When Edward Bellamy’s strange sci-fi novel Looking Backward: 2000-1887 appeared in 1888, it quickly became a runaway bestseller. It sold half a million copies in its first decade, putting it in the same league as Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Ben-Hur. Everyone from Mark Twain to William Jennings Bryan loved it. So how did a novel of far-out, time-traveling fantasy fiction become such an instant classic? Bellamy’s book had plenty of futuristic gadgets: credit cards, electronic broadcasting, electric light, and pneumatic tubes. But the real reason Looking Backward became so popular was because it offered an elegant solution to the crisis of late nineteenth century America: an era when the widening gap between rich and poor was threatening to destroy the country’s democracy. The utopian society imagined by Bellamy reconciles the loftiest ideals of the American Revolution with the realities of modern industrial society, a balancing act that, more than a century later, still eludes us.
I wrote an essay about Bellamy for Lapham’s Quarterly. It’s called “Magical Thinking” and you can read it on their website.