Looking Backward, 2000-1887
by Edward Bellamy
Fiction rarely influences politics anymore, either because fewer people read it or because it has fewer things to say. Yet novels have affected America in large and unsubtle ways: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The Jungle shaped the contours of the national current no less profoundly than our periodic wars and bank panics. More recently, Ayn Rand’s tales of triumphant individualism, Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, inspired a resilient strain of free-market fundamentalism that continues to color our economic life. A Russian immigrant who adored her adopted country, Rand strove to become American in all things, and in the process became an especially American sort of storyteller: the kind whose stories are a means to a social or political end. It’s an honored tradition in American writing, one that acquits fiction of its perennial charge of uselessness by making it practical, identifying problems and offering solutions—pragmatic books for the purpose of the country’s self-improvement.
Few novels have sought to improve America as radically as Edward Bellamy’s bestseller Looking Backward, 2000-1887, published in 1888. Bellamy, like Rand, used fiction to popularize a philosophy, and with comparable results: Looking Backward sold nearly half a million copies in its first decade and appeared in several languages around the world. The book found many prominent admirers, among them Mark Twain and William Jennings Bryan—the latter borrowed the language of his Cross of Gold speech from the novel’s final chapter. It inspired a political movement called Nationalism and energized generations of American progressives, from populists to New Dealers. More than a century later, it remains an indispensable zeitgeist book, an X-ray of the American body politic during the violent creation of modern industrial society, when many different futures felt possible.
Looking Backward is the story of Julian West, a wealthy young Bostonian who enters a hypnotist’s trance on May 30, 1887, and wakes up 113 years, three months, and eleven days later. Dr. Leete, an articulate citizen of the new century, greets him and explains, in the first of many leaps of logic required by the reader, that the hypnosis has perfectly preserved West’s body. He hasn’t aged an hour; Boston, however, has changed nearly beyond recognition. When West goes outside, he glimpses an idyll of tree-lined streets and majestic public buildings whose only familiar features are the Charles River and the islands of the harbor, gleaming through air clear of coal smoke.
The following chapters consist mainly of expositive conversations between West and Dr. Leete—a technique beloved by science-fiction authors then and since—as the newcomer struggles to understand the enormous changes that have taken place since the nineteenth century. America is now a nearly perfect society. Prosperity is evenly distributed, people are highly educated, and crime, corruption, and poverty have disappeared. Humanity has reached “a new plane of existence.” Most miraculous is how this rebirth came about: through a bloodless social evolution, beginning in the late nineteenth century and concluding in the early twentieth. The industrial trusts of the 1880s were the first phase: they simply continued to consolidate until all of the country’s capital became the Great Trust—a single corporation, nationalized for the public benefit.
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