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Looking Backward: 2000-1887  
Looking backward.jpg
cover of Looking Backward: 2000-1887
Author Edward Bellamy
Country United States
Language English
Genre(s) Utopian novel
Publisher William Ticknor
Publication date 1888
Media type Print (Hardback)
Pages vii, 470 pp
Followed by Equality

Looking Backward: 2000-1887 is a utopian novel by Edward Bellamy, a lawyer and writer from western Massachusetts; it was first published in 1888. According to Erich Fromm, Looking Backward is "one of the most remarkable books ever published in America."[1]

It was the third-largest bestseller of its time, after Uncle Tom's Cabin and Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ.[1] It influenced a large number of intellectuals, and appears by title in many of the major Marxist writings of the day. "It is one of the few books ever published that created almost immediately on its appearance a political mass movement."[2] Several "Bellamy Clubs" sprang up all over the United States for discussing and propagating the book's ideas. This political movement came to be known as Nationalism, not to be confused with the political concept of nationalism.[3] The novel also inspired several utopian communities.



The book tells the story of Julian West, a young American who, towards the end of the 19th century, falls into a deep, hypnosis-induced sleep and wakes up one hundred and thirteen years later. He finds himself in the same location (Boston, Massachusetts), but in a totally changed world: It is the year 2000 and, while he was sleeping, the U.S. has been transformed into a socialist utopia. The remainder of the book outlines Bellamy's thoughts about improving the future. The major themes are the dangers of the stock market, the use of credit cards, the benefits of a socialist legal system, music, and the use of an "industrial army" to make tasks run smoother.

The young man readily finds a guide, Doctor Leete, who shows him around and explains all the advances of this new age; including drastically reduced working hours for people performing menial jobs and almost instantaneous, internet-like delivery of goods. Everyone retires with full benefits at age 45, and may eat in any of the public kitchens. The productive capacity of America is nationally owned, and the goods of society are equally distributed to its citizens. A considerable portion of the book is dialogue between Leete and West wherein West expresses his confusion about how the future society works and Leete explains the answers using various methods, such as metaphors or direct comparisons with 19th-century society.

Although Bellamy's novel did not discuss technology or the economy in detail, commentators frequently compare Looking Backward with actual economic and technological developments. For example, Julian West is taken to a store which (with its descriptions of cutting out the middleman to cut down on waste in a similar way to the consumers' cooperatives of his own day based on the Rochdale Principles of 1844) somewhat resembles a modern warehouse club like BJ's, Costco, or Sam's Club. He additionally introduces the concept of credit cards in chapters 9, 10, 11, 13, 25, and 26. All citizens receive "credit" based on their production, which apparently is more equitable, but in fact may be similar to, say, the USSR, which did not abolish wage labor. Bellamy also predicts both sermons and music being available in the home through cable "telephone."

Interestingly, despite his Christian Socialism (though he was loath to use the term "socialism"), Bellamy's ideas somewhat reflect classical Marxism. In Chapter 19, for example, he has the new legal system explained. Most civil suits have ended in socialism, while crime has become a medical issue. The idea of atavism, then current, is extolled to explain crimes not related to inequality (which Bellamy thinks will vanish with socialism). Remaining criminals are medically treated. Although dissent and discontent is naturally absent in his utopian work, this may be similar to psychiatric treatment as punishment for dissidents in the USSR, where they were diagnosed with sluggishly progressing schizophrenia. If the accused does not plead guilty a trial is held after which if convicted the sentence doubles, exactly like the legal system of many real-life socialist states. Obviously, this system has a tendency to convict the innocent, but Bellamy's predictions were still startlingly accurate. One professional judge presides, appointing two colleagues to state the prosecution and defense cases. If all do not agree on the verdict, then it must be tried over. Chapter 15 and 16 have an explanation of how free, independent public art and news outlets could be provided in a more libertarian socialist system. In one case Bellamy even writes "the nation is the sole employer and capitalist."

Key excerpts (from Chapter 26)

“My friends, if you would see men again the beasts of prey they seemed in the nineteenth century, all you have to do is to restore the old social and industrial system, which taught them to view their natural prey in their fellow men, and to find their gain in the loss of others.”

“Moreover, it must not be forgotten that the nineteenth century was in name Christian, and the fact that the entire industrial and commercial frame of society was the embodiment of the anti-Christian spirit must’ve had some weight, though I admit it was strangely little, with the nominal followers of Jesus Christ.”

“It was the sincere belief of even the best of men at that epoch that the only stable elements in human nature, on which a social system could be safely founded, were its worst propensities. They had been taught and believed that greed and self-seeking were all that held mankind together, and that all human associations would fall to pieces if anything were done to blunt the edge of these motives or curb their operation. In a word, they believed – even those who longed to believe otherwise – the exact reverse of what to us seems self-evident; they believed, that is, that the antisocial qualities of men, and not their social qualities, were what furnished the cohesive force of society…. It seems absurd to expect anyone to believe that convictions like these were ever seriously entertained by men….”

“The enfranchisement of humanity… may be regarded as a species of second birth of the race….”

“With a tear for the dark past, turn we then to the dazzling future, and, veiling our eyes, press forward. The long and weary winter of the race is ended. Its summer has begun. Humanity has burst the chrysalis. The heavens are before it.”


Though Bellamy tended to stress the independence of his work, Looking Backward shares relationships and resemblances with several earlier works—most notably the anonymous The Great Romance (1881), John Macnie's The Diothas (1883),[4] Laurence Gronlund's The Cooperative Commonwealth (1884), and August Bebel's Woman in the Past, Present, and Future (1886).[5] Critic R. L. Shurter has gone as far as to argue that "Looking Backward is actually a fictionalized version of The Cooperative Commonwealth and little more."[6]

Reaction and Sequel(s)

In 1897 Bellamy wrote a sequel, Equality, dealing with women's rights, education and many other issues. Bellamy wrote the sequel to elaborate and clarify many of the ideas merely touched upon in Looking Backward.

The success of Looking Backward provoked a spate of sequels, parodies, satires, and skeptical dystopian responses.[7] A partial list includes:

  • Looking Further Forward: An Answer to "Looking Backward" by Edward Bellamy (1890), by Richard C. Michaelis
  • Looking Backward and What I Saw (1890), by W. W. Satterlee
  • Looking Further Backward (1890), by Arthur Dudley Vinton
  • Speaking of Ellen (1890), by Linn Boyd Porter
  • Looking Beyond (1891), by Ludwig A. Geissler
  • Mr. East's Experiences in Mr. Bellamy's World (1891), by Conrad Wilbrandt
  • Looking Within: The Misleading Tendencies of "Looking Backward" Made Manifest (1893), by J. W. Roberts
  • Young West: A Sequel to Edward Bellamy's Celebrated Novel "Looking Backward" (1894), by Solomon Schindler
  • Looking Forward (1906), by Harry W. Hillman.

The result was a "battle of the books" that lasted through the rest of the 19th century and into the 20th. The back-and-forth nature of the debate is illustrated by the subtitle of Geissler's 1891 Looking Beyond, which is 'A Sequel to '"Looking Backward"' by Edward Bellamy and an Answer to "Looking Forward" by Richard Michaelis.

William Morris's 1890 utopia News from Nowhere was partly written in reaction to Bellamy's utopia, which Morris did not find congenial.

Beyond the purely literary sphere, Bellamy's descriptions of utopian urban planning had a practical influence on Ebenezer Howard's founding of the garden city movement in England, and on the design of the Bradbury Building in Los Angeles.

During the Great Strikes of 1877, Eugene V. Debs opposed the strikes and argued that there was no essential necessity for the conflict between capital and labor. Debs was influenced by Bellamy's book to turn to a more socialist direction. He soon helped to form the American Railway Union. With supporters from the Knights of Labor and from the immediate vicinity of Chicago, workers at the Pullman Palace Car Company went on strike in June 1894. This came to be known as the Pullman Strike.

Later responses

Looking Backward was re-written in 1974 by American science fiction writer Mack Reynolds as Looking Backward from the Year 2000. Matthew Kapell, a historian and anthropologist, examined this re-writing in his essay, "Mack Reynolds' Avoidance of his own Eighteenth Brumaire: A Note of Caution for Would-Be Utopians."

In 1984, Herbert Knapp and Mary Knapp's Red, White and Blue Paradise: The American Canal Zone in Panama appeared. The book was in part a memoir of their careers teaching at fabled Balboa High School, but also a re-interpretation of the Canal Zone as a creature of turn-of-the-century Progressivism, a workers' paradise. The Knapps used Bellamy's Looking Backward as their heuristic model for understanding Progressive ideology as it shaped the Canal Zone.

See also


  1. ^ a b Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward 2000-1887, with a Foreword by Erich Fromm, Signet, 1960. ISBN 0-451-52412-8
  2. ^ See Fromm's Foreword to Looking Backward, p. vi.
  3. ^ Edward Bellamy. "What 'Nationalism' Means." The Eclectic Magazine of Foreign Literature (1844-1898); Vol. 52, No. 3 (September 1890); p. 289.
  4. ^ Arthur E. Morgan, Edward Bellamy, New York, Cloumbia University Press, 1944.
  5. ^ Arthur E. Morgan, Plagiarism in Utopia: A Study of the Continuity of the Utopian Tradition With Special Reference to Edward Bellamy's "Looking Backward", Yellow Springs, OH, privately printed, 1944.
  6. ^ Robert L. Shurter, The Utopian Novel in America, 1865–1900, New York, AMS Press, 1975; p. 177.
  7. ^ Jean Pfaelzer,The Utopian Novel in America, 1886–1896: The Politics of Form, Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh Press; pp. 78-94 and 170-3.

Further Reading

  • Bleiler, Everett (1948). The Checklist of Fantastic Literature. Chicago: Shasta Publishers. pp. 46, 436. 
  • Brinkley, Alan (2003). American History: A Survey. Columbia University: McGraw Hill. 

External links



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