Looking Backward

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Looking Backward: 2000–1887
Looking Backward.jpg
Cover of the Ticknor & Co. first edition of Looking Backward, 2000-1887.
Author Edward Bellamy
Country United States
Language English
Genre Science fiction
Utopian novel
Publisher • Ticknor & Co.
(Jan. 1888)
• Houghton Mifflin
(Sept. 1889)
Media type Print (Hardback)
Pages vii, 470
Followed by Equality

Looking Backward: 2000–1887 is a utopian science fiction novel by Edward Bellamy, a journalist and writer from Chicopee Falls, 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]

In the United States alone, over 162 "Bellamy Clubs" sprang up to discuss and propagate the book's ideas.[3] Owing to its commitment to the nationalization of private property and the desire to avoid use of the odious term "Socialism," this political movement came to be known as "Nationalism" — not to be confused with the political concept of nationalism.[4] The novel also inspired several utopian communities.

Publication history[edit]

The decades of the 1870s and the 1880s were marked by economic and social turmoil, including the Long Depression of 1873-1879, a series of recessions during the 1880s, the rise of organized labor and strikes, and the 1886 Haymarket affair and its controversial aftermath.[5] Moreover, American capitalism's tendency towards concentration into ever larger and less competitive forms — monopolies, oligopolies, and trusts — began to make itself evident, while emigration from Europe expanded the labor pool and caused wages to stagnate.[5] The time was ripe for new ideas about economic development which might ameliorate the current social disorder.

Edward Bellamy (1850-1898), a relatively unknown New England-born novelist with a history of concern with social issues,[6] began to conceive of writing an impactful work of visionary fiction shaping the outlines of a utopian future, in which production and society were ordered for the smooth production and distribution of commodities to a regimented labor force. In this he was not alone — between 1860 and 1887 no fewer than 11 such works of fiction were produced in the United States by various authors dealing fundamentally with the questions of economic and social organization.[7]

Bellamy's book, gradually planned throughout the 1880s, was completed in 1887 and taken to Boston publisher Benjamin Ticknor, who published a first edition of the novel in January 1888.[8] Initial sales of the book were modest and uninspiring, but the book did find a readership in the Boston area, including enthusiastic reviews by future Bellamyites Cyrus Field Willard of the Boston Globe and Sylvester Baxter of the Boston Herald.

Shortly after publication, Ticknor's publishing enterprise, Ticknor and Company, was purchased by the larger Boston publisher, Houghton, Mifflin & Co., and new publishing plates were created for the book.[8] Certain "slight emendations" were made to the text by Bellamy for this second edition, released by Houghton Mifflin in September 1889.[9]

In its second release, Bellamy's futuristic novel met with enormous popular success, with more than 400,000 copies sold in the United States alone by the time Bellamy's follow-up novel, Equality, was published in 1897.[10] Sales would top 532,000 in the USA by the middle of 1939.[10] The book gained an extensive readership in Great Britain as well, with more than 235,000 copies sold there between the time of its first release in 1890 and 1935.[10]


Bellamy's novel tells the story of a hero figure named 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 United States has been transformed into a socialist utopia. The remainder of the book outlines Bellamy's thoughts about improving the future. The major themes include problems associated with capitalism, a proposed socialist solution of a nationalization of all industry, the use of an "industrial army" to organize production and distribution, as well as how to ensure free cultural production under such conditions.

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 a concept of "credit" cards in chapters 9, 10, 11, 13, 25, and 26, but these actually function like modern debit cards. All citizens receive an equal amount of "credit." Those with more difficult, specialized, dangerous or unpleasant jobs work fewer hours (in contrast to the real-world practice of paying them more for their efforts of, presumably, the same hours). Bellamy also predicts both sermons and music being available in the home through cable "telephone" (already demonstrated but commercialized only in 1890 as Théâtrophone in France). Bellamy labeled the philosophy behind the vision "nationalism", and his work inspired the formation of more than 160 Nationalist Clubs to propagate his ideas.

Despite the "ethical" character of his socialism (though he was initially reluctant 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 employed to explain crimes not related to inequality (which Bellamy thinks will vanish with socialism). Remaining criminals are medically treated. 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".


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),[11] Laurence Gronlund's The Co-operative Commonwealth (1884), and August Bebel's Woman in the Past, Present, and Future (1886).[12] For example, in The True Author of Looking Backward (1890) J.B. Shipley argued that Bellamy's novel was a repeat of Bebel's arguments, whilst literary critic R. L. Shurter went so far as to argue that "Looking Backward is actually a fictionalized version of The Co-operative Commonwealth and little more".[13] However, Bellamy's book also bears resemblances to the early socialist theorists or 'utopian socialists' Etienne Cabet, Charles Fourier, Robert Owen and Henri Saint-Simon, as well as to the 'Associationism' of Albert Brisbane whom Bellamy had met in the 1870s.[14]

Reaction and sequels[edit]

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, dystopian, and 'anti-utopian' responses.[15] A partial list of these follows.[16]

Directly 'anti-Bellamy' responses:

  • Bachelder, J. A.D. 2050. Electrical Development at Atlantis (1890)
  • Harris, G. Inequality and Progress (1897) [which assumes Bellamy advocated an absolute equality of goods]
  • Michaelis, R.C. Looking Further Forward: An Answer to "Looking Backward" by Edward Bellamy (1890)
  • Morris, William, News from Nowhere (1890)
  • Roberts, J.W. Looking Within: The Misleading Tendencies of "Looking Backward" Made Manifest (1893)
  • Sanders, G.A. Reality: or Law and order vs. Anarchy and Socialism, A Reply to Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward and Equality (1898)
  • Satterlee, W.W. Looking Backward and What I Saw (1890)
  • Vinton, A.D. Looking Further Backward (1890)
  • West, J. [pseud.] My Afterdream (1900)
  • Wilbrant, C. Mr. East's Experiences in Mr. Bellamy's World (1891)

Direct and positive utopian responses / unofficial sequels:

  • Berwick, E. 'Farming in the Year 2000, A.D.', Overland Monthly (1890)
  • Bellamy, C.J. An Experiment in Marriage. A Romance (1889) [Bellamy's brother]
  • Chavannes, A. In Brighter Climes, or Life in Socioland (1895) by A. Chavannes
  • Chavannes, A. The Future Commonwealth (1892)
  • Claflin, S.F. Nationalism. Or a System of Organic Unity (189x)
  • 'Crusoe, R.' Looking Upwards; or Nothing New (1892)
  • Emmens, S.H. The Sixteenth Amendment (1896)
  • Flower, B.O. Equality and Brotherhood (1897) [A positive response to Bellamy’s Equality; see also 'The Latest Social Vision', Arena v.18, pp. 517–34]
  • Flower, B.O. The New Time (1894)
  • Fuller, A.M. A.D. 2000 (1890)
  • Geissler, L.A. Looking Beyond (1891)
  • Giles, F.S. The Industrial Army (1896)
  • Gillette, K.C., The Human Drift (1894)
  • Griffin, C.S. Nationalism (1889)
  • Gronlund, L. Our Destiny. The Influence of Nationalism on Morals and Religion (1890) [first syndicated The Nationalist, (March–September 1890)]
  • Hayes, F.W. The Great Revolution of 1905: Or, The story of the Phalanx (1893)
  • Hertzka, T. Freeland, a Social Anticipation (1890)
  • Howard, E. To-Morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform (1898)
  • McCowan, A. Philip Meyer’s Scheme (1892)
  • Moffat, W. White, G., and White J., What’s the World Coming To? (1893)
  • Porter, L.B. Speaking of Ellen (1890) [not a utopia]
  • Salisbury, H.B. 'The Birth of Freedom', The Nationalist (November 1890, Mar-Apr 1891)
  • Schindler, S. 'Dr. Leete's Letter to Julian West', The Nationalist (September 1890)
  • Schindler, S. Young West: A Sequel to Edward Bellamy's Celebrated Novel "Looking Backward" (1894)
  • Stone, C.H. One of Berrian's Novels (1890)
  • Worley, F.U. Three Thousand Dollars a Year (1890) [a gradualist utopia]
  • Hillman, H.W. Looking Forward (1906)

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".

The book was translated into Bulgarian in 1892. In 1900 Bellamy personally approved a request by Bulgarian author Iliya Yovchev to make an "adapted translation" based on the realities of Bulgarian social order. The resulting work, titled The Present as Seen by Our Descendants And a Glimpse at the Progress of the Future ("Настоящето, разгледано от потомството ни и надничане в напредъка на бъдещето"), generally followed the same plot. The events in Yovchev's version take place in a environmentally friendly Sofia and describe the country's unique path of adapting to the new social order. It is considered by local critics to be the first Bulgarian utopian work.[17]

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.

German Reclam edition 1919

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.

The book had a specific and intense reception in Wilhelminian Germany including various parodies and sequels, from Eduard Loewenthal, Ernst Müller and Philipp Wasserburg till Konrad Wilbrandt and Richard Michaelis.[18]

Later responses[edit]

Looking Backward was rewritten 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.

A one-act play, Bellamy's Musical Telephone, was written by Roger Lee Hall and premiered in Boston in 1988 on the centennial year of the novel's publication.

See also[edit]


  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. ^ Bellamy, Edward (2000). Looking backward: 2000-1887. Signet. p. Introduction.  Walter James Miller confirms "more than 162 Bellamy Clubs".
  4. ^ Edward Bellamy. "What 'Nationalism' Means". The Eclectic Magazine of Foreign Literature (1844–1898); Vol. 52, No. 3 (September 1890); p. 289.
  5. ^ a b Sylvia E. Bowman, The Year 2000: A Critical Biography of Edward Bellamy. New York: Bookman Associates, 1958; pp. 87-89.
  6. ^ Bowman, The Year 2000, pg. 96.
  7. ^ Bowman, The Year 2000, pg. 107.
  8. ^ a b Bowman, The Year 2000, pg. 115.
  9. ^ Bowman, The Year 2000, pp. 115-116.
  10. ^ a b c Bowman, The Year 2000, pg. 121.
  11. ^ Arthur E. Morgan, Edward Bellamy, New York, Cloumbia University Press, 1944.
  12. ^ 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, Ohio, privately printed, 1944.
  13. ^ Robert L. Shurter, The Utopian Novel in America, 1865–1900, New York, AMS Press, 1975; p. 177.
  14. ^ Carl J. Guarneri, The Utopian Alternative, Fourierism in Nineteenth-Century America, (Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 1991), p.368, p.401
  15. ^ Jean Pfaelzer,The Utopian Novel in America, 1886–1896: The Politics of Form, Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh Press; pp. 78–94 and 170–3.
  16. ^ This list was derived from G. Claeys Late Victorian Utopias: A Prospective, (Pickering and Chatto, London, 2008), J. Pfaelzer, The Utopian Novel in America 1886–1896: The Politics of Form, (University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, 1984), K. Roemer, The Obsolete Necessity: America in Utopian Writings, 1888–1900, (Kent State University Press, Kent, 1976), K. Roemer, Utopian Audiences, How Readers Locate Nowhere, (University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst, 2003), C.J. Rooney, Dreams and Visions: a study of American utopias, 1865–1917 (1997), F. Shor, Utopianism and radicalism in a reforming America, 1888–1918, (Greenwood Press, Westport Connecticut, 1997), and especially L.T. Sargent British and American Utopian Literature, 1516–1985: An Annotated, Chronological Bibliography (Garland Publishing, New York, 1988).
  17. ^ Ivaylo Runchev (1985). "The Beginning". Narodna Mladezh. Retrieved 1 July 2013. Фактически налице е произведение, отличаващо се от оригинала дотолкова, че следва да се говори за нов роман, първия ни български утопичен роман. ("Basically this work differs from the original to such an extent, that we can consider it a new novel, the first Bulgarian Utopian novel.) 
  18. ^ (Edward Bellamy, Ein Rückblick aus dem Jahre 2000 auf das Jahr 1887, Translation Georg von Gizycki, editor Wolfgang Biesterfeld. Philipp Reclam jun., Stuttgart 1983 ISBN 3-15-002660-1 (Universal-Bibliothek 2660 [4]), Afterword of Biesterfeld, p.301f.)

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]