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Looking Backward: 2000-1887
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50 of 53 people found the following review helpful
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Edward Bellamy's "Looking Backward 2000-1887" remains the most successful and influential utopian novel written by an American writer mainly because the competition consists mostly of dystopian works, from Jack London's "The Iron Heel" to Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale," or science fiction works like Ursula K. LeGuin's "The Dispossessed." Still, I do not mean to give the impression that Bellamy's 1888 novel gets this honor by default. Magazine covers in 1984 were devoted to judging the track record of George Orwell's dystopian classic and I would argue that Bellamy deserves the same sort of consideration now that we have reached the 21st century. I certainly intend to use him to that end in my upcoming Utopian Images class.
At the end of the 19th century Bellamy creates a picture of a wonderful future society. Bellamy's protagonist is Julian West, a young aristocratic Bostonian who falls into a deep sleep while under a hypnotic trance in 1887 and ends up waking up in the year 2000 (hence the novel's sub-title). Finding himself a century in the future in the home of Doctor Leete, West is introduced to an amazing society, which is consistently contrasted with the time from which he has come. As much as this is a prediction of a future utopia, it is also a scathing attack on the ills of American life heading into the previous turn of the century. Bellamy's sympathies are clearly with the progressives of that period.
"Looking Backward" does not have a narrative structure per se. Instead West is shown the wonders of Boston in the year 2000, with his hosts explaining the rationale behind the grand civic improvements. For example, he discovers that every body is happy and no one is either rich or poor, all because equality has been achieved. Industry has been nationalized, which has increased efficiency because it has eliminated wasteful competition. This is a world with no need of money, but every citizen has a sort of credit card that allows them to make individual purchases, although everyone has the same montly allowance. In Bellamy's world is so ideal that it does not have any police, a military, any lawyers, or, best of all, any salesmen. Education is so valued that it continues until students reach the age of 21, at which point all citizens enter the work force, where they will stay until the age of 45. Men and women are compensated equally, but there are some distinctions between job on the basis of gender, and pregnancy and motherhood are taken into account.
Bellamy was living during the start of the Industrial Revolution, and like Francis Bacon and Tomasso Campanella who wrote during the height of the Age of Reason, he sees science and human ingenuity as being what will solve all of humanity's problems. He does not get into too many details regarding the comforts of modern living in the future, but there are several telling predictions (e.g., something very much like radio). However, it is clear that Bellamy is writing primarily to talk about economics and sociology, especially because he always compares his idealized future with the problems of his own time.
Obviously Bellamy's critique of the late 19th century will be of less interest to today's students that his various predictions on the both the future and an ideal world, unless they are specifically studying the American industrial revolution. But the latter two are enough to make "Looking Backward" deserve to be included in a current curriculum and I am looking foward to how well my students think Bellamy predicted the world in which we now find ourselves living.
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25 of 25 people found the following review helpful
Format: Paperback
Edward Bellamy's "Looking Backward 2000-1887" remains the most successful and influential utopian novel written by an American writer mainly because the competition consists mostly of dystopian works, from Jack London's "The Iron Heel" to Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale," or science fiction works like Ursula K. LeGuin's "The Dispossessed." Still, I do not mean to give the impression that Bellamy's 1888 novel gets this honor by default. Magazine covers in 1984 were devoted to judging the track record of George Orwell's dystopian classic and I would argue that Bellamy deserves the same sort of consideration now that we have reached the 21st century. I certainly intend to use him to that end in my upcoming Utopian Images class.
At the end of the 19th century Bellamy creates a picture of a wonderful future society. Bellamy's protagonist is Julian West, a young aristocratic Bostonian who falls into a deep sleep while under a hypnotic trance in 1887 and ends up waking up in the year 2000 (hence the novel's sub-title). Finding himself a century in the future in the home of Doctor Leete, West is introduced to an amazing society, which is consistently contrasted with the time from which he has come. As much as this is a prediction of a future utopia, it is also a scathing attack on the ills of American life heading into the previous turn of the century. Bellamy's sympathies are clearly with the progressives of that period.
"Looking Backward" does not have a narrative structure per se. Instead West is shown the wonders of Boston in the year 2000, with his hosts explaining the rationale behind the grand civic improvements. For example, he discovers that every body is happy and no one is either rich or poor, all because equality has been achieved. Industry has been nationalized, which has increased efficiency because it has eliminated wasteful competition. This is a world with no need of money, but every citizen has a sort of credit card that allows them to make individual purchases, although everyone has the same montly allowance. In Bellamy's world is so ideal that it does not have any police, a military, any lawyers, or, best of all, any salesmen. Education is so valued that it continues until students reach the age of 21, at which point all citizens enter the work force, where they will stay until the age of 45. Men and women are compensated equally, but there are some distinctions between job on the basis of gender, and pregnancy and motherhood are taken into account.
Bellamy was living during the start of the Industrial Revolution, and like Francis Bacon and Tomasso Campanella who wrote during the height of the Age of Reason, he sees science and human ingenuity as being what will solve all of humanity's problems. He does not get into too many details regarding the comforts of modern living in the future, but there are several telling predictions (e.g., something very much like radio). However, it is clear that Bellamy is writing primarily to talk about economics and sociology, especially because he always compares his idealized future with the problems of his own time.
Obviously Bellamy's critique of the late 19th century will be of less interest to today's students that his various predictions on the both the future and an ideal world, unless they are specifically studying the American industrial revolution. But the latter two are enough to make "Looking Backward" deserve to be included in a current curriculum and I am looking foward to how well my students think Bellamy predicted the world in which we now find ourselves living. This particular edition, while not a Norton Critical Edition, does have a nice selection of additional readings in the back consisting of some of Bellamy's other writings as well as contemporary works by writers of other utopias and social commentaries such as William Morris, Charlotte Perkins, Henry Lloyd George, and William Dean Howells. All of these appendices provide a context for Bellamy's novel in terms of late 19th-century utopianism.
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46 of 53 people found the following review helpful
on May 17, 1999
Format: Mass Market Paperback
Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward, is a vision of a utopian Boston of the year 2000 seen in the eyes of the fictional, nineteenth century Bostonian, Julian West. Having fallen asleep for 113 years Mr. West is awakened by the Leetes family. Over the course of the next several days he discovers a multitude of changes that have occurred during his long slumber. Most importantly or most overarchingly is the idea of social change that has occurred. While many other authors' ideas of the future have involved images of great technological change, they have not demonstrated an adaptation of human behavioral change. In Bellamy's eyes however, there are some technological innovations but the primary changes occur in the areas of economics that leads to dramatic changes in the human condition. It seems to be a world in which, once everyone decided not to fight over money any longer, then people were capable of getting along. Public service and public caring for one another is the norm. In the USA of Bellamy's 2000, the government is a centralized state with the military as the primary employer. Bellamy refers to it as a corporate state and the industrialized army. In his world military and service go hand in hand. In his exploration Bellamy addresses many issues that would be of concern to not only his readers but to readers to this day. Obviously there is the economic foundation of both the nineteenth and the imaginary twentieth century of the book. This leads directly to the issues of labor. Issues of international economics, law and prison all come up in West's exploration of his newly discovered world. Again each of these issues is ultimately related and hence resolved through economics. Women's equality remains an unresolved although tremendously improved issue (an understatement). Women's issues are in some ways resolved because they are no longer the unpaid domestics that they were in Bellamy's day. There is less need for lawyers and understanding the law because things have been resolved with economics so that people are fighting over civil issues and since everyone has they same economic status then there is no need to steal. There is a great sense in Bellamy's writing that social Darwinism plays a significant role. Clearly there is an idea of eugenics (reminiscent of the Oneida community) where the bad parts of society are simply bread out of society. "Like the social Darwinists of his day, Bellamy viewed character traits as inborn and believed that the morally as well as the physically unfit must be weeded out if human beings were to evolve to a higher state." (Strauss, 76) What must be addressed about this particular work is the influence that it exhibited on other writers in Bellamy's day and after. "It influenced movements of Christian socialism wherever they appeared it positions echo and re-echo on George Bernard Shaw, Veblen, Debs, Norman Thomas and the early Zionists." (Halewood, 451) Although the book is missing from today's list of important contributions to American thought, the book's enormous popularity at the end of the previous century must be acknowledged. "Looking Backward was possibly the most popular utopian novel ever written, igniting a nationwide social reform movement and leaving an enduring mark upon the rising generation of American intellectuals and writers." (McClay, 264) The problems that it raises for us, as readers near the end of the twentieth century, are in areas of middle-class elitism, overt ideology, and the lack of demonstrative communal activity. This book is, however, a powerful example of a novel that moved from text to social reform movement. It has been said that the book is not a well-written piece of literature but that the significance of the text is in its effect on the society in which it was consumed. A utopian vision of a future world does two very important functions. One, it shows a more perfect vision of a happy world. But inherently in that vision is the need to discuss or point out all of the elements of the current world that make for an unhappy world. This book had profound influence not so much in the literary world, although numerous other utopian texts were produced in the years following its publication. With Bellamy we find a book that influenced nationalism throughout the United States and lead to socialistic reforms in policy in the early part of the twentieth century.
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19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on December 16, 2008
Format: Paperback
The first thing that stands out from Edward Bellamy's 1887 socialist utopian novella "Looking Backward" is that this is NOT a good book. What it is instead is one of those literary fads that temporarily grip the nation but lack any real staying power beyond some historical significance or maybe as part of a class on the history of popular fiction, American intellectual thought, or progressive politics in the USA. Of course, a lot of great fiction was written in order to make social or political point: "The Grapes of Wrath," "All Quiet on the Western Front," "Catch-22," and "The Awakening" all come to mind. But what makes these works succeed is the fact that the message seems secondary to a powerful, moving, or darkly humorous story. "Pecado de Omisión" by Ana María Matute, for example, hides strong criticism of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco in what appears to be a surrealist tale of a shepherd and his tyrannical cousin. Overall, I got the impression that "Looking Backward" was the result of Bellamy's awareness that most people are not going to read an economic treatise.

"Looking Backward" is just that: a treatise thinly disguised as science fiction. On the one hand, in the information-driven society of the *real* twenty-first century it's certainly not unreasonable for any random citizen to be able to offer an adequate explanation on what makes our society tick. Yet Dr. Leete, a physician, rambles on and on about the minute workings of the government and economy for six uninterrupted pages. The "plot" itself is as dry as his lectures. For one, the world of 2000 is never fully realized beyond a platform for Bellamy to espouse his economic theories. (Some of which are astonishing in their hypocrisy. In order to eliminate corruption, for example, he imagines voting restricted to only a few "honorary members" of society.) Bellamy provides no description of the Boston of the future except that it's apparently very grand, splendid, clean, and orderly. There is simply no feeling of SETTING: the feelings and images evoked by descriptive prose. The characters, meanwhile, are as flat as the pages, exhibiting no unique personality, no true emotion, no life as anything other than cardboard props to people a plot.

So needless to say, learning of the book's extraordinary popularity was rather surprising. Not only because Bellamy just couldn't write, but the message as well. Quite frankly, I found Bellamy's vision of the future extremely disturbing. A quote at the end of the book sums it up: "Some time after this it was that I recall a glimpse of myself . . . looking at a military parade. A regiment was passing. . . Here at last were order and reason, an exhibition of what intelligent coöperation can accomplish. The people who stood looking on with kindling faces, - could it be that the sight had for them no more than but a spectacular interest? Could they fail to see that it was their perfect concert of action, their organization under one control, which made these men the tremendous engine they were, able to vanquish a mob ten times as numerous? Seeing this so plainly, could they fail to comprehend the scientific manner in which the nation went to war with the unscientific manner in which it went to work?" In other words, Bellamy's ideal society is essentially one big military organization.

In the Year 2000, the state supplies everything, down to the awnings that automatically come down to cover the sidewalks during rain. In other words, there is no conflict: no reason to exercise emotional strength, no learning experience, no reason to take initiative or be innovative, and absolutely nothing to inspire art or literature. How can you compose a compelling story when everyone is satisfied and happy? Everything is regimented, everything falls into place. "You're just another brick in the wall," so to speak. The superficiality of the Leete family characters was not merely the result of poor writing, I feel, but the lack of room in their society for individuality. (What if you WANTED to walk in the rain?) But even in Bellamy's own time, people expressed unease with his vision. There were several unauthorized dystopic sequels to "Looking Backward" that were published shortly afterwards. Several deal with revolution and an overblown socialist bureaucracy on the brink of collapse; in another, Julian West's warnings about the threat of Chinese military invasion are ignored by a populace unable to think for itself and dissent from official state opinion.

In the end, "Looking Backward" is fascinating from anthropological and historical perspective. It was intriguing to see how visions of an ideal world have changed and what is Utopia to one era is Dystopia to another. (Definitely check out the Thomas More story that inspired the entire genre.) But as actual literature, "Looking Backward" is epic fail.
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15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
HALL OF FAMEon May 12, 2000
Format: Mass Market Paperback
I really wasn't expecting much out of this book. I'm not a socialist or a communist, so I figured I'd be sneering at much of what Bellamy had to say. Imagine my surprise when I found myself genuinely attracted to the book. Bellamy wrote a socialist tract in the form of a novel. He gets his points across and weaves in a romance tale along the way. I should say that the ending was no surprise to me, as I kind of figured out what was going to happen along the way.
The book begins with our hero, Julian West, who is a quite successful gent in 1888 Boston. West is quite the dandy, and is engaged to be married to a lovely young lady. West has trouble sleeping, so he regularly employs the services of a "mesmerizer" to help him sleep. The problem with this is that someone must be around to wake him up or the mesmerizing process might cause a long slumber. You can guess what happens. West is discovered in 2000 in a world that is a far cry from the world of the late 19th century. The world has changed in a radical way, and the family that finds West, the Leetes, want to know all about his old world.
The new world is a socialist/communist utopia in which the old problems of unemployment, war, inequality and the like have been solved forever. The rest of the book is a discussion between West and Dr. Leete about the new world and how it contrasts to the old world. In this one has to be fairly impressed with Bellamy's predictions. Bellamy predicted credit cards and even interactive music that can be piped into a person's room.
A romance between West and Dr. Leete's daughter Edith eventually blooms, but I won't spoil the surprise this entails. The romance theme was put in to make the socialist text more palatable for the 19th century reader. It could conceivably do the same for the modern reader, although if you're reading this book you are probably reading it for its political value.
I certainly recommend this book to anyone interested in utopian works, or 19th century political views. What is really neat is while you read this book you can easily find yourself believing that this could work, until you remember something that Bellamy never knew about. The utter failure of the Soviet Union, and Communism in general. Give it a shot.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on August 30, 2009
Format: Paperback
I greatly enjoyed this book. The fact that it was published in 1888, is mind blowing. It is still very much relevant to today's society. There are ton of great ideas that really make the reader think about. I'd recommend this book to anyone who is open minded to new ideas, a forward looking thinker, and/or interested in the structure of society. This is easily one of my favorite books.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on February 27, 2006
Format: Paperback
Written during the era of the worst excesses of the "gilded age" and some of America's worst early labor upheavals including the Great Strike of 1877 and Haymarket and just prior to the Pullman and Homestead strikes. Looking Backward is an expression of Bellamy's faith that the industrial age and industrial cities could be made to work for all, not just the few. The book, a top seller of its time, above all shows that our ancestors believed they could reach the future without perishing.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on September 8, 2000
Format: Paperback
Our high school read this book for our Summer Reading Program. Most students and faculty agreed that the book raised excellent questions for discussion, but the dry, flat style of the writing made it very difficult to read. After falling asleep several times trying to read this at night, I finally forced myself to read it early in the morning. Bellamy spends much of the novel explaining how this socialist utopia functions, providing detailed analysis of the economy, government, education, and other institutions. I would recommend this book to readers interested in discussing political issues, but not for readers who need a strong plot or dynamic characters.
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on August 23, 2011
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
First published in 1888, Looking Backward was one of the most popular books of its day. It inspired several utopian communities and hundreds of "Bellamy Clubs" across America. Reading it today, it's hard to see what all the fuss was about.

Through a convoluted series of circumstances, wealthy Bostonian Julian West falls asleep in 1887 and wakes up in the year 2000. Upon awakening he is greeted by Dr. Leete, who will serve as his host and guide in this future society. The social order has changed drastically since West's day. America is now governed by an idealistic form of socialism, though Bellamy avoids the S-word in favor of terms like "cooperative", "rational", or "brotherly". It's not a strict Marxist socialism, but rather Bellamy's own brand. The overall governing principle is that cooperation is more efficient than competition. The trusts that dominated America in the late 19th century have eliminated each other through competition and consolidated into one giant trust, now governing all industry. This trust has somehow become the U.S. government, and now beneficently works for the interests of all citizens. The military has been replaced by the Industrial Army, all industry has been nationalized, money has been abolished, and all citizens receive identical wages in the form of credit which they are free to spend however they choose. Bellamy's society of the future sounds a lot like an early prospectus for the Soviet Union read through rose-colored glasses. In reality, its existence would require the total negation of all human greed and sloth. It is also heavily reliant on a benevolent ruler who wields absolute power. Unfortunately, as history has shown us time and again, those who wield absolute power are seldom benevolent.

My main objection to this book, however, is not directed toward its political ideals. I generally enjoy reading the socialist literature of this time period, and I'm usually up for a good utopian novel of any political stripe, no matter how far-fetched. What I object to is the writing. Once West wakes up in this brave new world, how does he spend his time? Sitting on the couch talking to Dr. Leete, chapter after chapter after chapter. Occasionally they go out to a restaurant, store, library, etc. where all they do is talk, talk, and talk some more. What's the first rule of good writing? Show me; don't tell me. If your intention is to teach us about an ideal industrial society, why not give the man a job? Julian West is not an active participant in the society being described. He doesn't interact with it at all. He is a perpetual bystander. This is really not a novel at all, but a series of dialogues in which Dr. Leete is the mouthpiece spouting the imaginary Constitution of Bellamy's ideal America. Would we all be happier living in Bellamy's world? Probably. But that doesn't make it a good book.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on July 30, 2001
Format: Paperback
Julian West, a young Bostonian, falls asleep in the year 1887 and wakes up in the Boston of 2000. He finds that Boston and even the whole world have been transformed to a great utopian society. A man by the name of Doctor Leete along with his wife (Mrs. Leete) and daughter (Edith Leete) take care of West in adjusting him to life in the year 2000.
The story itself turns out to be more of a distraction to the main point of the book, which is to explain the economic and social workings of the utopia found in 2000. Everybody is now paid equally for their work and no work is considered menial. Rather than working for individual companies, everybody works in what the author calls the "Industrial Army."
To keep everybody contented with their lot, measures are taken. For example, everybody wakes up every day to some music that rouses them to feel great about the greater cause they work for. The city streets are clean and there is no crime. Things like this make the book, for me at least, entirely creepy.
Unfortunately, the status of women in the book is not a whole lot better than it was in the 1880's. Women still leave the room when men begin talking politics. In addition, people have a tendency to talk in the book like they did, apparently, in the 1880's: with a disposition towards long-winded speech. As a result, the book has a tendency to drag on at times.
Since the book was written in the late 1800's, it is understandable that the author has no history of socialism to look back on, much less the failed experiment called the Soviet Union. Despite that, it is enlightening to see the goal of Socialist thinking play out in the story of "Looking Backward."
The introduction in the Penguin Classics version is well done and gives the reader a good background before reading the book.
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