Hindsight, a proverb says, is 20/20. But in the case of Edward Bellamy’s 1887 novel, Looking Backward, it is foresight that supposedly earns that distinction. It is, of course, rather easy to predict the future when you place your target far enough ahead so that no one living is likely to be able to call you on the failure of your prognostications. In fairness, though, I am holding Bellamy to a standard that should not be imposed upon him. Let’s examine the premise of this book: a man from 1887 wakes up after mysteriously snoozing away 113 years in a secret chamber of his Boston home, which happened to burn to the ground on the very evening that a friend put him into a trance (the sort of trance that allows the body to forego all normal metabolic functions for over a century) and then this friend conveniently left the country leaving no one about to say, “Hey, Julian West probably didn’t die when his house burned down. He’s probably just hynotized in the basement.” Yes, this is a remarkably plausible premise.
Despite dropping this premise and a supposedly prescient view of the world at the turn of the century after next, Bellamy clearly did not set out to predict the future. Instead, he intended to suggest a form that the future could take if people were just bright enough to allow his socialist vision to make virtually every decision in how society would be framed.
Why is Looking Backward remembered largely as an historical and philosophical artifact and not as a great work of literature? We can understand this by comparing Bellamy’s book–I really hate to dignify it as a novel–with a couple of other decidedly second-rate but still superior works that have been explored in this space. The improbabilities behind Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland–a King Solomon’s Mines-style, lost-kingdom book and behind William Dean Howells’ A Traveler from Altruria–in which rather than visiting the lost kingdom, we encounter a visitor from that place–are similar in degree with those in Looking Backward, but these books have what Bellamy’s story lacks: a plot and actual, narrated events.
The action–if we can call it such–of this book is almost exclusively dialogue, long, tedious, policy- and process-laden dialogue between West and his 21st century adopted family. We learn about each facet of this new world through chapters that conveniently explore a theme or two at a time. We learn about the education system, the labor system, the methods of international trade, women’s issues, and a dozen other areas of concern.
In the end, Bellamy escapes into the escape hatch employed by feeble writers in every creative writing class: It was all just a dream. Then he begs off of that exit and decides that maybe it wasn’t all a dream after all. Honestly, I have to wonder how Bellamy kept people reading to the end in his own day and how so many impressionable people could be gulled into a serious discussion of his book’s ideas.
The ultimate failure in Bellamy’s work, and the reason we should all be pleased that Ralph Waldo Emerson never wrote fiction, lies in the absence of what makes Hawthorne and Melville great: flawed human nature. Bellamy seems to have seriously believed that people could behave themselves in a perfectly equitable society. Leaders, in his mind, would not abuse their power, and the vast majority of people, given the opportunity to pick their own profession, would pick wisely. Apparently, some people would actually choose to dig ditches and collect garbage, when they might opt for far less odious occupation.
Couple naivete with a decided lack of narrative skill, and you have Edward Bellamy, an interesting social thinker, an historically significant figure, but a truly inconsequential artist.