military organizational chart, divided into ten great departments; the chief of each division is comparable to a commander of an army corps, or a lieutenant general, with generals of separate guilds reporting to him. These ten officers form his council for the general in chief, who is the president of the United States. The president is chiefly responsible for administrative oversight of the industrial army and the Great Trust; his political duties (as well as those of the Congress) have dwindled down to few or none.

This military style of administrative bureaucracy had evidently yielded economic advances unimaginable even under the highly productive regime of nineteenth-century capitalism. Bellamy did not hesitate to define those benefits in the language and imagery of warfare. "The effectiveness of the working force of a nation, under the myriad-headed leadership of private capital," explained Dr. Leete, "as compared with that which it attains under a single head, may be likened to the military efficiency of a mob, or a horde of barbarians with a thousand petty chiefs, as compared with that of a disciplined army under one general—such a fighting machine, for example, as the German army in the time of Von Moltke." Of course, the mere achievement of such efficiencies, however remarkable, would not have been enough to satisfy Bellamy's deeper moral concerns, But these concerns, too, were answered by the reconceptualization of the nation as an army. The martial virtues of unselfish valor could now be expressed in the ordinary labors of the ordinary civilian. "Now that industry," Dr. Leete tells Julian West, "is no longer self-service, but service of the nation," it follows that "patriotism, passion for humanity, impel the worker as in your day they did the soldier. The army of industry is an army, not alone by virtue of its perfect organization, but by reason also of the ardor of self-devotion which animates its members."

How appropriate, then, that the social-reform ideology and movement to which Looking Backward gave rise adopted the name of Nationalism—even if Bellamy used that term to evade the opprobrium, as well as the unwanted emphasis upon class division and class conflict, attached to the word socialism. But Nationalism was more than just a prudent name; it was also an honestly descriptive one. It acknowledged the degree to which the national principle, victorious over all other contenders in the clash of the Civil War, served as the animating principle for Bellamy's social vision. The purpose of the "national party," explained Dr. Leete, "was to realize the idea of the nation with a grandeur and completeness never before conceived"; it was not to be merely "an association of men for certain merely political functions," but it was to be "a family, a vital union, a common life, a mighty heaven-touching tree whose leaves are its people, fed from its veins, and feeding it in turn." The national party sought "to raise patriotism from an instinct to a rational devotion," by making their country into "a fatherland, a father who kept the people alive and was not merely an idol for which they were expected to die."

With the book's concluding chapter, the plot suddenly takes a new turn, as Julian finds himself suddenly transported back to the nineteenth cen-tury. It appears, for the moment, that his entire experience of utopian Boston has been nothing more than a dream. Now he finds himself cursed by his glimpse of glory, for he must see the social iniquities and horrors of his native century through eyes informed by a vision of twentieth-century perfection.

Julian's journey backward thus becomes a journey through hell, in which the disparities of wealth, the shameless cynicism of advertising, the programmatic wastefulness of a capitalist economy, the disarray of industry and labor, the "debauching influence" of money and banks, and the "drawn and anxious" faces of the people in the streets overwhelm him with horror and pity. He wanders the streets of the city in a dazed, aimless, disoriented state. The only moment of comfort comes, characteristically, when he happens upon a military parade marching down Tremont Street. He responds to the sight with intense relief: "Here at last were order and reason, an exhibition of what intelligent cooperation can accomplish" through "perfect concert of action" and "organization under one control." Stumbling upon this small-scale Grand Review reminded him of his own glimpse of the New Jerusalem.

Finally Julian somehow turns up at his fiancée's house on Commonwealth Avenue and is invited to join the family and its guests for dinner. Like a sonata, Julian's tale has returned to the place where it began; but the recapitulation has shifted into an agitated minor key. After his experience in the street, he finds himself nauseated by the splendor of the Bartletts' table and by the jolly spirits of the complacent diners. Like a biblical prophet who cannot contain his disgust, he explodes into a condemnation of them for their indifference to the suffering all around them: "Do you not know that close to your doors a great multitude of men and women, flesh of your flesh, live lives that are one agony from birth to death?"

But the stunned company, far from being moved to self-examination by this reproach, becomes impatient and then angry with Julian. Finally Mr. Bartlett has him thrown out of the house. At that climactic moment, Julian awakens and discovers he has been saved: to his great joy, he finds that he is still in Dr. Leete's house. His harrowing return to the nineteenth century had been the dream; the splendor of the twentieth century was the reality. As the book concludes, a tearful Julian kneels before his beloved Edith Leete and confesses to her his unworthiness "to breathe the air of this golden century."

Bellamy's persistent religious sensibilities were especially evident in these final pages. The scene at the Bartletts resounded with biblical overtones, not the least among them being the language and symbolism of crucifixion. ("I have been in Golgotha," raves the half-mad Julian at his dinner hosts; "I have seen Humanity hanging on a cross!") But the crucifixion becomes his own, a symbolic death suffered when Mr. Bartlett casts him out of the house; being thus ostracized and forsaken becomes the price of his intercession. But blessed are those persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven; and Julian's passion is followed by resurrection, in the form of his awakening to the "real" world of the year 2000. His social death fulfills the dictum that one must die to world and self before entering into new life.

This logic also recalled the religion of solidarity, which proclaimed that the infinitude of the "upper world" inhabited by the "second soul" was more real than the finite realm occupied by the ego-personality. Such, too, was the superordinate reality possessed by Bellamy's cherished vision of the New Jerusalem, a consolidated social order in this world to which the troubled and inadequate ego could turn and yield itself wholly. Yet that last analogizing step, from "upper world" to perfected social world, was a giant one, challenging the essential meaning of the dictum about dying to the world. It was essentially the same step that would be taken by the proponents of the Social Gospel, reform-minded liberal Protestant ministers such as Washington Gladden and Walter Rauschenbusch, who argued that the redemptive mission of the Incarnation had come properly to rest in the social and economic reorganization of this world, the making of an earthly paradise.

To any apprehension that so monolithically centralized a state might be a formula for tyranny, Looking Backward seemed almost incredibly oblivious. At times, Bellamy's innocence seems so extreme that the modern reader can read them only with a grim smile. To readers in the late twentieth century who know the harm that such fantasies can produce in the hands of an aggrandizing state, Bellamy (and his readers) may seem laughably naive for having failed to ponder the enormous abuses to which Looking Backward's prescriptions could lead.

There are two points to be made in this connection, however. First, there is the obvious fact that Bellamy's era's concerns are not ours; the passage of time has dramatically changed our aims and our fears, and it will do so again. Second, and more relevant to the present day, is the fact that the discontents of Bellamy, and perhaps those of his readers, were ultimately far more spiritual than political in character. Bellamy was not merely seeking social and economic justice in proposing the wholesale reconstitution of the social order. He was seeking answers to problems of ultimate meaning in individual lives, answers that would rescue the Julian Wests of the world from their grottoes of sleepless misery. Looking Backward was so wildly popular partly because it was able to trade so effectively upon the fading cultural capital of American Protestantism, even as it was transforming that capital into something new and worldly.

Such a transformation, however, may do justice to neither religion nor politics. In appealing to the idea of the nation as a great community, a great trust, or a great family, Bellamy touched a profound emotional chord in his readers, who longed to see their society transformed into a vessel of connectedness and love. Few of us are immune to such longings, and there is much to cherish in them. But there is also much to distrust. It is surely significant that Bellamy found military images, especially the idea of compulsory national service, to be more compelling figures of solidarity and sacrifice than those of family or community, which compete with the unitary state. It is perhaps a coincidence, but an irresistibly meaningful one, that Bellamy's perfect solidaritists came from the planet Mars. Bellamy's redirection of a self-sacrificial imperative toward the reform of the social order ran the risk of corrupting both religion and politics by effacing the line between them.

The desire to find meaning in life by sanctifying one's social world and the objects of one's labors should not be scorned. But it runs two risks. First, the risk of making us the self-conscious creators, rather than the discoverers, of what is sacred—a typically modern exercise in narcissism and futility. Second, the risk that, in seeking too ardently for a politics of meaning, it may lose sight of the meaning of politics. Even the founder of Bellamy's religious tradition insisted upon rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar's. There is more than one lesson in that.

Source: Wilfred M. McClay, "Edward Bellamy and the Politics of Meaning," in American Scholar, Spring 1995, pp. 268-71.

Merritt Abrash

In the following essay, Abrash looks into the public acceptance of Bellamy's Looking Backwards.

A certain nineteenth-century writer, also active in journalism, created an extraordinary utopian vision in which all productive facilities were owned by society. Unlike the great majority of earlier utopian proposals, this one was specifically applicable to full-blown industrial technology and organization which, under centralized rational direction for use rather than profit, was presumed capable of providing all the world's people with the material necessities of a good life. This writer also envisioned an egalitarian incomes policy and the elimination of social classes. His vision spread rapidly and became part of western civilization's heritage of powerful ideas.

The summary thus far clearly fits Edward Bellamy—and just as clearly fits Karl Marx. But when we move ahead to the reception of their doctrines, a sharp divergence appears. Marx was fiercely attacked, harried out of one country after another, and his name became among respectable people a byword for social and economic iniquity. Bellamy, on the other hand, became an honored citizen, and his formula for utopia was accepted even by its opponents as within the bounds of legitimate American political discourse.

What accounts for so dramatic a contrast in American reaction to visions sharing similarly radical institutional features? To the individualistic American mind, in fact, Bellamy's regimented industrial army should have seemed more outrageous than the Marxist withering away of the state. But Looking Backward found advocates in factories, farms, colleges, and New England drawing rooms alike. Why should it have commanded respectful attention from such disparate elements of a citizenry notoriously resistant, then as now, to economic or political programs straying very far from the middle of the road?

Obviously Bellamy succeeded in domesticating Marxist ends and means so that they seemed compatible with American ideals and traditions—no mean feat. Even more remarkable is that he apparently accomplished this more or less incidentally. He did not set out to tame Marxist theory as a whole, or to take the sting out of particular fear-inducing elements, for the good reason that he was not a student of Marxism. Surprisingly enough, he had probably not even read Marx at the time he wrote Looking Backward.

Although there is no sure proof of this proposition, we have Bellamy's own word for it that "I have never been in any sense a student of socialistic literature, or have known more of the various socialist schemes than any newspaper reader might." This disclaimer receives support (although at a much earlier date) from a line in his review of Nordhoff's The Communistic Societies of the United States: "The words socialist and communist fall unpleasantly on American ears, being generally taken as implying atheistic and superstitious beliefs and practices and abnormal sex relations" (Edith Leete's hyper-Victorianism arouses readers' concerns about any, sex relations in Boston 2000, without worrying about abnormal ones.) Nothing in Bellamy's writings up to Looking Backward indicates awareness of the subtlety, scope, and intellectual rigor of Marx's scientific socialism.

The long chapter on Looking Backward in Krishan Kumar's recent survey of utopias concludes that Bellamy had not studied Marx before writing the book, but did so afterwards. That may be the most plausible scenario. It means, however, that Bellamy, through coincidence or intuition, succeeded in defusing every incendiary feature (in American eyes) of Marxism without any clear idea of what Marxism was. If Bellamy had been an expert on Marx, and had deliberately set out to restate each threatening element of Marxism in a form acceptable to American sensibilities, there is scarcely anything, as will be explained below, that he would have written differently in Looking Backward.

It should be noted first, however, that deliberation does seem likely in the extraordinary care taken not to portray any mass or collective aspects of Boston 2000. Readers get so absorbed in the utopian substance of what Julian West is told that they fail to notice that direct depiction of the society in action is virtually absent. The astonishing fact is that, insofar as Looking Backward tells a story, there are no people in Boston other than the Leetes; the only exceptions are a sales clerk and a waiter, neither of whom has any lines of dialogue or is otherwise individuated. The Leetes seem to have no relatives and no friends. No one ever visits them, even though they have the hottest attraction in town on their premises. When they walk to the dining house—or when Edith and Julian go to the ward store—they do not run into acquaintances. The entire novel takes place, after Julian finds himself in the year 2000, in a city which is, for all novelistic purposes, unpopulated except for the three Leetes.

Bellamy goes to great lengths to maintain this isolation. Julian is taken to a school and a warehouse, but about the former he cautions, "I shall not describe in detail what I saw in the schools that day," and comments only upon physical culture instruction. The visit to the warehouse receives a single paragraph in which Julian provides an analogy in lieu of description. Typically, the reader gets more information on the subject (not much in any case) from what the Leetes tell him elsewhere than from what he observes on the spot.

Furthermore, the telephone transmission system of which Bellamy makes so much has undermined two important nineteenth-century forms of public social interaction: apparently no one goes to concerts and few to church (the hugely popular Mr. Barton, be it noted, preaches only by telephone). "At home we have comfort, but the splendor of our life is, on its social side, that which we share with our fellows," says Doctor Leete, but nothing in the novel illustrates this.

It is, in fact, the comfort of home which establishes the tone of the new society for Julian. And a thoroughly bourgeois home it is: father works, mother runs the household with the aid of public facilities and (if necessary) hired help, and daughter shops. Levelling of society? Common ownership? Dictatorship of the proletariat? Free love? Few of the proletarian attributes of Marx's communism—whether ascribed by boosters or detractors—find lodgement in these benign pages. Not only do the working classes not rule in Looking Backward, they are shunted even further out of the sight of Bellamy's contemporary middle-class reader than their real-life counterparts of 1888. It is significant that the nearest Julian gets to proletarians is at the warehouse, where the work consists of order filling and distribution rather than production. Of labor or laborers in factories, there is not even a pretence of first-hand description anywhere in the book.

The only scenes with great numbers of people in the novel—in fact, virtually the only ones with more than five—are in the Boston of Julian's nightmare. Here Bellamy vividly portrays "throngs" and "swarms"—what an ingenious reversal, that it is communism which will obviate mass action and provide the individual with the physical and social space needed for the good life! This is characteristic of the way in which Looking Backward soothes a whole range of fears that assailed most Americans (and to a large extent still do) at the mere mention of Marxism.

For example, the fundamental assumption of unresolvable class conflict is sidestepped by the happy assurance that you can "make ten times more profit out of your fellow men by uniting with them than by contending with them." This, Doctor Leete explains, failed to be perceived by a nineteenth century blinkered by individualism. Once the principle of maximum efficiency through cooperation is recognized, desire for gain becomes a reason for consensus, not conflict, and the industrial army's hierarchical organization is deprived of class attributes.

The expropriation of capital, which sent chills down the spines even of many Americans who had little to be expropriated, was rendered benign by two facts: the big capitalists, in the form of corporations, voluntarily accepted the new arrangements, and the arrangements themselves could be expressed in the familiar image of corporation and stockholders, made reassuringly analogous to nation and citizens. After all, captains of industry and industrial army generals share similar executive characteristics, and it is a fair guess that the latter were initially drawn from the former.

The fear of stagnation resulting from the elimination of monetary incentives is combatted with a variety of alternative inducements. Public esteem, wider career choice, prestigious awards, and, most effective of all, the fact that "our women sit aloft as judges of the race and reserve themselves to reward the winners," encourage excellence in the industrial army. Actually, in this regard Bellamy shrewdly appealed to better instincts than Marx, maintaining that human beings are as capable of responding to considerations of honor and pride as to those of material benefit or historical inevitability.

One of Bellamy's most successful modifications of what was popularly assumed to be Marxist doctrine was in the matter of uniformity. Satires on Marxism (and, in fact, on Looking Backward as well) make much of a dull sameness descending upon society as a consequence of a single noncompetitive supplier filling the needs of a population lacking differentials in income, education, and basic outlook. Bellamy, however, neatly end runs this by allowing each person to apportion income as he or she chooses, so that equal incomes need not mean uniform patterns of consumption. Furthermore, new products and activities can be introduced by means of clusters of individuals pooling their incomes for whatever joint purpose they please, even to the extent of starting a newspaper or a religious congregation of any persuasion. Looking Backward makes much of the variety of fulfillments among its citizens, as well it might; this was one of Bellamy's most brilliant strokes in making Americans feel comfortable with goals passionately condemned when championed by Marxists.

Even the regimentation inseparable from the industrial army is lightened by the delightful prospect of complete release at age forty-five from the necessity of making a living. If Bellamy and Marx had run against each other for public office, Karl would have had a lot of trouble topping that one. ("To each according to his needs" is pretty dry compared with—to invent a Bellamyite slogan—"Fully alive after forty-five!")

But of course Marxism was disreputable less because of its visionary institutional features and social policies than because of its insistence upon materialism, determinism, and political revolution. Materialism gets its comeuppance in Mr. Barton's sermon, which ends in an evocation of something rather like the culminating starchild in Arthur Clarke's 2001. "For twofold is the return of man to God 'who is our home', the return of the individual by way of death, and the return of the race by the fulfillment of the evolution, when the divine secret hidden in the germ shall be perfectly unfolded. The long and weary winter of the race has ended. Its summer has begun. Humanity has burst the chrysalis. The heavens are before it." When Friedrich Engels wrote in 1877 of the Marxist utopia: "It is the ascent of man from the kingdom of necessity to the kingdom of freedom", he coined a neat secular slogan, but not one to soothe the fears of upright citizens who equate materialism with atheism.

Determinism is undercut by Doctor Leete's pronouncement that the system under which humanity lives in 2000 is "entirely voluntary, the logical outcome of the operation of human nature under rational conditions." A "logical outcome" might be considered determinism of a sort, but the role of reason is more decisive than in the case of historical inevitability. Bellamy presents the breakthrough into utopia as the result of intelligent human choice made under the guidance of a benevolent yet practical ethic—all more temperate and flattering than the rigid impersonality implied by historical determinism.

Those attributes of choice and reason also exorcise, in Doctor Leete's narration, the most immediate bugbear of nineteenth-century Americans in regard to Marxism: the necessary overthrow of the government. Bellamy dismisses the whole issue of revolutionary violence with breathtaking off-handedness. No sooner does Julian West conjure up the specter of the "great bloodshed and terrible convulsions" that must have occurred during the massive transition to the world of 2000, than Doctor Leete, no doubt casually tapping the ash off his cigar, assures him that there was "absolutely no violence." Everyone—masses and corporations alike—understood that the time had come for the great change; "there was no more possibility of opposing it by force than by argument." The rest of his little speech—the only time the actual changeover to utopia is referred to—is replete with phrases describing scales dropping from eyes: "they came to realize," "were now forced to recognize," "had come to be recognized as an axiom." The new dispensation, one gathers, was not only not resisted, but was welcomed on all sides as, if anything, overdue. No threat to law and order in this revolution!

Thus were put into acceptable American terms all the major aspects of Marxism likely to arouse unreasoning hostility—"artfully" put, one would say, except that the weight of evidence is that Bellamy was not even aware he was doing it. Then what accounts for the extraordinary aptness of his treatment of the radical themes he shared with Marx? The answer surely lies in the fact that the two men were working within profoundly different traditions, German philosophical systematizing in the case of Marx, American pragmatism in that of Bellamy.

Marx presented his utopian future as the capstone of an ineluctable historical progression fueled by complex interactions between mind and matter. Bellamy's utopia is simply the outcome of a rational society's elimination of malfunctions through the logical application of existing organizational techniques, subject to an ethical code that already commanded a consensus. Marxism was, as far as its possibilities of acceptance in America went, mired in abstruse theory promising universal upheaval in practice; Looking Backward, in contrast, is blissfully free of theoretical framing, its communism could be assimilated to American ideals and traditions because it was presented as a platform of pragmatic reform to be acted upon by enlightened consensus. The crowning touch in its appeal, it may be speculated, lay in the fact that it sounded as if it would "work"—not "had to" or "ought to," but would. With that, Bellamy's inadvertent Americanization of Marxism was complete.

Source: Merritt Abrash, "Looking Backward: Marxism Americanized," in Extrapolation, Vol. 30, No. 3, Fall 1989, pp. 237-42.


Collins, Gail, "Tomorrow Never Knows," in Nation, Vol. 252, No. 2, January 1991, p. 60.

Gardner, Martin, "Looking Backward at Edward Bellamy's Utopia," in New Criterion, Vol. 1, Issue 1, Sept. 2000, p. 24.

Jacoby, Russell, "Looking Backward: From 2000–1887," in Harper's Magazine, Vol. 301, Issue 1807, December 2000, pp. 79-80.

Patai, Daphne, "Introduction—The Doubled Vision of Edward Bellamy," in Looking Backward, 1988–1888: Essays on Edward Bellamy, University of Massachusetts Press, 1989, p. 14.

Peyser, Tom, "Looking Back at Looking Backward," in Reason, Vol. 32, Issue 4, Aug. 2000, p. 34.

Simon, Linda, "Looking Forward," in World and I, Vol. 14, Issue 6, June 1999, p. 291.

Strauss, Sylvia, "Gender, Class, and Race in Utopia," in Looking Backward, 1988–1888: Essays on Edward Bellamy, edited by Daphne Patai, University of Massachusetts Press, 1989, pp. 71, 74.

Further Reading

Bowman, Sylvia E., Edward Bellamy, Twayne Publishers, 1986.

Considered one of the best of the Bellamy biographies, this analytical study covers his life, his philosophies on reform, and the impact of his works.

Halewood, W. H., "Catching Up with Edward Bellamy," in University of Toronto Quarterly, Vol. 63, No. 3, Spring 1994, pp. 451-61.

Halewood examines the elements of Looking Backward that have caused it to become a relatively unknown work today despite its enormous original impact.

Patai, Daphne, ed., Looking Backward, 1988–1888: Essays on Edward Bellamy, University of Massachusetts Press, 1989.

This collection of eight essays from critics who were contemporaries of Bellamy to modern critics provides an insightful variety of views about Bellamy and his works.

Trahair, Richard, "Looking Backward: 2000–1887, 2nd ed.," in Utopian Studies, Vol. 8, No. 2, Spring 1997, pp. 118-20.

This book review of a new edition of Bellamy's primary work by Bedford Books is a quick but excellent overview of the novel and its influence.

Weinberg, Robert L., "Looking Backward, Going Forward," in Nation, Vol. 272, Issue 5, Feb. 2001, pp. 32-35. This short but good review of Bellamy's book includes speculation about what Bellamy might think of the actual year 2000.

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Looking Backward: 2000–1887

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