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Looking Backward, 2000-1887 by Edward…

Looking Backward, 2000-1887 (1888)

by Edward Bellamy

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: Bedford Series in History and Culture (1995)

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Showing 1-5 of 36 (next | show all)
To think we really aren't any closer.

This is a book to make you think. Wording is a bit dated and some may become bored with that but I found it interesting.
( )
  mmoj | Mar 2, 2017 |
What I find most interesting about Looking Backward is how contemporary readers of the work are willing to dismiss is it as nothing more than a failed attempt to accurately predict the future, as if Edward Bellamy was nothing more than another hokey Criswell predicting homosexual cities in giant undersea aqua-domes. Whenever Bellamy is mentioned these days in reference to Looking Backward, there's a good chance it is done so out of contempt, or to even imply that he wasn't worth mentioning in the first place.

In The Fickle Muse by media critic and popular culture guru Paul A. Cantor, for example, he states that "Edward Bellamy, in his otherwise eminently forgettable 188 utopian novel Looking Backward, correctly forecast the invention of the radio, which he cleverly called 'the musical telephone.' By the end of the paragraph, it becomes apparent that his main reason for bringing this up at all is to set up an amusing jab at Howard Stern. "Eminently forgettable" is a remarkable way to describe a book that was not only one of the three top selling novels of its time (right behind Uncle Tom's Cabin and Ben Hur) but managed to spawn its own political movement. We might not be quoting Looking Backward in Facebook memes, but that shouldn't obscure the impact that the novel made at the time of its release. As psychologist philosopher Erich Fromm pointed out in his forward to an edition of the book, "Three outstanding personalities, Charles Beard, John Dewey, and Edward Weeks, independently making a list of the twenty-five most influential books published since 1885, all put Bellamy's work in the second place, Karl Marx's Das Kapital being in the first."

Utopian novels seem to be less palatable to contemporary readers. There's something about classic works being hopeful about the future that leaves a bad taste the collective mouth of today's literary audience. They tend to be more comfortable with bleak Dystopian future worlds full of regret and doom. Perhaps it's more comforting to give up hope. You won't hear anybody claiming that George Orwell got it all wrong because we don't live in a world as oppressive as in 1984, or that Aldous Huxley was delusional because we don't take Soma holidays or play Obstacle Golf like in Brave New World, yet it isn't hard to find yourself tripping over articles like Daniel Hope's "The Accuracy of Edward Bellamy" going out of their way to refer to Bellamy's vision of an idyllic future society as "juvenile enthusiasm" full of "wrong-headedness and wildly unfounded optimism."

There has to be psychological reason why current readers find Bellamy's heavenly socialist new world order any less credible than Centrifugal Bumble Puppy or the Ministry of Love. In Looking Backward, upper-class fiancé Julian West goes to bed in his fortified underground sleeping chamber (with the helpful application of some new-age mesmerism) in 1988 only to wake up in the year 2000. Aided and supported by the doctor who discovered him and his attractive young daughter (who looks an awful lot like his future bride from 1988), Julian - and through him, the reader - is given a tour of the utopian future city of Chicago, now almost completely devoid of crime, poverty, or hunger. Even boredom has been stamped out. We're talking the perfect society. Thomas More's quaint little island has got nothing on this place.

The Chicago of Bellamy's future is part of a larger system in which labor organization has been taken over by the government, profits are shared through subsidized - well, everything, really - and all wealth created by labor is diverted back into society. In short, everything your conservative uncle warns you about during Thanksgiving dinner. Without a doubt, Bellamy's stab at utopian wonderland is extreme enough that there is something to please and anger most anybody: he gets rid of the lawyers, demolishes capitalism, allows women in the workplace (okay, so maybe he got some things right), fully funds the arts and public recreation, and did I mention that he gets rid of the lawyers?

Yes, many of the novel's "predictions" seem far-fetched or implausible, and even downright frightening if you lean to the right of the political spectrum. But what is easy to forget is that utopian novels are usually meant to be filled with over the top idealism, as their extreme versions of unobtainable perfection (the word Utopia itself translating to "no-place") act as satire and/or commentary on current affairs. Despite Bellamy's repeated defense of his description of the next century's rapid cultural evolution, it is much more effective to look at the novel's time travel device as an effective way of highlighting our society's perpetual near-nearsightedness when it comes to changing the current sociopolitical system. In fact, the very name of the book references this theme, although it might be easier to look at it from afar first, as Julian does.

When the novel starts out, our young well-to-do hero can only see the flaws in society and the struggles they produce as they affect him directly: his main focus on recent labor disputes over wages is that they are holding up the construction of his newlywed home, and therefore stalling his wedding. Suffering from insomnia (perhaps a symbolic jab at modern man's inability to "dream" of a life other than the one he inhabits), Julian is put to sleep by a mesmerist only to awaken a century later. When the magnanimous Dr. Leete introduces him to the future version of his home city of Chicago, he does so by taking him to the rooftop of his home so he can gaze down upon the cityscape from above. Like the title itself, this moment foreshadows the intent of the novel, which is to attempt to jar the reader from a myopic worldview by introducing him to his own world from a new perspective.

It isn't just that Julian gets to see what has become of the world in his absence, but that his tour through an idyllic future forces him to look upon his own time of 1988 as a historical landmark rather than the unavoidable real world. People always have an easier time recognizing change and progress when witnessing it through the filter of time, are more willing to accept radical advances in society and politics after the fact than to comfortably accept that such a thing might happen in their own lifetime. Bellamy, perhaps unintentionally, illustrates this point when he responds to a review of Looking Backward which criticized the brief time-span that the book allows for such massive global change by pointing to historic examples of rapid bursts of societal and cultural advancements. History is so often used as context that the future seems almost inaccessible without the past to claim as context. The book's narrator says as much to the reader directly, as Julian finds himself remarking at one point: "One can look back a thousand years easier than forward fifty." Society struggles when it comes to looking forward and seeing any substantial change.

So, Bellamy attempts to usurp this bias for the past by turning the present into the past, and doing so by painting a future that, he claims, is a possible achievement. Yes, it is wishful thinking at its most optimistic, but the contrast it offers is just as informative - perhaps even more so - than the contrast that Dystopian tomes afford us against the worst-case scenario. It might not seem totally feasible that a future would exist in which all citizens share equally in the bounty of their labors, but by taking us through the detailed mechanisms of how this future America manages just that, we are forced to examine the inequalities and shortcomings of the current era and contemplate whether it is more unreasonable to dismiss the offered solutions, or accepting the flaws of the present as unavoidable.

Sometimes solutions aren't meant to be practical answers as much as they are to expose us to the problem. Jonathan Swift's suggestion that poor people could ease their economic hardships by eating their children when the couldn't afford food is not, according to most, a reasonable solution, but it not only highlights the problem at hand, but the callous attitude towards that problem by certain segments of society. Of course, Looking Backward doesn't fall as neatly into the category of satire as Swift's essay "A Modest Proposal" or Voltaire's Candide, but the literary device of using the extreme and extraordinary to highlight the commonplace is just as effective. It might seem ludicrous to reduce the number of laws to four or five and eliminate lawyers and juries altogether, but this only goes to illustrate the absurdity of a legal system so complex that people must devote their entire lives to studying the law to even begin to understand it. You don't hear anybody knocking Kafka for making the same point in The Trial. But that was a Dystopian novel, so that's a bit easier to accept.

Looking Back doesn't necessarily have all the answers, and it might be just as hit-or-miss with its predictions as Back to the Future II - Although you have to give it to Bellamy, he not only predicted credit cards, he called them credit cards! - but the Utopian paradise of the year 2000 that never was still manages to cast a shadow on many societal problems that still exist over a hundred years before Julian's lengthy nap, and maybe that's more significant than Bellamy's failure to predict how little we've managed to change. ( )
  smichaelwilson | Jun 9, 2016 |
A utopian political tract, more interesting for its glimpse into 19th-century radical political idealism than its literary qualities.

Although largely forgotten today, 'Looking Backward' was apparently a runaway bestseller at the time of its publication, spawning dozens of social clubs devoted to improving society in ways inspired by Bellamy.

The ideas are a combination of idealistic and disconcerting.

Some of the ideas are noble and truly something to aspire to - for example, the idea that every person in a society has a right to share in the wealth of that society, and to live with dignity, without want. However, there's also a uniformity and social authoritarianism that many modern people may find repellent.

When Bellamy imagines a mega-store, he sees a temple-like place of fountains, marble, and a virtually unlimited selection of quality merchandise. When I think of a mega-store, I think WalMart.
Bellamy's vision depends on the belief that human beings are, at heart, naturally peaceful and cooperative, and that if people are given a good education, the opportunity to do what they're best at, and all the necessities of a comfortable life, crime and conflict will naturally disappear. Sadly, I disagree. I'm more of the opinion that people will always find an excuse for conflict, and that if everyone is on equal footing, each person will still find a way to try to rise higher than another. If private commerce is banned, black markets will arise.

Although Bellamy specifies that his utopia arises naturally from capitalism, without violent revolution, and that the bureaucratic and administrative tasks of the nation are overseen by a team who have no personal power or self-interest in the matter (no dictators in sight), there are still disturbing similarities to Nazi propaganda here. (Bellamy's vision, here, is undeniably one of a form of National Socialism - without the hatred, intolerance and bigotry that political movement came to be associated with.)

By chance, shortly after reading this book, I read a book review of a volume that sought to explain the rise of the Third Reich. I don't think the author's theories were correct. I think that reading this book, with its vision of a peaceful, united nation with a patriotic, healthy, fully participating and content citizenry, is far more explanatory of how radical ideas can capture the imagination of a people.

Still, it's refreshing, in this era of dystopias and apocalypse, to read something from an era when people widely dreamed that the future might be better, not worse, than the present day. ( )
  AltheaAnn | Feb 9, 2016 |
A sleeper from 1887 wakes in a world in which all is shared equally, all this achieved without bloody revolution or any opposition from those in power. Influential in its time.
  ritaer | Oct 24, 2015 |
  OberlinSWAP | Aug 1, 2015 |
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» Add other authors (32 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Edward Bellamyprimary authorall editionscalculated
Fromm, Erichsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Miller, Walter JamesIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
s.BENešCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Zetkin, ClaraTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Preface: Living as we do in the closing year of the twentieth century, enjoying the blessings of a social order at once so simple and logical that it seems but the triumph of common sense, it is, no doubt, difficult for those whose studies have not been largely historical to realize that the present organization of society is, in its completeness, less than a century old.
I first saw the light in the city of Boston in the year 1857.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0140390189, Paperback)

It is the year 2000 - and full employment, material abundance and social harmony can be found everywhere. This is the America to which Julian West, a young Bostonian, awakens after more than a century of sleep. West's initial sense of wonder, his gradual acceptance of the new order and a new love, and Bellamy's wonderful prophetic inventions - electric lighting, shopping malls, credit cards, electronic broadcasting - ensured the mass popularity of this 1888 novel. But, however rich in fantasy and romance, "Looking Backward" is a passionate attach on the social ills of nineteenth-century industrialism and a plea for social reform and moral renewal. In her introduction, Cecelia Tichi discusses how the novel echoes the anguish and hopes of its own age while it embodies a sustaining myth of the American literary tradition - that man's perfectibility is attainable in the New World.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:23:17 -0400)

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A wealthy Bostonian awakes from a hypnotic trance to find himself in a futuristic cooperative commonwealth.

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