A Book Much Mentioned, Little Read Now

Looking Backward (1888)

By Edward Bellamy

You don’t have to wonder what the author would make of the year 2000 he had so much hope for. While the technological whiz-bang, cleaner environment (by comparison), plentiful food (for many more but not all), and public education (though of varying and spotty quality) would have been familiar, by a degree, to what he’d foreseen, those advancements of most importance to him would certainly rank as major disappointments. Efficient business operations and capital deployment, concentration of wealth, judicious and fair governance, full employment, equitable pay, an intelligent and very polite populace, absence of crime, plenty of leisure time, and sundry other items, while better than in the latter 19th century, remain wanting. But, then, Bellamy imagined a utopia, an alliance of men and women, that by the very nature of humans seems nearly (as hope always exists) impossible. Or, as the editor of the Boston Transcript of his day opined might occur 75 centuries from his time. Which, you would suppose, is to say, “Never.”

If you’ve never read Looking Backward, you’ll want to for a couple of reasons. It has proven to be an influential book, practically spawning an entire publishing industry of both satire and serious commentary and fiction. Politically, it also exerted influence, with readers forming Nationalist Clubs and adding foundation to the People’s Party, better known as the Populist Party. And it must touch some part of our national soul for it has never been out of print, managing to find new readers in successive generations of thinkers, or perhaps dreamers.

But be forewarned before picking up a copy. Bellamy wrote Looking Backward as a fantasy novel. However, reading tastes of the 19th and 21st centuries are vastly different. By today’s standards, the writing strikes one as cumbersome, dense, and turgid. The plot, if you can call it that, is paper thin, and the suspenseful element is so obvious a YA reader would groan. So, none of this is why you would read the book. You read it for the political and economic philosophy laid out systematically by the author. As you read, questions arise and you raise objections, and as if Bellamy were beside you, lo and behold he answers them. In his rendering, Bellamy makes the 19th century system, which is still pretty much what we have today, seem quite awful, and the solution, a highly organized socialistic state, admittedly just a notch or two away from a fascist regime, appealing in a bland sort of way.

In short, guaranteed to water the eyes of the already doe-eyed as it inflames the ire of Ayn Rand warriors. Perhaps this is why it remains in print: it moves people. So, give it a look and you can say you’ve read, if it ever comes up in conversation. w/c

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