Edward Bellamy was born in Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts, to a Baptist minister and his wife on March 26, 1850. When Bellamy turned 18 in 1868, he traveled in Germany with his cousin. It was there that he first became aware of the plight of the urban poor and encountered socialism in Europe. The following year, back in the United States, he enrolled in law school. He later briefly practiced law in his hometown before leaving the profession to become a writer and journalist. He was an editor for the New York Post and later the Springfield Union, but he gave up journalism a few years later to focus on fiction. His first fictional piece, "The Cold Snap," was published in 1875. He went on to successfully publish numerous short stories during the following years. Then in 1885 Bellamy began writing Looking Backward, which was first published in 1888.
Looking Backward was an immediate and enormous success, selling 100,000 copies by 1890. In fact, Looking Backward was the best-selling novel of the entire 19th century after American author Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852). A revised edition of the novel was published in 1889. That same year, Bellamy founded his own paper, The Nationalist. A few years later, Bellamy closed this paper and founded The New Nation. This paper provided a platform for his own version of populist socialism, which he called nationalism. He deliberately avoided the term "socialism" because of its many negative associations at the time. Although by all accounts Bellamy was a quiet homebody, the success of Looking Backward led him to give talks on his political views. He became extremely famous as a voice for social and governmental reform in the United States and abroad.
The populist socialism movement associated with Bellamy was in decline by the time he published Equality in 1897, the sequel to Looking Backward. Nevertheless, the original novel had inspired numerous other utopian novels, rebuttals, and responses, including English writer H.G. Wells's When the Sleeper Wakes (1899).
Bellamy's ideals inspired socialists and labor activists alike. Over 150 organizations calling themselves Nationalist Clubs formed to promote government ownership of industry, and the Populist Party flourished for a time. The ideal society described in Looking Backward inspired several utopian and socialist communes as well, populated with individuals eager to make his vision a reality.
Bellamy died on May 22, 1898, in Chicopee Falls, possibly from tuberculosis, a bacterial lung infection. Although by that time the fervor for nationalist ideals had begun to wane, the scathing critique of unregulated capitalism in Looking Backward won the novel lasting regard. Many critics consider it the most influential utopian novel ever in American literature.