On the Popular Phenomenon of Edward Bellamy and “Looking Backward”

I know — you were hoping this post would would be about THIS guy —

Martin Laurello, the man who could turn his head backwards, but there’s no need to be disappointed. You can still read all about him here, but then come on back please!

Edward Bellamy (1850-1898) looked backwards too, but from the FUTURE. Which actually means he was looking FORWARD when he wrote his famous 1888 novel Looking Backward, but why split hairs?

Like your correspondent, Bellamy was of old Puritan Stock, a descendant of the minister Joseph Bellamy, and a cousin of Francis Bellamy, the socialist who wrote The Pledge of Allegiance (oh, yes, I guarantee I’ll be writing about him soon). Born and raised in the area around Chicopee, Mass, Bellamy had traveled a little, studied law, and worked as a journalist at the New York Post and the Springfield Union. But tuberculosis had made regular hard work burdensome, so in his late 20s, he began to write novels. Most of his early literary works were undistinguished, but after about a decade of cranking them out he hit pay dirt with Looking Backward.

Looking Backward is a sort of Rip Van Winkle story projected into an imaginary utopian future. The hero, a man with the wonderful hero name of Julian West, is a well-to-do Bostonian who deals with his insomnia by hiring a doctor who puts him into a deep trance every night. Oh, and also he sleeps in some sort of protected, airtight vault underneath his house. One night a fire destroys the mansion above and, his body never having been found, West is assumed dead. In reality his mesmeric trance keeps him in suspended animation, and he survives for over a century until discovered by a family who have built a new house on his property. (This was written during a time of widespread belief in Spiritualism, when there was a lot of credence given to the pseudo-scientific idea that hypnotism could accomplish such things). As fiction, the novel that follows is pretty negligible stuff, weak on both plot and character, and stylistically competent at best. The entire book is essentially made up of exposition: the man learns about the world he has been reborn into, and has conversations with his new acquaintances about how life has changed.

I first read this book when the year 2000 was still in the future; now that it is nearly a quarter of a century in the past, we have the amusing opportunity (as with Orwell’s 1984 and Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001) to evaulate Bellamy’s predictive success rate. Is he, for example, as accurate as Criswell? Actually he’s remarkably good in some respects. The core idea of it, which I’ve always found fascinating, and which seems to be coming true now, though more slowly, is that all of the combinations and monopolies of Bellamy’s time, the Gilded Age, went unchecked and finally merged into one corporation that is coterminous with the State. Bellamy seems awfully naive however in expecting that to be a positive state of affairs. Today the internet is our God. We make nearly all of our purchases and conduct all of our business through it, we communicate through it, we spend all day immersed in it, and it dominates and dictates our politics — and only a handful of corporations control it. My belief is that this situation makes us more powerless, which in the end can’t be good for our well being. In Bellamy’s world however everyone has all of their needs met. In fact, money and property have been abolished, not through a revolution, but more like (as also seems to be happening), through evolution. We certainly have not done away with private property, ye gods, but there is most definitely a marked movement away from physical money. Most of our transactions are digital and it would be a simple matter, legal restrictions aside, to merge all of one’s accounts into one big ledger than dispenses your credits on demand as you amass them. Which, again, I find a bit terrifying. What’s to stop the entity from withholding your resources when it doesn’t approve of your behavior? In Bellamy’s world everyone gets a guaranteed and equal income (not unliked what Andrew Yang has proposed) in exchange for their labor, and industry has been centrally organized and everyone is happy and content. And yet…

The book has a very 19th century presumption of universal goodwill and doesn’t seem to account much for people who don’t fit in, want more than their share, break the rules, shirk, smuggle contraband, etc etc. I mean, those questions are brought up, but the responses are pretty pat and facile. But what’s always appealed to me frankly is a vagueness that is very much of its time, and that’s always worked for me conceptually, and it’s kind of where I’ve always lived politically as well. It really is Utopianism, like that in Plato’s Republic, or the Brook Farm experiment of the Transcendentalists. It’s socialism that he’s really talking about, though like most Americans, he thinks that’s a dirty word and never says it. He literally wrote as much to friends in private correspondence. He felt that the word socialism (even back then) had been compromised by its association with malcontents and violent labor agitation and Bohemian nonconformity and free love. The word has never lost that taint, even though many socialist ideas have been embraced by the American electorate. They just hate and fear that word! And it’s not illogical, because the USSR and the other communist nations that sprang up in its wake threw the term around a lot and we rightly associate those nations with tyranny.

But you can change the word! Ah! Then the notion can get purchase (pun intended). So people really loved Bellamy’s book. I mean loved it. That’s why he rates a post here. I mean, if he was genuinely obscure, I might have written one, I’ve done such things before, but in this case Bellamy was a genuine pop cultural phenomenon and had a massive, sustained influence on the American and British publics, making his present obscurity unjust, if that’s the right word. In its day, Looking Backward took a backseat only to Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Ben Hur as a bestseller. There was a nationwide movement of “Bellamyites” (not my coinage, a very real thing) who espoused his ideas and wanted to make them a reality. To describe themselves, they used the word Bellamy had used in place of “socialist”: Nationalist. Over 160 Nationalist Clubs sprang up across America. They had their own magazine called, again, The Nationalist. We mentioned Spiritualism earlier: the movement was also closely tied in with Theosophy (which we look forward to writing more about here as well). Much like the Feminist movement of the time, Bellamyism was spiritual as well as political. Candidates were run for office. Pretty quickly though, it was absorbed by the broader movements of Progressivism, Populism, and the People’s Party in the 1890s. Both that and the Socialist Party (dirty name or no) were strong third parties in America well into the 20th century.

The one-two punch of the Russian Revolution and the Third Reich killed America’s version of those movements. How do the Nazis come into it? Well, they’re the ones who coupled the words “Nationalist” and “Socialist”, aren’t they? In their time (no less than our own), Populism can take on an ugly racist mien, as demagogues gin up resentment to get followers. (A similar concept from the other direction is Stalin’s “socialism in one country”. It starts to become about a national identity rather than an ideal of universal brotherhood).

As for Bellamy, he scarcely outlived William Jennings Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech. That TB killed him at the age of 48. By that time he had written another utopian novel Equality, which filled out some of his other worthy goals for mankind. For Bellamy’s part, he had never intended for his ideas to be put into actual political practice. He was just painting a nice warm fuzzy picture of how the world could be. When people actually try to make it so, without accounting for man’s frailties, it always seems to end up a disaster.

But Bellamy did envision one thing that came to pass that’s utterly benign and pretty incredible. He pictured a future device that would allow you to twist a dial and hear pleasant music any time you wanted it. His protagonist could scarcely cope with the idea of what a glorious boon that was. I try to stay in that appreciative place, because it really is a miracle. It should never be taken for granted. How we do live and die by visionaries!