Title: Looking Backward
Author: Edward Bellamy
Publisher: A Signet Classic
For a plot summary
In your day, riches debauched one class with idleness of mind and body, while poverty sapped the vitality of the masses by overwork, bad food, and pestilent homes…Instead of these maleficent circumstances, all now enjoy the most favorable conditions of physical life; the young are carefully nurtured and studiously cared for; the labor which is required of all is limited to the period of greatest bodily vigor, and is never excessive; care for one’s self and one’s family, anxiety as to livelihood, the strain of a ceaseless battle for life—all these influences, which once did so much to wreck the minds and bodies of men and women, are known no more.[i]
Julian West is a young well-to-do Bostonian with a good life and marriage on the horizon. Living in luxury on the accumulated wealth of his great grandfather, his only pursuit as he tells it is on “the pleasures and refinements of life.” Typically, for a man of his social status, “he is supported by the labor of others and does no service in return,”[ii] which is the way his parents and grandparents before him lived.
There is only one chink in his otherwise comfortable and rich life: his insomnia is so bad he has to enlist the help of the mesmerist Dr. Pillsbury, who comes to his home some nights and hypnotizes him to fall asleep. While the procedure is complicated, the waking up process is not, so Dr. Pillsbury has taught West’s man-servant that procedure and is instructed to wake him up the next morning. On that fateful night of May 30, 1887, something goes awry and the servant does not or cannot wake him up. As West slowly comes to, he finds it is not the next morning, but 113 years later and is found fully intact and functioning in his bedroom by the present occupants of the house after a rainstorm flooded their basement crumbling away the walls of a previous building housing James West’s bedroom.
Looking Backward, is basically a long conversation between James West and Dr. and Mrs. Leete and their daughter Edith as they orient West into the America of the year 2000. Only a few generations away from West’s time, their education has given them knowledge enough to understand the Boston of the 19th century and compare the great changes in governance, education, employment and vision that West will find in 20th century Boston. The book is a primer, from Edward Bellamy’s point of view on how to create a just, economically equal, safe and well-mannered society. While there are a few excursions to eating establishments and to product distribution centers, most of the book takes place in the Leete home between the Dr. and Mr. West.
West learns of the bloodless economic revolution that occurred shortly after he went to sleep where the nation took over all means and manner of the production of goods and services, doing away with small businesses and large corporations, which only engendered competition, waste, and the great divide between rich and poor. Now, society is run by the people, with total financial equality as the hallmark of the new system. There IS no rich or poor, since each citizen is paid exactly the same amount, no matter their occupation. The class divide, the bane of all societies that causes the greatest imbalance of power has now been done away with. Therefore, there is no crime, since no one has less than his or her neighbor; no poverty, because regardless of occupation each is given a living wage; no feeling of alienation because all people and occupations are valued. Some features of this new society:
Education-teachers and parents observe a child’s talents from an early age so they can guide him or her into their chosen occupation.
Employment-everyone enters the work force at age 24 and retires at 45 and is on call for emergencies until 55, when their work life is over and leisure life begins.
Money-There is no physical money. Instead, everyone is issued a credit card that is filled each year. At every purchase the cost of the item is debited from the card.
Goods-clothing or furniture is stocked at distribution centers in each ward (neighborhood). There is enough stock for everyone, because no one over buys in this society where the desire for wealth or ostentation by material possessions no longer exists.
Dinner-each ward has a restaurant building, where every family has their own dining room. Minor meals are taken at home.
Domestic servants have been done away with, as has most household work. Clothes are washed at public laundries and mended at public shops, and electricity takes the place of lighting fires and lamps. Houses are no larger than needed and furnished with simplicity, which make them easy to keep up.
Technological advances-during rain storms a waterproof sheet is let down covering sidewalks so people can walk to dinner or shopping without an umbrella; music is piped into bedrooms and living rooms with the press of a screw.
Political parties during West’s time tried to right the unequal wrongs, but were not strong enough to change the whole of society, since their focus on class discrepancies was too narrow. Once a higher ethical basis for the rearrangement of industry and society was recognized the national party rose up. Taking that name to nationalize the functions of production and distribution, moved Americans into a union, a family with a common life; the most patriotic of parties, raising patriotism from instinct to devotion “by making the native land truly a father-land, a father who kept the people alive and was not merely an idol for which they were expected to die.”[iii]
The book has much to offer as a construction of the ideal state for that time. I say, “for that time,” because it fails on the role of women. Granted, Bellamy was writing in the late 1880s and gender binary ruled the day. Still, this is a book about the future. He couldn’t use his imagination and take the present day women’s reformers and suffrage movement to their obvious next level? Instead, he kept women in their proverbial place using the same attitudes about their physical and emotional sphere as they did in the 1880s. Only men rise to a higher consciousness in his future while women are only thrown a bone: they are ‘permitted’ to work, but only amongst themselves and as an allied force not integral to the actual importance of society. Continues Dr. Leete:
Under no circumstances is a woman permitted to follow any employment not perfectly adapted, both as to kind and degree of labor, to her sex. 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 men of this day so well appreciate that they owe to the beauty and grace of women the chief zest of their lives and their main incentive to effort, that they permit them to work at all only because it is fully understood that a certain regular requirement of labor, of a sort adapted to their powers, is well for body and mind, during the period of maximum physical vigor. [iv]
And just when I thought Bellamy was advanced for his day by at least acknowledging the innate desire of women to contribute to society through work, my hopes were soon dashed when through Dr. Leete he says:
In your day there was no career for women except in an unnatural rivalry with men. We have given them a world of their own, with its emulations, ambitions and careers, and I assure you they are very happy. Women are a very happy race nowadays, as compared with what they ever were before in the world’s history, and their power of giving happiness to men has been of course increased in proportion.[v] * (See below)
Ah, the old ‘separate but equal’ was alive and well in the year 2000.
This is a short book, but is packed with political and social theory. The flimsy tale of James West’s arrival in the future is a device for Edward Bellamy’s dissertation on the perfect and just society. Due to this main objective, however, the book is short on a wider picture of his future world, for example there is no discussion on modes of transportation, what entertainment looks like, what is the style of dress for men and women, and so forth. I realize Bellamy is not a science fiction writer, but a little more creativity would have enhanced the story.
As it was, Looking Backward made a huge impact on many people and at its publication the book sold some 200,000 copies. By the end of the 19th century, it had sold more copies than any other book published in America besides Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The utopian society created by Edward Bellamy struck a chord and a movement was started to spread the ideas of his book. When Bellamy was asked for his blessing on these clubs and the ‘Bellamyites’ he wrote: “Go ahead by all means and do it if you can find anyone to associate with. No doubt eventually the formation of such Nationalist Clubs or associations among our sympathizers all over the country will be a proper measure and it is fitting that Boston should lead off in this movement.”
Although the movement all but vanished by 1900, at its height at least 165 Nationalist Clubs existed all over the United States.
*Similarly, Nathaniel Hawthorne in The Blythedale Romance, published in 1852, decided his utopia would keep its gender boundaries in the area of work when Zenobia declares, “we women will take the domestic and indoor part of the business, as a matter of course. To bake, to boil, to roast, to fry, to stew,–to wash, and iron, and scrub, and sweep,–these, I suppose must be feminine occupations, for the present. By and by perhaps when our individual adaptations begin to develop themselves, it may be that some of us who wear the petticoat will go a-field, and leave the weaker brethren to take our places in the kitchen” (pp. 43-44). Written 45 years later, Edward Bellamy’s women sure didn’t move very far.
[i] P. 146.
[ii] P. 6.
iii] P. 166.
[iv] P. 167-168.
[v] P. 170.
This book qualifies for my Classics Club Reading List, Back to the Classics and Reading New England.