What is it about storytellers’ imagination that it is inspired by the dystopian rather than the utopian? Dystopian novels are intriguing, for sure, and they reconfigure our social, political, and economic failings in a contextualized environment. They are literary caveats, Cassandra-like parables about what our world could become if we give in to our fears and loathings. But what about the utopian novel? What about wondering the best possible world for mankind? Is this more difficult, if not impossible to fathom– a better, fairer society which functions smoothly and generously? Or is this more of the province of activists than authors?
Great Society for Hundred-Percenters
Unfortunately, you’ve probably never heard of Edward Bellamy, nor his utopian novel, Looking Backward, originally published way back in 1888, at the height of the Gilded Age. At the time, however, it was a blockbuster hit, outselling every novel of the 19th century (with the notable exception of Uncle Tom’s Cabin) and leading to the burgeoning of dozens of progressive organizations. American history books tend to gloss over the 1890s, as the leitmotif of the decade was one of contentiousness, an uprising of labor against management, and for many on the front lines of the picket wars, the dogeared book tucked in their breast pocket was not Marx’s manifesto, but a “time travel” novel.
The story’s premise is simple: the year is 1887 and Julian West, a handsome, wealthy thirty-year-old engaged to a prominent Boston belle, is your 19th century version of the trust-fund loafer, whittling his time in clubs with brandy and cigars, oblivious to the misery of the working class poor and exasperated that the construction on his conjugal chateau has been disturbed by yet another labor strike. West’s troubles are tame in relation to the wage-slave factory hand, but he struggles with insomnia and has a hypnotist put him to sleep in a hermetically sealed underground chamber. This sleep unit survives a house fire in which West is presumed dead. More than a century later, in the year 2000, in the process of renovation, his chamber is discovered by the family now living on the grounds and West is revived, Lazarus-like, in a truly brave new world.
The family are the Leetes, the Dr., his wife, and their lovely daughter, Edith, and they are emblematic of contemporary folk– educated, generous, and incredulous at how people lived in utter desperation in the past. But what of the present? Bellamy’s Great Society is most specific on socio-economic changes rather than physical manifestations. It’s not so much the Jetsons as it is the Castros: a nation in which all industries are connected with the government, in which there is no cash (only debit cards) and where all workers, from the president to the pear-picker make do on the same salary.
Of course, this reads fundamentally like communism, but in this novel life functions more like Scandinavian egalitarianism than Soviet orthodoxy. This is a free society, in which, “every man for himself in accordance with his natural aptitude, the utmost pains being taken to enable him to find out what his natural aptitude really is.” In West’s age (and which continues in our time as well), the failure of the economic system to effectively “ develop and utilize the natural aptitudes of men for industries and intellectual avocations was one of the great wastes and causes of unhappiness.” Moreover, “mercenary considerations, tempting men to pursue money-making occupations for which they were unfit… were responsible for another vast perversion of talent.”With full equality a reality, men (and women!) can pursue ideal career goals that stimulate their… Click To Tweet
With full equality a reality, men (and women!) can pursue ideal career goals that stimulate their intellect, rather than work a miserable profession to procure bling trophies of first place rat race finish lines. Families in Bellamy’s utopia live modestly but comfortably, private life luxuries sacrificed for a more extravagant public good, in which there are great collective dining and music halls, where all are welcome.
The novel is more closely a dialogue between the retired Dr. Leete and Julian West, naturally skeptical at first, but who comes around to understanding socialized paradigms as the natural inevitability of common sense, that, “it is the worst thing about any system which divides men, or allows them to be divided, into classes and castes, that it weakens the sense of a common humanity.”
It is often the case that we cannot see the forest for the trees, so that whatever present system we live (and loathe) under, it is difficult for most of us to contemplate any other way of life. But Dr. Leete’s (as a proxy for Bellamy) explication of 19th century’s business model’s prepositional “wastes” (of mistaken undertakings, from competition and mutual hostility, by periodical gluts and crises, from idle capital and labor at all times) is as true today as they were in the days of child labor and sharecropper farms. The system was “as absurd economically as it was morally abominable. Selfishness was their only science, and in industrial production selfishness is suicide.”
Through the tweaking of “certain fatal defects and prodigious imbecilities of private enterprise,” America’s economic system became more proficient and productive and, most importantly, less unequal. Higher achievement or excellence in performance is not rewarded remuneratively but with the bestowal of honor and the satisfaction of advancing the cause of humanity. In Bellamy’s imagined America, everyone contributes and no one starves, as “that the right of man to maintenance at the nation’s table depends on the fact that he is a man, and not on the amount of health and strength he may have, so long as he does his best.”
Julian West is eventually won over by the idea of social progress and in a dream-within-a-dream sequence that or may not have happened (no spoilers from me!), he wakes up back in his Boston bed of 1887, still an entitled scion, but no longer immune to the heartbreaking struggles of the majority of his brethren. The precariousness of their cutthroat existence moves him to intolerable emotions and he cannot not live sensibly with his class of men, their gentlemen’s clubs and servants and supercilious privilege. The epoch he was born into, and all he took for granted, had evolved into a living nightmare.
Bellamy is more of a conceptualist than a storyteller, and his writing can be clunky and his narrative guilty of melodrama especial to the time. But Upton Sinclair’s writing shares these same faults, but we remember (and some of us actually read) The Jungle, but not Looking Backward. Is this because Sinclair’s work led to government reform of a specific industry, while on the other hand implementing the ideas of Looking Backward would have involved total restructuring of our economic system as well as evolving from our materialistic habits? Bellamy’s seminal work is not an easy read, but it must be read by activists, artists, and anyone who believes that our society can, should and will be improved. In a short book review, you can just touch tip of the iceberg that might sink this ship of fools we’ve been riding directionless all too many generations.
The world we live in today is a far cry from Edward Bellamy’s epic vision. And it is easy to get down on the future with seemingly contemporary unwinnable crises, those of corporate oligarchies, environmental disaster, nuclear apocalypse, and longterm recession. Yet in Bellamy’s time of the 19th century, two thirds of the world was colonized by another, women were second-class citizens, children worked in factories, and no social safety net existed anywhere. Many fought, and much blood was spilled, to make common sense that much more common. Tens of thousands had martyred themselves to make the world a much more equitable place than it was in the so-called “good old days” of 1887. It is fitting then to finish the review with one of the twentieth century’s greatest martyrs, Martin Luther King Jr., who once put it best, “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”