Was Edward Bellamy wrong…or are we?

©2005  Scott C. Guffey

Edward Bellamy’s novel Looking Backward: 2000-1887 is an attempt by Bellamy to prognosticate on the future as it might blossom from the depravity of the late nineteenth century.  Society, according to Bellamy, will naturally cure its own ills and grow to a state of perfection and utopia easily by the present era.  Bellamy was specific and detailed in his account, nearly convincing the reader that it might entirely be possible to see his Nostradamus-like predications come to pass.  After reading the novel and having watched the year of culmination as specified by Bellamy come to pass, we can safely remark that Bellamy was somewhat off the mark.  However, because Bellamy was so extremely specific about how his utopian society was to develop and operate, it would be interesting to look at the architecture of Bellamy’s ideas and find out exactly where he failed in his prophecy; moreso, it might behoove us as a society to explore how we failed as a people to meet Bellamy’s grandiose plan.

            We should not condemn Bellamy for an inability to correctly ascertain exactly how the future would end up.  It would be presumptuous to assume that a writer has some innate ability to correctly figure what the future would exactly be like.  It is to Bellamy’s credit that he was able to frame his story in such a way as to convince so many people that his future was a viable one.  Not one Eden-like society from the many utopian novels exists on this planet today.  Bellamy should be lauded rather than discredited for creating the framework for a perfect world in which humanity might coexist.

            Furthermore, this novel is indeed a utopian novel, but it also rests firmly in the genre of a romantic, science fiction novel.  Bellamy had a knack for coming up with outlandish scenarios within which to frame his ideologies.  His previous works included a story, “A Blindman’s World,” that told of a better species of creature than Man located on the surface of the planet Mars (Sancton 543).  Bellamy was not the most gifted storyteller when it came to areas of plot, setting, and dialogue; his strength in writing captured readers’ attentions with thorough detailing and positive philosophizing on how humanity might better themselves, usually as a whole.

            And capture readers’ attentions and imaginations Bellamy did.  Looking Backward was immensely successful during the late nineteenth century.  His book sold wildly and helped initiate a movement of social reform that has molded American society throughout its history (Peyser 30).  Social and “Nationalist” clubs were formed based on the principles of Bellamy’s book (Towers 52).  “More than any other book, Looking Backward made it respectable for a time to talk about implementling straightforwardly socialist themes in the United States” (Peyser 30).  The ideologies Bellamy presented may not have ever found their ultimate culmination in our society, but his positive outlook inspired many citizens of his time and gave hope to a community that was as deprived and needy as some of the characters he so eloquently described in his writings. 

            It is somewhat shameful to realize that Bellamy’s book is not as highly regarded in today’s literary circles; since most of Bellamy’s prognostications did not come to pass within the timeframe that Bellamy predicted, most critics and authorities might dismiss Bellamy’s writings as irrelevant.  Perhaps most powerful and accurate in Looking Backward was Bellamy’s picturesque analogy in the first chapter. American society is depicted as a stagecoach upon which the rich and powerful ride out their indolent, lethargic lives on the tired, hard-working backs of the greater masses that move the country’s industrial tidings forward.  Within this description, we see a correct depiction of how society worked in the late 1800s.  What should be most disturbing to us about this image is how it can still apply to American society today.  “Undoubtedly, the most moving image in all of Looking Backward is the horrific coach of the opening pages, a metaphor for the savagery and destructiveness of competitive (unconsolidated) capitalism” (Halewood 456).  Because this introductory scene is designed to illustrate the problems that Bellamy had with the idea of capitalism and competitive consumerism, it is easy to surmise that we have done little as a people to realize Bellamy’s dream of a perfect, capitalism-free society.  It is also from this comparison that we can find the first hints of why Bellamy’s idealistic course did not come to pass.

            In Bellamy’s stagecoach analogy, he appropriately paints a scenario that defines how capitalism seems to work to a member of the workforce.  The stagecoach is moved by the grueling efforts of those citizens who toil and labor to move the economy ahead.  Atop the stagecoach, the wealthy ride as the coach moves slowly ahead, exerting no effort.  To those who have to work and destroy themselves in order to survive, this is an appropriate scene.  Working citizens today would feel the same way, though few toil as laboriously in today’s workplace to the extent that a worker in the nineteenth century did.

            In Bellamy’s ideal society, this exploitation had to end.  Consistent throughout his entire story is the idea that all men were expected to work equally; no man could simply ride the stagecoach, and all were expected to work together to move the stagecoach along.  Not only was it more efficient to work in this manner, but it was simply ethical that no man should be expected to do any more than another.  Marxist ideals work similarly.  A socialist economy expects all men to contribute equally to the progression of the economy and they should be treated as equals in society.  As long as a nation works under capitalist tenets, Bellamy’s idea of the stagecoach inefficiently plodding through thick, muddy paths by the efforts of sacrificial slave laborers will be apt.  Those who possess wealth will always benefit from the toil and suffering of those who have none.

            Bellamy projects that American society will eventually abandon capitalism and conform to a socialist economy, abandoning the philosophy of the wealthy riding a coach on the backs of the poor.  If Bellamy could revise his coach description to match his idealistic society, he would most likely describe a scene where every man works to move the stagecoach, efficiently traversing the harsh landscape on the backs of a united workforce with no hazard or obstacle capable of halting their efforts.  The only riders would be those who have appropriately done their service to the transportation of the coach.

            The problem with Bellamy’s projection in this case is his manner of explanation as to how society will abandon the practice of capitalism and halt the necessity for riding on the backs of laborers.  Bellamy’s solution is that as a result of the practice of capitalism, we will eventually find ourselves resorting to socialism.  Indeed, Bellamy makes it seem like a no-brainer.
            In the fifth chapter of Looking Backward, Julian West, Bellamy’s dissatisfied protagonist, finds that through competitive business and continued capitalistic practices, all businesses will eventually merge into one great monopoly run by the government of the United States.  Julian’s guide to the new world, Dr. Leete, explains that as a matter of course, businesses will continue to usurp one another in the arena of competition until only one survivor remains.  In this manner, Bellamy reflects the “survival of the fittest” philosophy that had just entered into the mindset of the nineteenth century populace.  Joseph Schiffman of Long Island University writes about Bellamy’s reaction to Social Darwinism, “Man, naturally competitive like the lower forms of life, best served the interests of society in gladiatorial combat with his fellow man for the limited goods of the earth.  Thus, the great mass of mankind in Bellamy’s day was judged unfit for survival” (204).  According to Bellamy, as business owners savagely compete with one another for the attentions and monies of citizens, the stronger businesses will prevail and eliminate the weaker businesses.  As the practice of capitalism continues to weed out the inefficient businesses, one efficient, successful business will remain at the end.  This single, most powerful entity will service all America, and therefore, become incorporated into the government in order to sufficiently and efficiently serve all of the citizens in their entirety.  Julian is incredulous of this solution, but Dr. Leete—and Bellamy by proxy—says that it is just a matter of course of reaching this logical conclusion.  Indeed, Dr. Leete often seems condescending and pompous in his explanation of how society must meet this conclusion.  “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” (McClay 268).  Bellamy’s inner assumptions about the way things should be in the future often find their voice in Dr. Leete’s character.

This idea that monopolies will eventually run rampant across the business spectrum of America, and then once they have succeeded, act scrupulously toward the public is perhaps Bellamy’s greatest fallacy.  It is also the fallacy that is easiest to spot as we are privy to the actual progression of American society over the time period that Bellamy encapsulates.  Through the course of continued capitalism, we have not seen the actualization of true monopolies in business practices, nor will it ever conceivably reach fruition as long as capitalism is the continued practice in American economy.  Capitalism breeds continued competition, which Bellamy concedes to, but the competition between businesses promotes continual change atop the heap of successful business practices, not one lone victor who eclipses the rest of the pack.  Rather than efficiency through elimination, we have continual upheaval and alteration resulting in changes in business philosophy designed to defeat the opponent, not create efficiency.  Bellamy was correct in framing the competitive nature of capitalism as antagonistic, but he was incorrect in assuming that the competition would breed efficient business practices.  Rather the scope of capitalism calls for back-stabbing and immoral standards of treating other persons.  Whatever is necessary to supplant any competitors is encouraged rather than shunned.  The rich continue to exploit the poor to a larger degree.  It would be ignorant to suppose such a practice—even if it did generate the monopolies that Bellamy prophesized—would benevolently concede in the end to do what is right for the general populace.  Chances are fairly good in our capitalistic world that a boardroom full of fat-cat business executives who removed all their competition would seat themselves contently in their comfortable leather seats, chomping on expensive Cuban cigars, satisfied with their victory.  The thought of taking the next step to transform their business into one that best serves the community would most likely not occur to them at any time.

            To be fair to Bellamy, he was just being practical in his story.  He had to ascertain that there really is no conceivable way for equal economic practice to result from a competitive structure.  He lovingly molded an ideal society and had to figure out a manner in which we could reach that social order.  He looked into the future and prayed that human intellect would progress over the baser animalistic tendencies.  But in order for his nation to blossom, he could not assume that the nation’s people would suddenly shift philosophies in any practical sense.  He knew that any manner of change had to be gradual, and the only way that a nation could change is through alteration of the path already taken.  After experiencing Bellamy’s perfect world, it is somewhat disheartening to realize that as long as the practice of capitalism continues, there is no way to achieve the efficient, equitable world that Bellamy paints.  If any of us desire to live in a world like Bellamy proposes, we would most likely have to start over from scratch, which is decidedly never going to happen.  Since the ideologies of competition are so firmly implanted into our collective psyches, there is little chance of us regarding one another as equals and working to help and support one another for a better life.  If we can’t get to that next step of cooperation, then we probably don’t deserve to live in Bellamy’s world.

            It’s interesting to note that in Bellamy’s world, it is also necessary for every citizen to accept a new manner of operation in the workforce: the military operation.  Bellamy’s fascination with military practice crept into his ideologies often and found their way into Looking Backward (Sancton 550). The industrial army that Bellamy proposes is a well-oiled, well-organized machine that allows the nation’s business and economy to run virtually autonomously and without much supervision or improvement.  Every citizen accepts their role and does their duty without question.  Bellamy believed that there was no more efficient manner to run things than the way in which the military does.  “One attraction of the army for Bellamy was the fact that it provided an organic whole in which the individual could lose himself” (Sancton 551).  So in Bellamy’s world, it stands to reason that that is the best way in which individuals could join together to work as a whole and how best for the workforce to operate; the fact that his world is free of war and military armies is simply an irony.  Every citizen conforms to these military-like work conditions without complaint or dissatisfaction.  No man (or woman) disagrees with the practice and all wholeheartedly accept the way things are.  Here again is where Bellamy is fallible: he believes that, over time, the philosophies of people as a nation will change to match his ideologies.

            It is suggested by some critics that Bellamy was somewhat hypocritical; he suggested ideas of solidarity and unity between all people while living a life of introversion and self-aggrandizement.  Tom H. Towers of the University of Rhode Island believed that Bellamy’s book was not intended to predict the future, but to satisfy Bellamy’s own needs.  “At its heart…Looking Backward is not a document of social reform so much as a romance of the loss and restoration of individual selfhood” (62).  From his journals, we find that Bellamy was sullen and melancholy.  He was overly depressed about issues that directly affected him and him alone (Sancton 539).  It might be suggested that he was dissatisfied with the world around him and the people that comprised his experience.  As an author, he might have felt it his mission to create a world in which he could be most happy.  He often claimed that only he and he alone could accomplish this monumental task, suggesting a degree of pomposity.  Bellamy wanted every man, woman, and child to conform to his social outlook, which of course, is asking the impossible.

What might have encouraged Bellamy is that many people who read Looking Backward seemed to agree with this ideal world.  Tremendous sales of his book and positive reaction to his tenets most likely gave hope to a man who was so inherently discontent to live in his society.  As a man who seemed to believe in the intrinsic good within people, sharing his story with the world at large and getting this reaction might have allowed him to think that perhaps his progression of the future was entirely possible.  Probably more so, Looking Backward was intended to be Bellamy’s own idealistic view of what humanity should be and meticulously constructed a system in which he himself would be most comfortable living.  Thomas Sancton of Oxford University believed Bellamy’s plan for human solidarity was “a system consciously and intellectually constructed as a reaction to the world-view which had failed him.  It was a ‘philosophy’ contrived to eliminate the things which made life so unbearable for him” (542).  But believing that solidarity can result from a race of creature so attuned to diversity and individualism is a fool’s folly, and Bellamy is no fool.

Bellamy’s biggest ‘blunder’ seems to be an error common to most utopian novels; Bellamy presumes to solve the problem of human nature.  Looking Backward tells of a people that are united in these newfound philosophies; dissension and independent expression are unheard of.  Through the patient recitations of Dr. Leete’s character, it is explained that the reason his society works so smoothly is that all people have wholly accepted the principles of equality and abandoned dangerous competitive natures.  The thought processes of a nineteenth century voyeur are as foreign to those who reside in the year 2000 as vice versa, as depicted in the lengthy preaching of the Reverend Barton in Chapter 26:

Doubtless it ill beseems one to whom the boon of life in our resplendent age has been vouchsafed to wish his destiny other, and yet I have often thought that I would fain exchange my share in this serene and golden day for a place in that stormy epoch of transition, when heroes burst the barred gate of the future and revealed to the kindling gaze of a hopeless race, in place of the blank wall that had closed its path, a vista of progress whose end, for very excess of light, still dazzles us.  Ah, my friends! who will say that to have lived then, when the weakest influence was a lever to whose touch the centuries trembled, was not worth a share even in this era of fruition?  (Bellamy 232)

Indeed, Bellamy’s indignant tone is apparent in his characters.  At times, it seems that Julian West is berated for not understanding the uniformity of this blessed people.  Bellamy, however, cannot assume that a nation of human beings will seize his idealisms as wholeheartedly as he implies.

The premise of solving what is wrong with human thought should be applauded, but there is no way one can presume that humans will evolve out of their tendencies.  Man has proven time and time again that he is incapable of thinking of others ahead of himself.  Indeed, Bellamy’s so-called “Republic of the Golden Rule” implies that every man and woman would indeed treat others as they would treat themselves (Schiffman 196).  The ideal is a good one, but humanity’s tendency to put the individual ahead of others is firmly entrenched in every person in America.  The system of capitalism works well in society because of humanity’s inherent nature to compete against one another; socialism—or Bellamy’s nationalist tendencies—just cannot work because of man’s nature to be overly concerned about the individual instead of his neighbor.

Bellamy should be admired for wanting to create and live in such an ideal world.  Many people agreed with Bellamy’s vision and longed for such a world; this author would be included among them.  However, Bellamy’s error rests in the mistake of assuming the human race can progress beyond their natural tendencies.  It is disheartening to realize that Bellamy’s fantasy can never be achieved; the proverbial carrot has been dangled in front of the enlightened in the form of a novel.

Bellamy did not seize the newly created fashion of realism that was blossoming at the time of authorship of Looking Backward: 2000-1887; instead he fashioned his novel in the tried and true fantasy of romanticism.  His characters are larger than life and a happy, implausible ending concludes his optimistic new world.  The imaginative nation Bellamy conceives of cannot be found in reality, nor will it ever be.  The frustration of an enamored reader is reflected in Julian West’s final plea to the residents of the nineteenth century:

‘I have been in Golgatha,’ at last I answered.  ‘I have seen Humanity hanging on a cross!  Do none of you know what sights the sun and stars look down on in this city, that you can think and talk of anything else?  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?  Listen! Their dwelling are so near that if you hush your laughter you will hear their grievous voices, the piteous crying of the little ones that suckle poverty, the hoarse curses of men sodden in misery turned half-way back to brutes, the chaffering of an army of women selling themselves for bread.  With what have you stopped your ears that you do not hear those doleful sounds?  For me, I can hear nothing else.’  (Bellamy  267-268)

We should not succumb to the belief that Bellamy has become irrelevant because his fantastic world did not come to pass as he attempted to predict.  We should view his work as a reflection on what could be good and right in the world if we would just examine where we went wrong according to the map that he provided.


Works Cited

Bellamy, Edward.  Looking Backward: 2000-1887.  New York: Random House, 1917.

Halewood, W. H.  “Catching Up with Edward Bellamy.”  University of Toronto Quarterly.  63.3 (1994): 451-461.

McClay, Wilfred M.  “Edward Bellamy and the Politics of Meaning.”  American Scholar.  64.2 (1995): 264-271.

Peyser, Tom.  “Looking Back at Looking Backward.”  Reason.  32.4 (2000): 30.  Academic Search Elite.  28 March 2006.  http://search.epnet.com.

Sancton, Thomas A.  “Looking Inward: Edward Bellamy’s Spiritual Crisis.”  American Quarterly.  25.3 (1973): 538-557.

Schiffman, Joseph.  “Edward Bellamy’s Altruistic Man.”  American Quarterly.  6.3 (1954): 195-209.

Towers, Tom H.  “The Insomnia of Julian West.”  American Literature.  47.1 (1975): 52-63.


Home     |     Back to Top