August 08, 2003

Looking Backward, 2000 to 1887 by Edward Bellamy

No cover image for this one since I read the Project Gutenberg edition which, being non-corporeal, has no cover. If you need the book on wood pulp, there's a Dover Thrift edition for $2.50.

This book got a lot of attention around the turn of the millenium. Bellamy tells the tale of Julian West, a man from 1887 Boston, who goes to sleep one night in his home and wakes up, over 100 years later. What he finds at the other end of all those years is a society in which all the social problems of his day have been solved. At least all the ones that Bellamy recognized as problems in any case. The book follows West through his first week in the future as he is introduced to the changes that have been wrought in the world while he has been away.

I've been picking away at the book for the last couple of years after loading the etext into my Palm after reading a lengthy review by Robert L. Weinberg in The Nation (the review itself isn't online, you'll have to track down the paper copy...) This unfocussed and fitful reading leaves me with a ghostly memory of large portions of the book.

The basic gist of Bellamy's utopian vision is that the problem with 19th century life was the inefficiency of it all: production based on speculation, the vast array of middlemen in the distribution system. The solution depicted is that all production and distribution is controlled by one collectively owned and operated body. Everyone works for a portion of their youth in exchange for life-long support.

I don't know enough economic/political history or theory to comment intelligently about the plausibility or intellectual lineage of all this. But in reading it, there were several snippets that made it into my quote file:

There is no such thing in a civilized society as self-support.


The necessity of mutual dependence should imply the duty and guarantee of mutual support.

As a predictive work, of course, it fails miserably. Our 2000 has much more in common with Bellamy's 1887 than with his 2000. Which brings to mind my dissatisfaction with most utopian novels, that they show the perfect world already in place and fully-functioning. The much more interesting story is the one of how they got from here to there. Bellamy's book gives none of that.

Posted by jeffy at August 8, 2003 05:12 PM
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