Academic journal article Utopian Studies

Looking Backward's Utopian Sequels: "Fictional Dialogues" in Gilded-Age America

Academic journal article Utopian Studies

Looking Backward's Utopian Sequels: "Fictional Dialogues" in Gilded-Age America

Article excerpt

"The more I read your book the more I am enchanted with it and its scope.

Solomon Schindler to Edward Bellamy, November 28, 18881

"Looking Backward" has been the bane of this nation. It breeds a notion in the minds of thousands that somehow the government will be compelled by agitation.... It is like the fabled basilisk: its very presence is death.

J. W. Roberts, Looking Within: The Misleading

Tendencies of "Looking Backward" Made Manifest (1893) 64

The author Edward Bellamy and his 1888 novel Looking Backward are virtually synonymous with utopian speculation and the egalitarian aspirations of fictional writers in late nineteenth-century America. Looking Backward exerted tremendous influence on the literary marketplace (selling nearly a quarter of a million copies in the first two years), the political arena, and the cultural landscape of the Gilded Age in the United States and beyond (Roemer, Obsolete Necessity 2-3; Pfaelzer 50-51; Bowman, Edward Bellamy Abroad).

However, if Bellamy's Looking Backward has received considerable study--in his time and through generations of scholarship--his supporters and detractors have received less attention from utopian scholars. As the epigraphs above demonstrate, Looking Backward generated intense, though divergent, reactions from Bellamy's contemporaries. Many Gilded-Age commentators on Looking Backward chose to voice their support or rejection of Bellamy's utopianism in the form of sequels that reused the novel's settings or characters even as they extended or condemned Bellamy's message. This article argues that to ignore or dismiss Looking Backward sequels is to miss an important influence on Bellamy's own writing, and an insightful commentary on his nineteenth-century cultural environment.

Toby Widdicombe's bibliography of Bellamy criticism lists 156 "Sequels and Ripostes" to Looking Backward, and similar bibliographies list still others (Griffith; Roemer, Obsolete Necessity 186-207; Sargent, British and American Utopian Literature). However, although Bellamy sequels make up a significant body of utopian literature, his imitators are sometimes footnoted but rarely studied at great length. Typically, Bellamy sequels are used as a perfunctory aside to demonstrate Bellamy's own influence rather than treated as a topic worthy of considerable study in their own right. In fact, in an article entitled "Looking Backward at the Utopian Novel," Arthur Boggs concludes "On the whole, the worth of the Bellamy-influenced novels is questionable. Most of them are worthless as literature and unrewarding as economic treatises.... Most of them deserve the utter oblivion which they have earned and received" (334).

Not all scholars have been so flippant and dismissive in assessing the Bellamy sequels. For instance, Vernon Parrington's 1947 book American Dreams: A Study of American Utopias argues: "The volumes written in answer to Bellamy are a good indication of the extent of this increasing popularity. There would have been few attempts to answer him if he hadn't been considered dangerous" (77). Thus, while Parrington dedicates a chapter to examining Bellamy sequels, he primarily sees them as a barometer of Bellamy's own influence. An even earlier examination of Bellamy scholarship--Frances Russell's 1932 study Touring Utopia--states: "The four decades that have elapsed since Looking Backward inspired so many lookings in every direction" (223), but primarily summarizes Bellamy sequels with little by way of analysis. More recent writers, including Kenneth Roemer and Jean Pfaelzer, incorporate Bellamy responses into a larger analysis of utopian works from the late-nineteenth century.

Nevertheless, Boggs's contention that Bellamy-inspired utopias be relegated to literary "oblivion" seems to have been borne out as they have received only limited scholarly attention. In what follows, I hope to present a plea for utopian scholars to take Bellamy's respondents more seriously--that is, to rescue his imitators from Boggs's curse of literary oblivion. …

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