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What Are They Reading? | The Nation

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What Are They Reading?

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LOOKING BACKWARD.
By Edward Bellamy.
Dover. 165 pp. $2.50.

About the Author

Karen Rothmyer
Karen Rothmyer, a former Nation managing editor, lives in Kenya but is currently a visiting fellow at Cambridge...

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Recently, while doing some research into social conditions in the early twentieth century, I came across a reference to Looking Backward, written in 1888. I decided to read it on the grounds that it would have been read by many people coming of age during the period in which I was interested.

In brief, the story is about Julian West, a young man who, in 1887, falls into a trance and awakens in 2000, by which time the United States has been transformed into a socialist paradise. All businesses, after growing larger and larger, have finally been subsumed into The Great Trust--which owns everything and employs everyone--in a highly benevolent way. How has this happened? "At last, strangely late in the world's history, the obvious fact was perceived that no business is so essentially the public business as the industry and commerce on which the people's livelihood depends, and that to entrust it to private persons to be managed for private profit is a folly similar in kind, though vastly greater in magnitude, to that of surrendering the functions of political government to kings and nobles to be conducted for their personal glorification."

I found Bellamy's notions of how society could so easily be remade and then perpetuated in its idealized form more than a little soft-headed (says she, full of twenty-first-century cynicism). But I also could not help but be charmed by the book as a whole. For example: The doctor who explains to West the world in 2000 describes how people can sit in their homes and listen to music through the wonders of modern technology--in this case the telephone. Each home has a line that goes to several central music halls where musicians are sawing away twenty-four hours a day; all you have to do is pick a selection from a card and ring up the appropriate hall--kind of like TV Guide and a remote. And how about this for anticipating Amazon.com: Each neighborhood has one huge store, identical to every other store in the country, in which there are samples of everything that's available for purchase. A customer examines the samples, places an order, and the item is then delivered from a central warehouse to the customer's home, saving both time and energy. (For all of Bellamy's foresight regarding technology, he did get at least one aspect of life in 2000 annoyingly wrong: "ladies" still retire after dinner, and are regarded as "rather an allied force than an integral part of the army of the men.")

What I found most charming of all, however, about Looking Backward was not the "Tomorrowland" touches but its pervasive optimism. Bellamy believed, in an unembarrassed way, in the perfectibility of man and society. The doctor tells West that because the conditions of life have changed, so have human attitudes; work is now regarded "as so absolutely natural and reasonable that the idea of its being compulsory has ceased to be thought of." And Bellamy's readers believed in such perfectibility, too. Looking Backward was a sensation--a huge bestseller--and led to the founding of a political party advocating Bellamy's visions. I couldn't help thinking as I read the book that it still has a lot to teach us--not about how to produce Paradise or what that Paradise might look like, but rather how to live: in confident good cheer and the belief that a better world really is possible.

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