At a recent used book sale I bought an intriguing book written by Edward Bellamy. It was published in 1887, with the premise of having been written in the year 2000. The author imagines how the country would look in another century if certain idealistic industrial, political and economic changes were made to enable the best possible society for all citizens. Bellamy felt that instead of writing a non-fiction analysis and critique of the country’s economy, it would be more interesting to tell the story of a fictional character who falls asleep and wakes up over one hundred years later to find a changed society. One of my reasons for searching out books over a hundred years old is similar to this author’s reasons for writing it. I want to know how the world has changed, and I want to understand how people thought, what their priorities were, what their values were and how they compare to ours today.
This book has the added benefit for me of being written as fiction, which I find a much easier form for conveying ideas, perspectives and attitudes. I don’t find the topics of industry and economics interesting, so I wasn’t enthusiastic about that part of it. But I do find it fascinating to read the author’s and main characters’ discussions on those topics, and their comparisons between the two time periods. I’ve probably learned more from Looking Backward about the industrial history of the country than in any social studies class I ever endured.
The book was published by Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston and New York, and The Riverside Press, Cambridge. On the copyright page is the phrase “Four hundred and forty-seventh thousand”. Could this be the number of copies? Sylvester Baxter, Boston journalist and urban planner at the time, wrote the introduction. The front cover and first blank page were signed “W.J. Wilde, Red Deer”, which I assume refers to Red Deer, Alberta, Canada, a town about 150 kilometers north of Calgary. It is called the Memorial Edition because this particular edition was copyrighted by Emma S. Bellamy in 1915 after the author’s death. The book begins with an “Author’s Preface” (which is not the author Edward Bellamy, but the author of the “book within a book”, Julian West), supposedly written on December 26, 2000, in Boston. “Living as we do in the closing year of the twentieth century, enjoying the blessings of a social order at once so simple and logical that it seems but the triumph of common sense, it is no doubt difficult…to realize that the present organization of society is…less than one century old.”
The ancient industrial system “with all its shocking social consequences” had been expected to last to the end of time. “How strange and wellnigh incredible does it seem that so prodigious a moral and material transformation as has taken place since then could have been accomplished in so brief an interval!” The language is so eloquent, music to my cerebral ears.
To summarize the beginning, when a 19th century man named Julian West awakes to find himself in the 21st century under the care of a family in Boston, he begins to explore, question and discuss the changes he sees with the family members. The first and most obvious change he notices from an upper balcony of a three-story home is that the city is obviously now prosperous, full of fine houses, open squares filled with trees, statues and fountains, and public buildings of colossal size and architectural grandeur.
As he questions his host, he learns that the government now operates many locations of the exact same stores for people to obtain food and other consumables. They do not use money; instead, they use a “credit card”. The funds backing the credit card are provided by the government and are distributed equally to every citizen. Employment, then, is not the source of one’s income and buying power; it is each person’s contribution to the cogs of the wheel running an orderly society.
Some refer to this book as utopian, some call the principles in the book socialist or Marxist, many note that it was one of the most popular, important books of its day. According to SparticusEducational.com, the novel was highly successful and sold over 1,000,000 copies. It was the third largest bestseller of its time, after Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Ben-Hur.
As Bellamy’s biographer, Franklin Rosemont, has pointed out: “The social transformation described in Looking Backward has in turn transformed, or rather liberated, the human personality. In Bellamy’s vision of the year 2000, selfishness, greed, malice, insanity, hypocrisy, lying, apathy, the lust for power, the struggle for existence, and anxiety as to basic human needs are all things of the past.”
I knew the name Bellamy sounded familiar. The author was apparently the cousin of Francis Bellamy, famous for creation of the Pledge of Allegiance. You can find printed copies of Looking Backward 2000 – 1887 on Amazon, and free ebooks of Edward Ballamy’s book at Gutenberg.org.
[More to come in Part 2 of my review of Looking Backward 2000 – 1887 by Edward Bellamy!]