Looking Backward: 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy

Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

On May 30th, 1887, Julian West closes himself in his sleeping chamber, a hermetically sealed, asbestos-coated underground vault. He has such difficulty sleeping that even in this dark and quiet space, on occasion, he calls in a hypnotist to put him into a trance, with the expectation that in the morning, his servant will bring him back to full consciousness.

This time, that doesn’t happen. Instead, Julian West is woken up by strangers. They inform him that is now September of 2000, and the world is a very, very different place from the one he knew. All industry is run by the government, which pays every worker conscripted into its industrial army at a set rate. Goods for purchase, too, are standardized, distributed across the country to stores where citizens use a “credit card” instead of cash.

It’s an interesting vision of a possible world, rooted in Bellamy’s own philosophical convictions about “Nationalism” (read: socialism) as the way for society to move forward.

There are plenty of flaws in this “utopian” world, most of which are immediately glaringly obvious to anyone who isn’t an able-bodied white Christian male, but I was struck not only by how different our current 21st-century America is from Bellamy’s construction, but more so by how familiar Julian West’s description of nineteenth-century America is:

By way of attempting to give the reader some general impression of the way people lived together in those days, and especially of the relations of the rich and poor to one another, perhaps I cannot do better than to compare society as it then was to a prodigious coach which the masses of humanity were harnessed to and dragged toilsomely along a very hilly and sandy road. The driver was hunger, and permitted no lagging, though the pace was necessarily very slow. Despite the difficulty of drawing the coach at all along so hard a road, the top was covered with passengers who never got down, even at the steepest ascents These seats on top were very breezy and comfortable. Well up out of the dust, their occupants could enjoy the scenery at their leisure, or critically discuss the merits of the straining team. Naturally such places were in great demand and the competition for them was keen, every one seeking as the first end in life to secure a seat on the coach for himself and to leave it to his child after him. By the rule of the coach a man could leave his seat to whom he wished, but on the other hand there were so many accidents by which it might at any time be wholly lost. For all that they were so easy, the seats were very insecure, and at every sudden jolt of the coach persons were slipping out of them and falling to the ground, where they were instantly compelled to take hold of the rope and help to drag the coach on which they had before ridden so pleasantly. It was naturally regarded as a terrible misfortune to lose one’s seat, and the apprehension that this might happen to them or their friends was a constant cloud upon the happiness of those who rode.

p. 38-39

That comes near the beginning of Julian West’s narrative, which is presented as being a book about the past America that the advanced 21st-century industrial army folk have difficulty believing was real. He imagines them asking if his fellows had no compassion and says:

Oh, yes, commiseration was frequently expressed by those who rode for those who had to pull the coach, especially when the vehicle came to a bad place in the road, as it was constantly doing, or to a particularly steep hill. At such times, the desperate straining of the team, their agonized leaping and plunging under the pitiless lashing of hunger, the many who fainted at the rope and were trampled in the mire, made a very distressing spectacle, which often called forth highly creditable displays of feeling on the top of the coach. At such times the passengers would call down encouragingly to the toilers of the rope, exhorting them to patience and holding out hopes of possible compensation in another world for the hardness of their lot, while others contributed to buy salves and liniments for the crippled and injured. […] It must in truth be admitted that the main effect of the spectacle of misery of the toilers at the rope was to enhance the passengers’ sense of the value of their seats upon the coach, and to cause them to hold on to them more desperately than before.

p. 39-40

The metaphor is still depressingly applicable these hundred-plus years later.

I read the novel back in September as my Classics Club Lucky Spin. I then went back to read Dr. Cecelia Tichi’s introductory essay, which takes a look at Bellamy’s life and philosophy, and how those are reflected in his writing. (And now I’ve gone and added Dr. Tichi’s Civic Passions: Seven Who Launched Progressive America (and What They Teach Us) to the TBR, because I’m interested in seeing what she has to say about some other figures of the time who got brief mentions in relation to Bellamy.)

I’m almost certain I read the book once before. I took a class on Utopian Thought in college, in 19-mumble-mumble. I really wish I had a copy of the reading list from that class. Not least because there was another book we read that I remember a fragment of, and not knowing what it’s from is really annoying. But all that stuff is long gone, and I don’t even remember what my 22-year-old self thought about this book, if it happened to be on the syllabus. Which is probably for the best, really.

Source: Purchased at my local used bookstore.

Challenges: Back to the Classics (19th Century Classic (1800-1899)); Classics Club

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