Romance, 1887-style! Or…was it 2000-style?
In the introduction to the 1915 printing of this book published in 1887, Sylvester Baxter describes the novel as “the ingenious device by which a man of the 19th century is transferred to the end of the 20th”, and notes that in the decade that followed its publication, the world was filled with the agitation it helped kindle. According to the website Quebecois Libre, by the early 1890s, about 13 years after the book was published, there were already 165 “Bellamy Clubs”!
Not only was Edward Bellamy knowledgeable about industrial, social, and political issues and customs, he was also a creative storyteller. This novel ends with a fascinating look at Julian West’s romantic relationships. As the middle of the novel weighed down with social contrasts and details of Bellamy’s 1887-imagined lifestyle of Boston in the year 2000, I started to wonder if I could actually finish it. But the whirlwind ending kept me reading every word.
My first two posts in this review focused on the general premise and the author. In this post, I summarize sections from Looking Backward to give more glimpses into Edward Bellamy’s 1887 vision, and a taste of his writing and the plot. But before I do, I want to share what a previous owner of my copy of this book wrote. Probably inspired by what he or she read, the following penciled notes appear on the copyright page, and I thought they were worthy of passing along:
“He who falls and gains his feet shows more strength than he who never falls.” “God’s greatest gift is time. Use it right.” “Look ahead to realize, not back to regret.”
The novel begins with a Preface, supposedly written by a twentieth century author speaking to a twentieth century reader about the novel he or she is about to read. In Chapter 1 the narrator, a fictional character Julian West, introduces himself by emphasizing that he was born in 1857, not 1957, and he describes his former way of life:
In late 19th century, society was in 4 classes or nations: rich, poor, educated, ignorant—not like today, 2000. As were my parents and grandparents before me, I was wealthy, not working, living off the labours of others, not giving any service to the world, idle, living off my grandparents’ sum of money, shifting the burden of support to others’ shoulders, an art now [in the 2000’s] happily lost, but perfected by ancestors. All sought this accomplishment, to live on the income of his investments. This arrangement seems preposterous now.
Society in those former days can be compared to a coach where many pull it with a rope, and few ride. …the hallucination the riders shared was that they were unlike the rope-pullers, they were superior. This changes any feeling for the suffering of men into a distant, philosophical compassion. This is the only explanation the narrator can give for his own indifference at the late 1800’s toward the misery of others.
Julian West is visiting his fiancé and her family on Decoration Day, May 30, 1887. They want their house to be completely built before they get married, but strikes by carpenters, plumbers and other tradesmen have been delaying it for years. All agree that working classes all over the world seem to be going crazy at once. He leaves them and goes to his home, where he has a subterranean sleeping chamber for his insomnia. He calls for his hypnotist to help him sleep.
He wakes on September 10, 2000, having slept 113 years, to unfamiliar voices discussing him, a woman repeatedly whispering “Promise me you will not tell him.” He is in the home of Dr. Leete who lives in a house built on Julian West’s property. Dr. Leete explains to him that Julian’s house was burned down, and since no one knew of his subterranean sleeping chamber, they assumed he died. The area was recently being excavated and they found the chamber, and Mr. West inside it, asleep.
From an upper story window, Julian notices an absence of chimneys, and an obvious increase in material prosperity applied toward adornment of the city. He will soon find that the sidewalks have “public umbrellas” during the rain. Julian meets Leete’s beautiful daughter who has the same name as his late fiancé, Edith. He comments that the women of the twentieth century dress gracefully compared to the 19th century. (I was surprised that the author did not imagine any motorized vehicles whatsoever, and only referred to horses as transportation, but have learned that mass production of automobiles did not start until about 1901, about 14 years after the book was published.)
After a walk around the neighbourhood, Mr. West and Dr. Leete have a conversation:
“I saw very little that was not new. But I think what surprised me as much as anything was not to find any stores on Washington Street, or any banks on State. What have you done with the merchants and bankers? Hung them all, perhaps, as the anarchists wanted to do in my day?”
“Not so bad as that,” replied Dr. Leete. “We have simply dispensed with them. Their functions are obsolete in the modern world…There is neither selling nor buying nowadays;…As soon as the nation became the sole producer of all sorts of commodities…a system of direct distribution from national storehouses took the place of trade, and for this money was unnecessary…A credit corresponding to his share of the annual product of the nation is given to every citizen, and a credit card issued him with which he procures…whatever he desires.”
“How is the amount of credit…determined?” Julian asks. “With what title does the individual claim his particular share? What is the basis of allotment?”
“His title,” replied Dr. Leete, “is his humanity. The basis of his claim is that fact that he is a man.”
“Do you possibly mean that all have the same share?…Some men do twice the work of others!”
“We require of each that he shall make the same effort…we demand of him the best service it is in his power to give…A man’s endowments…merely fix the measure of his duty…The Creator sets men’s tasks for them by the faculties he gives them…I suppose in the nineteenth century, when a horse pulled a heavier load than a goat, I supposed you rewarded him.”
Citizens choose tasks based upon their natural strengths and interests, and the nation now values and even supports artists, writers, and those with other creative talents. Education is free and compulsory to the age of twenty-one.
Later, Dr. Leete and his daughter Edith take Julian to the store: a vast hall of light from windows and a dome a hundred feet above, a magnificent fountain, mellow tinted walls, chairs and sofas where people conversed, signs on the walls indicating where each category of goods was. The orders for merchandise are taken are sent by pneumatic transmitters to the warehouse and are filled immediately and delivered by larger tubes and distributed to homes by store clerks.
This could describe many a modern mall in the year 2014. It sounds like the rudiments of online shopping, doesn’t it?
Edith enthusiastically explains to Mr. West that now everyone is able to hear a choice of music, by carrying the idea of labor-saving-by-cooperation into their musical service as into everything else. Instead of music—and only one type of music—being available only to the most wealthy of society, a number of music halls (full of musicians playing) are connected by telephone with all the houses. Four different pieces of music are being performed at one time, which the listener can choose by pushing one of four buttons, with music available twenty-four hours a day for even the sleepless and the sick.
This to me is amazing foresight to the readily available music we are accustomed to, through records since about 1900, then cassettes, and now through modern means such as CD’s and music downloads from the internet.
To Mr. West’s question, “Who are willing to be domestic servants in a community where all are social equals?” the answer is that there is no housework to do. Washing is all done at public laundries at low cost, cooking at public kitchens, making and repairing of all clothing is done in public shops. They choose houses no larger than they need, and furnish them so as to involve the minimum of trouble to keep them in order. “What a paradise for womankind the world must be now!” he exclaims.
This could be likened to our abundance of restaurants with infinite choices available, but I do so like the idea of families and their neighbors gathering for low cost meals at a place within walking distance. (In 1887 there were dining rooms connected with hotels, but apparently not yet restaurants.)
Soon they are discussing how formerly the preference was given to more efficient workers, yet the new twenty-first century system encourages the weaker as well as the stronger with the hope of rising to be leaders. “For those too deficient in mental or bodily strength…we have a sort of invalid corps, providing members with a light class of tasks fitted to their strength…all eager to do what they can. Who is capable of self support? There is no such thing in a civilized society as self-support.”
This should give a good idea of the utopian world the author hoped would be found in the year 2000, and his philosophies on individualism versus cooperation.
I debated about whether or not to include a description of the whirlwind romantic ending of the story—a SPOILER—but decided that since the book is so accessible, I suggest that you read it yourself. Just click on this link right now, to find an electronic copy of Looking Backward 2000 – 1887 at Gutenberg.org. Then,
- under the Download options, click on the top one, “Read this book online”
- scroll down to the Table of Contents links
- click on Chapter XXV, and that will take you to page 255 (page numbers are on the left).
(If you would like a printed copy of Looking Backward, you can find several on Amazon, and Spark notes are also available.)
Starting at this point will give you all the romantic background. Here you will finally find out why in Chapter 1, as Mr. West was first awakening in the year 2000, the woman was begging her father, “Promise you won’t tell him.” It’s brilliant—I couldn’t put it down!
I wonder what Edward Bellamy would think of North America in the real 2000, or 2014. How would he explain the fact that we are still a society of individualism, of have’s and have-not’s? What drives us to over-spend and often ignore the basic needs of our brothers and sisters in third-world countries? Those are pretty big questions to which I have no clear, simple answers. I suspect, though, that we might shed some light on the matter by using the author’s words: “…he that does not love, does not know God”. When our hearts and lives lack peace with our Maker, we have little or no pipeline to the source of love, and as a result have only a meager supply of grace to offer to others.
What do you think of Looking Backward 1887 to 2000? Of Bellamy’s utopia? Of our 21st century society?