Stimulating, thought-provoking utopian fantasy about a young man who's put into a hypnotic sleep in the late 19th century and awakens in the year 2000 to find a vastly changed world where crime, war, and want no longer exist. A provocative study of human society as it is and as it might be.Download Description
Edward Bellamy's utopian novel about a nineteenth-century Bostonian who awakes after a sleep of more than one hundred years to find himself in the year 2000 in a world of near-perfect cooperation, harmony, and prosperity. The novel had an enormous impact at the time of its publication, setting in motion a wave of reform activity and creating a vogue for utopian novels that continued over the next three decades. ... Read more
Customer Reviews (43)
not worth your time
The book is (at best) a third rate utopian hack job, that maybe has some interest for those who have a special interest in utopian lit.
Good, but a bit boring
I enjoyed reading "Looking Backward." It speaks much about the problems facing America near the turn of the century; the problems that affected almost everyone in America every day. The problems of greedy monopolists is the most evident, but also others. The book is not as much as a story as it is the author laying out his groundwork for a perfect society with a story sort of, but not really, built around it. There is sort of a romace, but almost the entire book is characters telling the protagonist what the future is like. I do find it funny though. Back in the 19th century, authors GREATLY underestimated the technological progress of mankind. Just decades later, it was the opposite- and authors were greatly overestimating it.
The world through rose-colored glasses
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.
Soviet Style Propaganda at its Best
... and yes the rosebush of man was indeed transplanted into that fantastic utopia delineated by Bellamy, and that land was called Russia, where the rosebush of the bog, which had lived since the beginning of time, was thenceforth dead in a space of less than 75 years.
A Milquetoast Utopia
Of all the pictures fun to imagine for the student of socialisms and utopias, American and otherwise, is to visualize a young Aldous Huxley or George Orwell sitting down near their respective public school fire places, during a cold and clammy English afternoon, and reading Looking Backwards.It is very easy for the reader to see Huxley and Orwell, if they did in fact read Bellamy's rather quaint vision of utopia, reflecting to them selves as they wrote their dystopic masterpieces, A Brave New World and 1984, respectively, "Alright.But what if...?"
Just like Huxley's and Orwell's works, Edward Bellamy is reacting to the horrors of his age.Violent confrontations between labor and capital in every corner of the United States were all the rage, and strikes before the age of enforced collective bargaining or binding arbitration were no joke.Imperialist wars in every corner of the world were threatening a world wide war--seemingly every other year.There were rumblings of an international socialist movement that was yearly gaining strength in Europe in spite of serious legal restrictions--while Bellamy was in University in Germany, he would have had a difficult time avoiding knowledge of the imprisonment of SPD leaders August Bebel and Wilhelm Liebknecht as well as the banning of the Party by von Bismarck's government.What most likely struck the most horror into Bellamy, though, was the absolute wretchedness of the slums that so many Americans were trying to survive in, and the inability of anyone to even try to create a way out of it that can not in some way be traced back to self-interest, greed or outright violence.
Looking Backward is an attempt to imagine a world where poverty and ignorance are abolished in the sentimental tradition of Charles Dickens--hero of Bellamy and the novel's protagonist Julian West--coupled with a truly novel bureaucratic technocracy.It was at least in part the influence of Bellamy's idealism that Leon Trotsky found most loathsome in American socialism, whether he knew it or not, when he unforgettably called the New York Socialist Party leader, Morris Hillquit "the ideal Socialist leader for successful dentists."Marx would likely have written off Bellamy using the language that Julian West uses to describe the Mesmerist, Dr. Pillsbury, who puts him into a one hundred thirteen year catatonic--a mere quack.What both Trotsky and Marx would have grudgingly realized on reading this book is that Bellamy was one of the few people in America in 1887--aside from a handful of socialists, anarchists, and union-syndicalists--who was openly hoping for a day when human beings would leave the realm of necessity and enter the realm of freedom.
The world which Julian West enters at the close of the twentieth century, when entreated by Dr. Leete to rouse him self, is a radically altered one.As Rip Van Winkle woke up in the Catskills to find that he no longer owed his allegiance to a King and at first finds that this is a truly bewildering situation, West finds a world even more bewildering to a Boston Brahmin.Complete and total state ownership of all means of production had been achieved during his long sleep, but even more shocking was that the United States was no longer a country suffering from any social ills.Cooperation reigned in the place of the pecuniary interests of individuals.The mentality of dog eat dog, which bred both ridiculous ostentation and indefensible poverty, had simply vanished leaving in its place a world of light labor, high culture, and nearly universal contentment.The state is run by disinterested pensioners--yes, Bellamy believes such a political animal would exist--in such a way as to ensure that the profit motive does not exist, and all that men, and women, truly compete for is glory.All work to the benefit of this cooperative commonwealth to the best of their ability and equality in the most literal terms.This is not Julian West's Boston.
What becomes apparent to the reader traveling with Julian in this new world is that in many ways Julian has not left the close of the nineteenth century.Boston at the close of the twentieth century, in spite of the technological revolutions and complete reordering of the state and economy, is very much the same for Julian West.He enjoys the highest of high culture through the intricate wall card telephone system of his acoustically treated room; drinks fine wine and smokes great cigars; at communal kitchens all eat cuisine that only the leisured rich could have afforded a century before.The blessings of civilization are enjoyed by all alike to the point that where, affectively, all have become members of a universally leisured single class.The impoverished and the working classes of America, seemingly, had nothing to lose but their poverty, ignorance, and despair.The truly leisured class had, seemingly, only their haughtiness and arrogance to lose.This is where some of my troubles with Edward Bellamy begin, and where some of his own prejudices become apparent.
Bellamy identifies the world in his Boston as having been broken down into truly distinct peoples.As he puts it at the opening of his work, America was organized upon "the immemorial division of society into the four classes, or nations, as they may be more fitly called, since the differences between them were far greater than those between any nations nowadays, of the rich and the poor, the educated and the ignorant." The ignorance and poverty that so horrified Bellamy was not the only thing about the poor that seems to have been truly their own seems to have died with them.
In a truly disturbing way, any notion of how Boston, and America, changed between 1850 and 1887, escapes Bellamy's consciousness.The "labor question" has been solved through nationalization and making all people work, in one capacity or other, if they want to have anything other than bread, water and a prison cell.What have happened to the Babel of ethnics, the massive networks of parochial organizations, ethnic clubs and sport organizations that were the wellsprings of life for so many Irish and Irish Americans?There is no evidence in the improved Boston of the late twentieth century of anything other type of respectability than Bourgeoisie Protestant respectability.The people of this appallingly genteel world may very have only the variety of one of their singular stores, which have absolutely no variety in products.The twenty-first century reader is left with the truly weird possibility that Julian West and Dr. Leete, after having exhausted the topic of how much better the present is than the past, will have nothing left to talk about but yachting and literature--what with conflict being abolished.
The transplanting of Victorian notions of how the world should be run is nowhere more apparent, and more disturbing for its implications, than when West and Leete speak about what portions of the world are organized on the system that America is organized upon.As Dr. Leete explains to West how international relations work in this era, he states:
"[T]he great nations of Europe as well as Australia, Mexico and parts of South America, are now organized industrially like the United States, which was the pioneer of the evolution.The peaceful relations of these nations are assured by a loose form of federal union of world-wide extent. An international council regulates the mutual intercourse commerce of the members of the union and their joint policy toward the more backward races, which are gradually being educated up to civilized institutions."
The white man's burden and civilizing mission does not go the way of the self-interest in idyllic Boston of the future, and an idealist as deeply committed to social justice as Bellamy could not conceive, even in fiction, of any group outside of the boundaries of western society having achieved the level of sophistication that they could live in a classless society.One has to wonder what the old Confederate states would finally have looked like, and whether old rebels and unionists shook hands across a bloody chasm while educating American blacks up to civilization.Whatever, Bellamy thinks about race in America, and how West would have thought about it--the only black we see in this book is the faithful body servant of West in the nineteenth century, one Sawyer, and nothing of consequence comes out of his mouth--we can easily surmise that his utopia was close to being for whites only.
Though Bellamy's idealism reads as totally genuine, Looking Backward has some very vital imagination lacking in it.Bellamy has his cooperative commonwealth based upon the principle that all work which serves the common good is equally important, but Bellamy finds it necessary to have West paling around with Leete, a retired physician.In a world where leisure and not labor is the rule, and where the masses are washed and wholly civilized by the exacting standards of an upper class education lasting until at least the twenty-first year, why was it necessary to have Leete be a someone that would be a portrait bourgeoisie respectability?The laboring intellectual, of astute and subtle brilliance with the gnarled hands of a quarter century of hard labor, is the glorious possibility of this world which Bellamy creates for the reader but never actually realizes.Though slightly saddening, this fact probably made the book more readable to the members of America's upper class, and possibly even more plausible to them.
From the vantage of the twenty-first century, Bellamy has an ability to appear hopelessly ridiculous.He could not have known how collectivism would lead to mass murder on a colossal scale in Europe and Asia in the Twentieth century--though he would not have been surprised how much of it was done by men and women who looked on the red flag as their own.Nor could he have foreseen how the "backwards races" of the world would struggle for their own freedom in the second half the twentieth century, and have several become great powers in their own right by its close.Radio, motion pictures, television, digitized recording devices, the internet, air travel and the hydrogen bomb attached to an intercontinental ballistic missile probably never entered his imagination.He should not, though, be faulted for this.His future was one infinitely brighter than the one the world suffered through, as the nations of the world gorged themselves on the most murderous wars and massacres in mankind's history.For all the novels faults and short comings, it is a profound piece of republican idealism, premised on the very American belief that people coming together can actually change lives.
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