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From A Prodigious Coach Driven By Hunger
Looking Back by Edward Bellamy
© 2013 James LaFond
It is well known among my associates and readers that I am interested in old and obscure literature, particularly science-fiction and proto-science-fiction. In trying to imagine our future in writing, I consider it my job to read of the imagined futures of the past, particularly those futures attributed to dates I lived through. One of my readers recently sent me this book in hopes of a serious review.
So, having dismissed my man servant, given the field hands the day off to go to the carnival, sent my tailor packing for more silk rather than vexing me with the constant re-measuring of my girth, having fed my daddy’s quibbling Manhattan accountant to Channing’s ravenous hounds, and having twice lied to my overbearing nanny as to my whereabouts, I have settled down in the West Wing of the Big House to wax bibliophilic—God lives! The spell-check took it…
Looking Backward: 2000-1887
Edward Bellamy
1887, Tricknor and Company 1888, Penguin Classics 1986, 234 pages [35 editorial commentary]
This book has more in common with a folktale like Rip Van Winkle, than early science-fiction like H. G. Well’s Time Machine. This is not science-fiction, but utopian fantasy, written in a time that was exceptionally brutal to the ordinary person and never-before better for the privileged classes.
The narrative is written as a memoir by one Julian West, born in Boston in the year 1857. The prose style is not lurid like Stoker, sensational like a dime novel, or gritty like London. It is cleanly pedestrian, a clearly stated walk through a what-if life. West employed a ‘quack doctor’ or ‘mesmerist’ to put him to sleep, in May 1887. He was wakened in September 2000 [with nary a cramp] by a doctor and his wife and daughter, with whom he became close friends.
There are no advancements in clothing or furniture, or any everyday technology. The only advancements have been in physical fitness; the elevation of the English language to the point where everyone spoke impeccably, instead of just the upper classes as in West’s day; civic architecture, and in macroeconomics and politics. The future is a world of one-corporation enlightened capitalist nations overseen by a world trade commission. The genders are segregated but equal. The paternalistic White man is fast educating the ‘backward races’. Every citizen is a stockholder in his nation-company which all thrive in a cashless economy. The best part about 2000 is that cities have monolithic buildings surrounded by open spaces, and wide avenues and parks, without the dwellings of the masses anywhere in sight.
In short, Bellamy’s view of the future, as he states in his postscript, is one where the ‘nobility of man’ will shine in a ‘golden age’. Not the base inequitable world of his day or ours. Bellamy comes off as an uncommonly decent man; the kind of man that could never fathom the ‘law of unintended consequences’ or any of the horrors that consumed near 100 million souls in the century of national industrial wars that his very dreams [which he shared with many thinkers of the time] of nationalized industrial economies would spawn.
As futuristic writing Looking Backward is a non-starter. The entire composition is intended as a vehicle for Julian West to describe what was wrong with his time to the future Americans; just a contrivance for Bellamy’s preaching to his contemporaries. This is where the book shines. From page 38 to 41 Bellamy describes through West, 1880s America as “…a prodigious coach which the masses of humanity were harnessed to and dragged toilsomely along a very hilly and sandy road. The driver was Hunger and permitted no lagging, though the pace was necessarily very slow…the top was covered with passengers who never got down even at the steepest ascents…for all that they were so easy, the seats were very insecure, and at every sudden jolt of the coach persons were slipping out of them and falling to the ground, where they were instantly compelled to take hold of the rope and help to drag the coach on which they had before ridden so pleasantly…”
This is a beautifully brutal and vivid metaphor for monopolistic predatory capitalism, and Bellamy keeps it going for 1600 words! He should have just written the story of the insane coach as an allegory and we’d all know his name.
Edward Bellamy was a good writer and a good caring man who did the best he could, and fortunately died in 1898, thereby missing the hideous series of wars that began in 1899, [The Boer War, Spanish American War and Philippine Insurrection were nasty precursors to WWI & WWII], and have not yet ended, as our rulers still grind people to hamburger in distant lands to shore up their place on Bellamy’s hideous coach.
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Dominick Mattero     Sep 5, 2013

Great review.

I read the book with the intention of laughing at it and instead I enjoyed it and found respect for Mister Bellamy..mind you the utopian dream he had actually became a nightmare as you mentioned so brilliantly.

Bellamy actually helped form a "nationalist" party at some point that eventually got absorbed into the populist/granger movement of the democrats.

He died of TB..like you said, mercifully before the great wars of the 20th century.

I still am fascinated (not swayed but fascinated) by his conception of a non Marxist Christian form of communism/nationalism.

Leads into the Social Gospel movement..more on that later..
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