LOOKING BACK at Looking Backward

By Peyser, Tom | Reason, August 2000 | Go to article overview

LOOKING BACK at Looking Backward


Peyser, Tom, Reason


Edward Bellamy's famous utopian novel is set in today's America. Are we living his crazy dream?

On Memorial Day in 1887, Julian West, one of the best-known Americans of his day and a notorious insomniac, sought help for his chronic sleep problems. In the course of his treatment by a Boston doctor, however, West was "mesmerized" so effectively that he never regained consciousness; he has remained in a state of suspended animation for more than 100 years.

This September, it is all but certain that West will awaken from his slumber and be brought back to life. To be sure, this amazing triumph is not a scientific marvel but a literary one: West is the protagonist of Edward Bellamy's best-selling utopian novel, Looking Backward: 2000--1887. In the book, September 10, 2000, is the precise day West rouses from his long nap. Perhaps the most famous time traveler in literary history, West has had a powerful and enduring effect on the terms of American political debate.

Published in 1888, Looking Backward crystallized that combination of

suspicion of markets and love of centralized plan ning that has in various forms persisted to this day. As West starts to rustle in his bed, it is well worth revisiting Looking Backward and teasing out the ways in which it continues to influence contemporary times.

Bellamy's vision of a future without capitalism proved immensely appealing. It took the massive hit novel Ben-Hur (1880) seven years to rack up the sales that Looking Backward tallied in just two. By the early 1890s, more than 150 "Bellamy Clubs," devoted to discussing and implementing the ideas in Looking Backward, had sprung up in cities across the United States. Translated into 20 foreign languages, the novel was a hot topic among the intelligentsia in pre-revolutionary Russia (Lenin's wife gave it a mixed review) and the architects of the New Deal (Arthur Morgan, the first head of the Tennessee Valley Authority, wrote a gushing 400-page biography of Bellamy). By the early '30s, Bellamy's fans had been absorbed into American socialist circles and Franklin Roosevelt's brain trust; both John Dewey and the historian Charles Beard announced that, among books published in the preceding 50 years, Looking Backward was matched in influence only by Das Kapital. They meant it as a compliment.

The basic structure of the society Bellamy imagined is easily summarized: The state runs everything and has converted the nation into a sumptuous barracks. An embittered West Point reject, Bellamy (1850-1898) cultivated a lifelong passion for the Prussian military. On his deathbed, he wiled away the hours by arranging tin soldiers along the folds of his coverlet. As enlistees in the state's "industrial army," all citizens in his utopia draw the same annual salary in the form of a "credit card" in which holes are punched to register purchases. The men march in mass rallies designed to encourage solidarity with the nation as a whole, which has become "a family, a vital union, a common life," or more succinctly, "truly a fatherland." Meanwhile the women carefully determine which men are the best workers, with an eye to bestowing their persons upon the diligent. Everyone is rich. Everyone is happy. And why shouldn't they be? Instead of "wasteful" market competition--which also encouraged each man to think of his brother as a potential enemy--a small group of bureaucrats regulates the whole economy, which is "so direct and simple in its working" that "the functionaries at Washington to whom it is trusted require to be nothing more than men of fair abilities."

As this summary makes obvious, in many respects the novel is a period piece, the distillation of what may have been the golden age of American crackpots, whose theories still get treated with respect by many noneconomists. This was a time when the likes of Henry George could be widely hailed as something like a messiah for his astonishing notion that income deriving from rent should be taxed at a rate of 100 percent. …

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