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The Centenary of Edward Bellamy

January 10, 1988|Dean Stewart | Stewart is a free-lance writer living in Santa Barbara. and

In 1935, American scholars Charles Beard and John Dewey were asked separately to compile lists of the most important books of the preceding 50 years. Independently, both men ranked Edward Bellamy's "Looking Backward," the most influential work by an American in that period.

As sensational in its day as Harriet Beecher Stow's "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and, in its own way, as enduring a revelation of American character as Franklin's "Autobiography," or Henry Adams' "Education," Bellamy's novel is one of the most significant books in American history. Unlike the other volumes, however, Bellamy's work is more than indictment or testament, it is an exploration and speculation on the political future of the United States.

Written during the Gilded Age of reckless industrialization, the Haymarket riots and the beginnings of the union movement, the novel projects the America of the politically harmonious year 2000. Published in January, 1888, this year marks the 100th anniversary of the book.

In the century since its publication, "Looking Backward" has been nothing if not popular. Millions of copies have been sold worldwide, and it has been translated into more than 20 languages. It is arguably the most internationally known of American books and has never gone out of print.

Bellamy, the son of a minister, was born in 1850 in the textile town of Chicopee Falls, Mass. Reared in an atmosphere of Christian austerity and New England progressive politics, he was intended for a career in the law but resisted that course, finding work as a journalist and editor. A precocious writer on social themes, Bellamy was also the author of popular romantic fiction, publishing often in the magazines of the period. These two diverging tastes came together in "Looking Backward," with his capacity for light-touch storytelling and editorial insight.

The tale itself is a fantastic sort of socialist Rip Van Winkle. The protagonist, Julian West, is a 19th-Century bluestocking Bostonian. An insomniac, he has a sleeping vault built underneath his home. When the house burns to the ground one night and he can't be found, he's assumed to be dead. More than a century later, the vault is discovered and Julian, improbably in a state of suspended animation, is awakened.

He becomes the guest of Doctor Leete and his daughter, Edith, and without so much as a shave or a trip to the bathroom, they begin his education in the superior civilization in which he has emerged. For contrast, there is an occasional backward glance at the injustice and laissez-faire barbarism he's left behind.

Aside from the stated or implied health care, housing and full employment benefits of the society, the principle feature of this reconstructed Republic is the "industrial army" and the 24-year tour of service it entails. Doctor Leete explains at length the process of induction, initial labor at menial chores before transfering to a trade of one's choice or attending a university. The possibility of changing jobs is explained and the system of elevating some workers to managerial positions is sketched briefly. Generally, though, the whole planning or bureaucratic level of society is rather thinly described. There is an underlying reassurance of the fundamental democracy of Bellamy's America, but its mechanics, the forces that necessitate and protect this democracy, are only briefly outlined.

The military model for society that Bellamy envisioned has often been criticized. In fact, it was derived from his boyhood vantage on the Civil War and the perception of a society made cohesive and ordered through purpose. It is this sensibility, not especially a love of the military, that inspired Bellamy. His social ideal has sometimes been called "the religion of solidarity."

Virtually all major industry in Bellamy's America is government controlled, or, as any generic socialist would see it, is in the hands of the citizenry at large. The scope of curtailment of private ownership is not gone into very deeply. Wages are equalized at all levels of society, and personal interest and pursuit of prestige or profound devotion to the larger welfare of society motivate individuals into differing careers. Shorter work hours or early retirement make some types of labor attractive to some people: This is the case with the physically arduous or dangerous occupations.

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