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48 of 51 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "Looking Backward": still the great American utopian novel
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...
Published on October 27, 2003 by Lawrance M. Bernabo

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44 of 51 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars An Important Piece of Utopian Literature
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...
Published on May 17, 1999 by Gregory J. Thompson


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48 of 51 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "Looking Backward": still the great American utopian novel, October 27, 2003
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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
5.0 out of 5 stars Edward Bellamy's classic utopian novel and other writings, November 8, 2003
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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. 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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44 of 51 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars An Important Piece of Utopian Literature, May 17, 1999
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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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Historical Value Only, December 16, 2008
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
5.0 out of 5 stars A Surprisingly Good Book, May 11, 2000
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
5.0 out of 5 stars Amazing, August 30, 2009
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wphockey (California, USA) - See all my reviews
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
4.0 out of 5 stars Classic Victorian fantasy, February 27, 2006
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S. Jones (Las Cruces, NM) - See all my reviews
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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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35 of 47 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A warmly human and enlightening read, February 3, 2003
Having never really heard of this novel or its author before, I was rather surprised to discover how immensely popular it was at the end of the nineteenth century. Edward Bellamy does an excellent albeit sometimes pedantic job of communicating his socioeconomic views and provides an interesting and informative read, despite the fact that the utopia of his fictional creation is a socialist nightmare in the realm of my own personal philosophy. It is very important to understand the time in which Bellamy was writing, especially for a conservative-minded thinker such as myself who holds many of Bellamy's views as anathema. It was the mid-1880s, a time of great social unrest; vast strikes by labor unions, clashes between workers and managers, a debilitating economic depression. Bellamy, to his credit, in no way comes off as holier than thou; his wealthy protagonist recognizes his own responsibility in seeing the world in the eyes of the more prosperous classes, basically ignoring the plights of the poor and downtrodden, having inherited rather than earned the money he is privileged to enjoy, etc. This makes the character's observations and conclusions very impactful upon the reader.
While I do respect Bellamy's views and understand the context in which they germinated, I cannot help but describe his future utopia as nothing less than naïve, socialistic, unworkable, and destructive of the individual spirit. Indeed, it sounds to me like vintage Soviet communism, at least in its ideals. Bellamy is a Marxist with blinders on. I should describe the actual novel at this point. The protagonist, an insomniac having employed a mesmerist to help him sleep through the night, finds himself waking up not the following morning in 1887 but in a completely changed world in 2000. His bed chamber was a subterranean fortress of sorts which only he, his servant, and the mesmerist (who left the city that same night) even knew about, and apparently his home proper burned down on that fateful night and thus his servant was clearly unable to bring him out of his trance the following morning. It is only by accident that Dr. Leekes of twentieth-century Boston discovers the unknown tomb and helps resuscitate its remarkable inhabitant. 20th-century life is wholly unlike anything the protagonist has ever known, and the book basically consists of a number of instruction sessions by the Leekes as to how society has been virtually perfected over the preceding 100 years. There is no more war, crime, unhappiness, discrimination, etc. There are no such things as wages or prices, even. All men and women are paid the same by virtue of their being human beings; while money does not exist, everyone has everything they possibly need easily available to them for purchase with special credit cards. Every part of the economy is controlled by the national government, and it is through cooperation of the brotherhood of men that production has exceeded many times over that of privately controlled industries fighting a war against each other in the name of capitalism.
Bellamy's future utopia is most open to question in terms of the means by which individualism is supposedly strengthened rather than smothered, how a complex but seemingly set of incentives supposedly keep each worker happy and productive, how invention or improvement of anything is possible in such a world, and how this great society does not in fact become a mirror of Khrushchev's Russian state. Such a society consisting of an "industrial army" and controlled in the minutest of terms by a central national authority simply sounds like Communism to my ears and is equally as unsustainable. Of course, Bellamy wrote this novel many years before the first corruptions of Marx's dangerous dreams were made a reality on earth. As I said, I disagree with just about everything Bellamy praises, and I think almost anyone would agree his utopia is an impossibility, but I greatly respect the man for his bold, humanitarian vision and applaud his efforts to make the world a better place. In fact, many groups organized themselves along the lines of the world Bellamy envisioned, so the novel's influence on contemporary popular thought is beyond question. Looking Backward remains a fascinating read in our own time.
I should make clear that the novel is not completely a dry recitation of socioeconomic arguments and moralistic treatises. Bellamy makes the story of this most unusual of time travelers a most enjoyable one, bringing in an unusual type of old-fashioned romance to supply the beating heart of a novel that had the potential to become overly analytical and thus rather boring reading otherwise. He also managed to grab me by the scruff of the neck and shake me around a couple of times with his concluding chapter, quite shocking me with a couple of unexpected plot twists. This great humanist of the late nineteenth century can teach us all something about what it means to be truly human, although I fear that his socioeconomic theories are themselves far too romanticized to have much practical relevance in the lives of modern men and women.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The world through rose-colored glasses, January 19, 2007
By 
Bomojaz (South Central PA, USA) - See all my reviews
Julian West is put to sleep by a mesmerizer (a quack) in 1887 and wakes up again in the year 2000. He encounters a Dr. Leete who explains to him in great detail how the world has changed - mainly how it has been transformed into a magnificent socialistic Utopia where everyone is the same. There is no war, no competition, and everyone lives in peace and harmony. Bellamy was a true believer in Marx and his theories and he wrote this book as a pleasing presentation of Socialism and, to him, its saving graces. When the government controlled everything and everyone, he believed everyone would be treated the same and there would be no class/economic differences and struggles. It's kind of laughable, in a way, because it depicts people in a way that seems contrary to human behavior. Bellamy also didn't have the benefit of the 20th century and the horrors inflicted by Stalin, Mao and others in the name of Marx to temper his overly optimistic views. It's a classic, though, of Utopian literature; one might even imagine it the last of its kind, but Utopia will always beckon a fevered imagination that sees great unhappiness in the world.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Creepy, but otherwise okay, July 30, 2001
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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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Looking Backward: 2000-1887
Looking Backward: 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy (Paperback - January 24, 2011)
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