Edward Bellamy was a literary man of no great distinction. Frail and tubercular he had to abandon journalism as too strenuous and took up writing novels in a desperate attempt to make a living. The novels sold moderately, perhaps enough to eke out a living on the bottom rung of middle class respectability. They had no particular merit or anything to distinguish them from hundreds of others published annually. Certainly none would be remembered or read today.
Then he tried his hand at a social fantasy. Overnight, it seemed he and his book Looking Backward were both famous and the center of an exciting popular reform movement.
Bellamy was born March 26, 1850 in Chicoppee Falls in western Massachusetts. He was the son and grandson of Baptist ministers. A word about New England Baptists of this period. Do not get them confused with today’s Southern Baptists. Although Evangelical the Baptists were radically egalitarian and having been oppressed by the established churches of the Standing Order—the Congregationalists and, yes, the Unitarians—they reveled in the status of dissenters and outsiders. Since members of the established churches tended to be first Federalists, then Whigs, and finally Republicans, Baptists tended to be Democrats largely out of loyalty to Thomas Jefferson and his steadfast devotion to Freedom of Religion.
After what public education Chicoppee Falls could offer and reading in his father’s library, Bellamy went off to Union College in Schenectady, New York. For whatever reason, he dropped out of school after completing just two semesters. He somehow found the money for a trip to Europe, spending most of his time in Germany, still the epicenter of romanticism and a hotbed of Biblical criticism and various socialist schemes. Certainly more than enough to shake out any cobwebs of theological and economic orthodoxy.
On returning to the states he seemed a young man at loose ends. He tried his hand at reading law but quickly abandoned it. He drifted into newspaper work. Probably through connections from Union College, he found work at the New York Daily Post which was co-owned and managed by John Bigelow, an 1835 Union graduate and benefactor of the college. He worked under the eye of editor-in-chief William Cullen Bryant, the noted poet and former abolitionist who was also a vigorous advocate and defender of labor. Although he did not spend long on the paper, as a young man absorbing influences like a sponge, it was formative.
Bellamy chose to move closer to home, taking a job with the most important paper in western Massachusetts, Springfield Union. Now we come to the scene where, if this was a bio-flick, we would see Bellamy hunched over a desk, pen in hand. Probably in his shirtsleeves with arm garters, cravat loosened, celluloid collar unhooked, hair a tad disheveled. He is working furiously by oil lamp. He coughs. Foreboding music swells. He presses a handkerchief to his mouth, coughs again, and stares at the crimson splotch of blood on the cloth. We know in an instant that he has consumption and is ultimately doomed.
In 1877 Bellamy went to the Hawaiian Islands for a yearlong rest cure. Most New Englanders of the period were going south to places like Charleston or even Cuba. A few were taking the long train trip to the desert southwest. Bellamy’s choice was influenced by reading Mark Twain’s popular accounts of his time in the Sandwich Islands nearly a decade before. He took to the palm trees, sea, and native girls. He also took to writing. He completed his first novel, Six to One while there.
The book did not make much of a splash, but sold well enough to Bellamy to decide that he could no longer stand the stress and demands of daily journalism.
In his second novel, Dr. Heidenhoff’s Process, published in 1880 Bellamy dabbled in some fantastic elements. A doctor invents a process which can erase painful memories from the brain. When the woman he loves is seduced and abandoned by a cad he uses the process on her. She is cured and about to fall gratefully into his arms when the doctor awakes, realizes it was all a dream, and his beloved has committed suicide. Pot boiler stuff.
In real life, despite his inevitably fatal condition, Bellamy fell in love and in 1882 married Emma Augusta Sanderson. Their marriage was apparently happy and produced two children, a boy and a girl.
After another novel, Miss Ludingto’s Sister, in 1884, Bellamy tried something daringly new. Utopian novels were not new. They dated back to Sir Thomas Moore’s Utopia published in Latin in 1516 which gave birth to the genre. But such novels were not common. Bellamy was probably inspired by the work of pioneer science fiction author Jules Verne whose work in translation from the French was beginning to be popular stateside.
He was also well aware of a body of works on cooperative societies, Christian socialism, and even Marxism that included Charles Fourier, Robert Owen and Henri Saint-Simon, as well as to the Associationism of Albert Brisbane whom Bellamy had met in the 1870s. Two more recent works were also influential in his thought, Laurence Gronlund’s The Co-operative Commonwealth in 1884, and August Bebel’s Woman in the Past, Present, and Future in 1886.
In Looking Backward: 2000-1887 Julian West falls into a deep, hypnotic induced sleep in Boston in 1887 and awakens in the same city, but utterly transformed city in the year 2000. He is introduced to his new surroundings by a kindly and scholarly Doctor Leete who regards the cut throat world of the 19th Century as a barbaric Dark Age.
In the new world all industrial production is controlled by the state and it products shared equally among the population. Technical innovation has greatly reduced the hours of labor needed to produce any item and distribution though common warehouse like stores has cut out layers of middlemen and the goods delivered to the door. Everyone is paid in equal credits on which they can draw to purchase the necessities of life and access to enriching culture. Those doing hard physical labor work a few hours a day. Those whose work requires intellectual rigor and specialized training are rewarded with even fewer hours. Everyone retires at age 45 with the same guaranteed benefits as working members of society.
With all of the extra leisure, everyone has the opportunity to enjoy the arts. Symphony concerts and lectures by the greatest minds in the world are delivered to homes over the telephone lines in a manner later readers have compared first to radio and more recently to the internet.
Most people eat daily at communal dining halls where nutritious meals are deliciously prepared by expert chefs. Travel is provided on free public transportation. Despite these communal aspects to society, every family has their own comfortable home with the privacy that entails.
On the social level, women are respected and treated as equals and partners both professionally and in the home. Most crime, which arose out of want, privation, and ignorance, has been eliminated. Remaining crime is considered the result of disease and atavism, a tendency in some to revert to a savage ancestral type. These conditions can be medically treated. What criminals exist are tried by a triumvirate consisting of a chief judge, a prosecutor, and a defender, all of whom must ultimately agree on a sentence after dispassionately reviewing the evidence and the accused’s prospects for ultimate rehabilitation.
In dialog, one by one West brings up objections to the new order, asking pointed questions and Dr. Leete patiently explains the near perfection of the new system.
West arouses from his slumber, but is convinced that he has been shown the future:
I had visited a world incomparably more affluent than this, in which money was unknown and without conceivable use.... These exchanges money effected—how equitably, might be seen in a walk from the tenement house districts to the Back Bay—at a cost of an army of men taken from productive labor to manage it, with constant ruinous breakdowns of its machinery, and a generally debauching influence on mankind which had justified its description, from ancient time as the “root of all evil”.
Bellamy shied away from, but did not totally shun, the use of the word socialism which then, as now, was burdened with political and social baggage. He preferred to call the system he described as Nationalism because all of the means of production and distribution had been nationalized. This is not to be confused with the use of nationalism as the exhalation of the nation state in its fierce, self-interested completion with all other nation states.
No one was more astounded than Bellamy, who at first insisted that he did not mean to spark a social revolution only to offer “a literary fantasy, a fairy tale of social felicity,” when the book became an overnight sensation, flying off shelves faster than the publisher could issue new editions. There were not whole books shops filled then with alternative universes and visions of the future. This was new and exciting to most readers.
It also struck a deep chord in a nation that was in the midst of a brutal ongoing class war in which the capitalists and bosses offered no quarter—11 years after the era began with the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 and just two years after the launch of a national movement for the Eight Hour Day and the Haymarket Affair.
Literate workers were inspired by any vision of a socialist utopia. The middle class, particularly the educated elite, were charmed with a vision of socialism that did not seem rooted in the implacable class conflicts of Marxism, but offered a cooperative solution that erased class differences without destroying comfortable civilization.
How popular was Looking Backward? In the little more than a decade remaining in the 19th Century, it became the second most widely read American novel, trailing only the ante bellum Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and edging out the wildly popular Ben Hur by Lew Wallace published in 1880.
Overnight Bellamy and Nationalist Clubs sprang up first to discuss the ideas in the book and quickly to find ways of implementing them. By 1890 there were more than 160 such clubs all around the country. Among the leading intellectuals that were involved were heavy weights like William Dean Howells and Edward Everett Hale. Eugene V. Debs, Grand Secretary and Treasurer of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and other labor leaders were also attracted.
At first Bellamy held himself aloof from the movement he had inspired. But within a year he became energized with the idea that his Utopia might just be achievable. He threw himself into the movement, touring and speaking widely and writing articles in many of the top publications in the country. In 1891 he established his own magazine, The New Nation as an organ of the movement.
Bellamy believed that political action by an educated leadership could usher in his vision of socialism. He and many of his followers threw themselves behind the new People’s Party or Populists as a vehicle for that transformation. After a while efforts of the Nationalist Clubs and the People’s Party became so enmeshed as to be indistinguishable. Many elements of the Nationalist program did make it into the Populist’s platforms. But there were also other forces and visions at work, especially the agrarian populism growing out of the Grange Movement, remnants of the Green Back Party, and followers of Henry George, exponent of another popular reform plan the Single Tax.
Meanwhile the class war was only getting uglier with the Homestead Strike of 1892, and industrial warfare in the coal fields and western metal mining districts. Labor leaders like Debs were growing disenchanted with the Nationalists gradualist approach and the reliance on middle class leadership rather than working class self liberation.
The coalition behind the Nationalist movement began to fall apart almost as quickly as it formed. Bellamy had to close The New Nation in 1894 for lack of revenue. Most clubs had dissolved. Working class militants looked increasingly to Marxism and the middle class looked for milder reform models.
By 1895 Bellamy, increasingly fragile, retreated from active political activity. He dedicated himself to writing a sequel to Looking Backward that would concentrate on his vision of equality of women. Equality expanded many of the themes of the first book. But its time had already passed. It sold moderately well to devotees, but was not a huge success.
It was Bellamy’s last effort. On May 22, 1898 he succumbed at last to tuberculosis in the ancestral home in Chicoppee Falls where he had long lived with his wife and children. He was only 48 years old.